Reviews: A Toda Madre and RPM Italian

OF PEPPERS AND PASTA: A standout you’ve never heard of, a big-name spot that’s better than you think, and the danger of first impressions

A Toda Madre

Inside A Toda Madre
A Toda Madre
 

The day before my first meal at A Toda Madre, the reservationist called to confirm. Though no restaurant has ever lost my reservation, nor have I ever blown one off, I like the comfort of the confirmation ritual. Then things got tense. “Because it’s on Saturday,” she said, “we will only hold your reservation for 15 minutes.” Fifteen minutes seemed a bit draconian, particularly since I was about to drive an hour to the far western suburbs to eat at a restaurant none of my friends had ever heard of, but OK. I prayed to the Eisenhower traffic gods.

Upon arrival, I understood. Geneva, a charming burg along the Fox River, is home to more than 22,000 people, and roughly half were eating, drinking, or waiting at A Toda Madre. The other half were next door at Bien Trucha. The Cano/García-Rubio family from Mexico City runs both tiny establishments, and neither needs my support. I’m going to offer it anyway. A Toda Madre is a charismatic place that earns its success: The food is fresh, inventive, and cheap, the staff never stops smiling or hustling, and the vibe is pure fun. The breezy space is packed tight with 12 wood tables, a subway-tiled bar, and an open kitchen with front-row seats. Yes, you might elbow your neighbor in the kidney, but she might also offer you a bite of her Slagel Farms pork belly burrito.

“People always ask us, ‘When you are at home, what do you eat?’ ” says Rodrigo Cano, a partner. The dishes coming from A Toda Madre’s kitchen are meant to mimic that home cooking: egg-and-queso-drenched chilaquiles; rich homemade mole chicken on mini croissants; flaky grilled snapper zarandeado stuffed into tortillas. I can’t imagine when any of this happens at home, since Cano and his mother, Dolores García-Rubio, and stepfather, Ricardo García-Rubio, always seem to be at A Toda Madre. If they’re whipping up fresh Gold Creek oysters in lime-Tabasco-Maggi sauce and pan-made bread with creamy chile morita butter in their spare time, I’ve been going to the wrong dinner parties.

You don’t think of steak tartare as a Mexican thing, but they’ve been doing carne apache in Michoacán for years, and it’s better than the Eurocentric version because the beef is marinated in lime juice, à la seviche (A Toda Madre’s wonderful take also uses Negra Modelo). Cano describes the glistening cubes with serranos, Maggi, and onions ringed with salsa cruda as a raw carne asada. The two cut-in-half fried tortillas that accompany it are not enough—but all you need, really, is a fork.

THE SKINNY

A TODA MADRE 416 W. State St., Geneva; 630-845-3015
FYI The hostess will cram your foursome into an awkward two-top. And you will thank her for it.
TAB $20 to $30
HOURS Dinner Tue. to Sat.

Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.

Details set the standards apart: The kitchen tops its chiles rellenos with a dab of pitch-black cuitlacoche (corn fungus) and crema, which both end up swimming in the punchiest roasted tomato sauce. The menu changes fast, and small dishes, such as sticky tamarind-glazed shrimp brochetas, pack as much flavor as large ones, like juicy grilled pollo adobado with Brussels sprouts and caramelized onions. About the only things that don’t work are the (now departed) fideos, gloppy angel hair pasta that my table dubbed “Mexican Maggiano’s,” and, surprisingly, the starchy homemade tortillas. The rotating cocktail roster plays up ingredients like cactus juice and mole bitters; the bold michelada-inspired Sexy Mamiche substitutes carrot for tomato juice. The kitchen pushes things too far with its cucumber-celery sorbet—if it’s an acquired taste, that taste is foul. Try the pay de limon, a deconstructed Key lime pie, instead.

Food writers love to pretend we discovered places like A Toda Madre, which, considering it has been packed every night since it opened in March, is about as correct as Columbus saying he discovered America. I for one welcome the 15-minute reservation rule, because this restaurant is poised for far more than 15 minutes of fame.

* * *

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

 

RPM Italian

RPM Italian
RPM Italian

 

The glittering celebrity bait known as RPM Italian is already famous because of its big-name owners: reality show royalty Bill and Giuliana Rancic and restaurant royalty Jerrod, R.J., and Molly Melman. This was supposed to be the spot that finally graduated Rich Melman’s offspring into the realm of “serious” restaurateurs rather than hosts of Hub 51 and Paris Club—Lettuce Entertain You’s stationary party buses that emphasize the entertaining more than the lettuce. But scathing early reviews from local publications bummed out RPM’s party. I visited early, too, and felt the same disappointment: The giant menu, with 17 separate sections, did most everything OK and nothing particularly well. Then I did what critics never seem to bother to do anymore: I waited. And after giving the restaurant a couple of months to breathe, I returned.

Everything about the space looked the same—its striking black-and-off-white details, the weird mix of club kids and middle-aged women, an armada of UFO lights descending from the skies. But the kitchen and confident servers had adjusted in the way a good restaurant does in its infancy.

It’s no coincidence that the chef, Doug Psaltis, is a disciple of Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse, two notorious kitchen perfectionists. Instead of the backhanded slaps of my first visit, like a crazy-salty slow-roasted Sicilian pork arrosti, I encountered nuanced and gorgeous fare such as a Mediterranean sea bass crudo with fennel, black olives, and lemon zest. Psaltis knows his way around more than 200 pasta variations and takes some interesting chances, as in an intense sweet pea risotto with acquerello rice sprinkled with golden pea shoots and an even-more-intense duck agnolotti with Brussels sprouts and Mission figs in brown butter sauce.

THE SKINNY

RPM ITALIAN 52 W. Illinois St.; 312-222-1888
FYI Opposite of a nightcap: the affogato float with vanilla gelato and La Colombe Pure Black coffee.
TAB $20 to $30
HOURS Dinner nightly

Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.

But the biggest shock may have been RPM’s killer steak, the luscious 20-ounce Painted Hills bone-in rib eye with a perfect caramelized lid. And of course RPM gets in on the cicchetti trend with irresistible nibbles like the chicken liver crostini with pancetta and balsamic and the pasta trombas—basically chips of orecchiette that have been boiled, dehydrated, fried, and sprinkled with Parmesan. They go perfectly with my new favorite cocktail, Paul McGee’s wondrous Torino fizz, a gin-based procession of tart, sweet, and dry. If only the lackluster desserts held half as much intrigue.

RPM is not perfect, but it’s not suspended in the arrested development of the Melmans’ previous efforts. It is growing. And it serves as an important reminder not to pass judgment so quickly that I forget restaurants are living, breathing things that change and, when the stars align, improve.

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

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