In the back of this restaurant I picture a full team of pepper gnomes - spending all their time growing, searching, picking and preparing peppers. Slightly wild looking, cackling as they try different peppers and preparations, and discover new flavors that have never before been attained in a pepper...
Then they pass their produce over to the sauciers who create traditional and nouveau moles and salsas, but with those special peppers. Anyway, the flavor alchemy of this place belies some crazed experimentation.
It was time for another meal with my 96 year old aunt, and she wanted to go to Opera. Those familiar with these outings know that the last place we tried, Bistro Margot, was not a hit. Because while she is a very healthy 96, she talks softly and does not hear so well and we could not hear each other. I did not feel like asian fusion, and had read that Opera tends to the noisy, so I proposed some alternatives to my bride and, as happens so often of late, "Mexican" won out.
We arrived at 6pm on Thursday. The large, open room was almost totally empty and they put us at one of the tables in the windows up front, with the 3 other tables of diners. I was immediately taken with the place for many reasons (I will engage in a brief bit of personal history below for those who are interested) - spacious, pleasant space. I love and collect Mexican art, and they have a lot of very nice pieces. Particularly interesting that many of the masks and sculptures which are often done in papier mache were done in wood here, and I love the paintings in the bathroom.
Complementary spicy nut and bean mix to start, nice bite, and strangely the hottest dish of the night. Ordered the house margaritas. I normally avoid margaritas because margarita mix always tastes like some sort of disinfectant to me, or Koolade to be generous. But these were excellent, as I expected. I had skipped lunch to prepare, so I consumed the nuts, happily.
I ordered the 5 course tasting menu, while my wife and aunt ordered ala carte, promising to help me out. This was my first time at Chilpancingo, though I am a long time fan and customer of Topolobampo (been to the beach in Mexico, too), so I was eager to compare. And, of course, I had tasted Geno's food at Topo, so I know he is good.
My wife started with the Sopa Azteca, an earthy broth with peppers that tasted more rich and salty than like peppery. Alchemy, part 1 - peppers as something else. As the evening went on, it seemed the peppers were prepared in a manner that was really more Hungarian than Mexican - think paprika, goulash, and paprikash. Very good, though, this is not a complaint.
My first dish was three mini-sopes, little puffy cups. One was earth: head cheese, shitake mushrooms making a pate; one was greens, a very pure guacamole, lightly seasoned with cilantro and lemon; the last was a banana (too sweet for a plantain, I believe) with a dab of sour cream. Quickly followed by soup, which was mostly a tomatillo broth with duck breast, zucchini, and corn in it. Came together harmoniously, and enjoyably.
We had moved onto wine by now, ordering a new grape (to me) called Torontes, from Santa Julia in Argentina. I would call it a Gewurz-lite, a floral nose with a whiff of candy, and a floral mouth with a touch of sweetness. Went well with the spicy foods.
My next course was Garlic marinated prawns sauteed and served in a creamy chipotle sauce with baby Yukon Gold spuds and little stips of nopales. The tortillas are here now, which is good because I am sopping up the sauce. Tender, flavorful shrimp with a very subtle chile sauce which reminded me more of a muted remoulade in appearance and texture, though in taste we still are closer to Hungarian... Excellent.
Aunt had the Huachinango Veracruzana - a traditional dish, of course. The tomato sauce had been prepared in such a way as to really bring out the freshness and tomato flavors, giving the dish more of an Italian than Mexican flavor. The fish was a large serving, moist and tender, and aunt declared it excellent.
My spouse went with the pork chops in some form of chile sauce, like her soup, very dark, aromatic and earthy. The chops had the bone separated from the center, so you really had grilled pork cutlets, tender and juicy, with little riblets on the side, very browned. This worked out well as I got to gnaw on the bones, which is good for me.
My main course was carne asada in a three chile sauce. Tender flank steak prepared perfectly, pink on the inside and charred on the outside, deeply scored. The chile sauce was again something else - lightly spicy (I wonder if you can ask for things with a little more heat?) with a consistency almost of juniper berries. It seemed to be a very simple preparation - almost a chile colorado without any roux/flour, and the waiter confirmed this. But it had amazing depths of flavor (chile, juniper, pine, slight apple, though not at all sweet, and more) and this amazing berry-like consistency - which brings us back to the gnome/alchemists of chile in back. This dish was excellent.
Yes, we were full, but like good soldiers we went on to desert, because we must. Wife ordered the key lime pie. Rather than a lime flavored custard, this was, I swear, chess pie with key lime flavoring. Wife declared it the best she has had and smiled beatifically (okay, we were pretty looped by now, because aunt just does not hold her own on the wine, so we must finsh the bottle). My desert was the pineapple upside down cake with caramel sauce. Julienne of pineapple, sauteed in butter, on/in a dark, buttery cake, with a pretty drizzle of caramel and berries arranged around it. The coffee was good and strong.
An excellent meal by a chef at the top of his craft. Better than any single meal I have ever had at Topolobampo, I think. Not really Mexican food any more, but fantasies and fusions on Mexican food, again even more so than Topo, which I think tries to be a bit more authentic. Oh, and even though the place filled up, it was quiet enough to converse easily with aunt. And a decent deal - my tasting was $49 for 5 courses, and the wine was quite reasonable.
So overall, we were very happy, and I would now go there before Topolobampo, which is saying something as I have been promoting Topo as the best fine dining place in Chicago. And it has given me a new perspective on what can be done with chiles/
To end with the promised anecdote: Food, and family and memories. I have a special fondness for the reclaimed industrial buildings of that Ohio Street corridor. When I was young, my Father had a manufacturing company in one of them on Superior, right by Franklin. Three floors, two dirty with metal, machinery and full of the din of production, and one for offices. Up and down in big industrial elevators, play with papers and look out the windows at the city below in his office, and then off to lunch at Club Largo. It was a different world, and the memories are strong and good. In the arc of things, the business moved to a more practical place around 75th and the Ryan (fortunately, I left town at that point and rarely had to go to that charmless place in a total battle zone - I swear the building was covered with barbed wire), and then finally settled in Schaumburg (just as charmless, but I lived and worked there for some years), where it remains today though it moved on to his second wife and my step-uncle, and dad is departed now. Needless to say, the fond memories are of the place on Superior, and I will always enjoy visiting these old buildings. The conversion for Chilpancingo struck me as particularly well done, which I appreciated.
So as you can see, it was a meal that struck a lot of good chords.