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Dining Out: Trailblazers

Our critic moseys into Texas to pit its two finest Southwestern restaurants against Rick Bayless’s legendary Frontera/Topolobampo one-two punch.

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Frontera Grill and Topolobampo have separate kitchens and menus, though they share drink lists and a Mexican raw bar packed with sustainably raised or caught seafood. Frontera’s waiter mentions quickly that there are still two orders of the limited nightly quota of chiles rellenos left. I’ve had them so many times that, painful as it is, I skip it to focus on other things. I want to try the classic banana leaf–steamed square tamal filled with slow-cooked pork and red Oaxacan mole colaradito. I should also taste the earthy enchiladas de huitlacoche, just-made corn tortillas rolled around inky corn mushrooms and roasted vegetables. They’ve been doused with tomatillo-corn sauce and topped with melted Samuel’s handcrafted Jack cheese, and they are terrific. As for the pork/mole tamal, it’s even better.

Frontera’s juicy grilled mahi-mahi would not be out of place at Topo, not with its seasoning of hoja santa (a sassafras-like herb) and sauce of almond-thickened roasted tomatillos and Anaheim chilies. The waiter warns me about the hot onion-marinated serrano chili garnish but, hey, this is Mexican food. A whole different flavor profile comes with the succulent flattened organic rock hen marinated in red chili, garlic, and spices, then grilled. This would slip right onto the menu at Lonesome Dove with its savory cowboy beans (frijoles charros) made of bacon, grilled chilies, and coriander, along with charcoaled green onions.

The homemade ice creams—maybe baby banana with chocolate chunks—are always a good bet, as is the chocolate pecan pie with a topping of browned meringue: It’s been on the menu since Frontera Grill opened. A taste of that pie confirmed my feeling that this restaurant, driven by honest, earthy flavors, is solid as a rock. I’d love to eat here once a week.

Topolobampo is more precious. Take the outstanding organic chicken liver terrine: As sophisticated as a proud French chef’s appetizer jewel, it’s filled with earthy huitlacoche and presented with roasted Mission fig and smoky morita chili salsa. As if that weren’t enough, it’s garnished with microgreens from Bayless’s garden and topped with toasted pepitas (squash seeds). Equally polished is the green chili–infused scallop and black cod sausage with salsa veracruzana (olives, capers, pickled vegetables) and bits of crunchy salmon bacon that moves it into cutting-edge cooking.

Chef Bayless plays with regional mole sauces the way a modern French chef might with béchamel; in fact, lately he has featured a mole tasting menu. An appetizer of mole de olla pairs an intensely concentrated red guajillo chili broth with braised grass-fed short rib meat, roasted chayote squash, Michigan apples, and xoconostle (sour prickly pear). And you can’t ignore the crispy-skinned duck breast entrée with Xico-style mole made with dark chilies and dried fruit, a fresh-ground masa tamal as satisfying as polenta, and a sherry-dressed salad of grilled frisée and wild chanterelles. Chanterelles? Yep. Some of the best I ever tasted were a bright blue mountain variety that Diana Kennedy—the Julia Child of interpreting Mexican cuisine for Americans—cooked in cream for me in her Michoacán home. But I also love the chorizo-crusted Alaskan black cod surrounded with littleneck clams, ancho-braised lentils, and lobster mushrooms.

The margaritas are topnotch, but so is sommelier Jill Gubesch’s guidance through unfamiliar wine territory. For our entrées, she recommends a 2001 Novaia Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico ($90), from a small winery near Verona that practices sustainable agriculture. Amarone is made from red grapes dried like raisins, and its initially sweet taste is entrancingly fruity like port, but then comes a bitterness and a dry finish. Amazing stuff, as if it had been fermented with Bayless’s duck in mind.

Topolobampo’s desserts incorporate true Mexican flavors, but they exceed anything you’re likely to find in Mexico. Pastelito de cherimoya criollo is a good example. It’s a warm, moist cake of Spence Farm pawpaw (an Illinois cousin of Mexican cherimoya) with broiled Mission figs and granita-like pawpaw ice infused by Domaine Carneros sparkling wine. Bayless pushes even further with his tartaleta de chocolate y tocino, a rich chocolate ganache tart holding melted Vosges “Mo’s Bacon Bar” milk chocolate and served with white chocolate ice cream swirled with salted caramel.

So it goes. Topolobampo and Stephan Pyles approach haute French in technique yet remain true to their cultures. But where Bayless incorporates the moles of central and southern Mexico, Pyles imports  Mediterranean and Latin American flavors and merges them with Southwestern food’s amalgam of influences. Meanwhile, Frontera Grill sticks to regional Mexican with brilliant fidelity, and Lonesome Dove drives Texas/Western cooking into the 21st century—in a setting that makes those longhorns in Fort Worth seem like more than just a tourist attraction.

 

The Skinny

FRONTERA GRILL 445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434 A model meal Pork-filled tamal with Oaxacan mole colaradito, grilled chili-marinated rock hen, chocolate pecan pie Tip Reservations are limited; call well ahead. Hours Brunch Saturday; lunch Tuesday-Friday; dinner Tuesday-Saturday Tab (Dinner per person without wine, tax, or tip) $30 to $35

LONESOME DOVE WESTERN BISTRO 2406 N. Main St., Fort Worth, Texas; 817-740-8810 A model meal Braised wild boar ribs, grilled red deer chops, ancho chili chocolate cake Hours Lunch Tuesday-Saturday; dinner Tuesday-Sunday Tab $45 to $50

STEPHAN PYLES 1807 Ross Ave., Dallas, Texas; 214-580-7000 A model meal Garlic-custard tamale tart with peekytoe crab, rack of lamb with cranberry mojo, heaven and hell cake Hours Lunch Monday-Friday; dinner Monday-Saturday Tab $50 to $60

TOPOLOBAMPO 445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434 A model meal Chicken liver and huitlacoche terrine, chorizo-crusted black cod, pastelito de cherimoya criollo Tip If money is no object, order one of the tasting menus with matching wines. Hours Lunch Tuesday-Friday; dinner Tuesday-Saturday Tab $50 to $60

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