In a Nutshell: When I started this blog, my mission was to celebrate Chicago’s dining scene. As such, I generally avoid posting reviews of mediocre or downright blah experiences. There are plenty of professional critics and fellow amateur bloggers for that. My one exception, however, is reserved for places that have acclaimed reputations and steep price tags yet fall far short of the accolades. After over 25 years of service, I’m sad to report that Topolobampo has become such a place. The famed Rick Bayless “fine, authentic Mexican dining” restaurant is tired and uneven but still digs very deep into your pocketbook.
Ambiance: This may be the most egregious part of the Topolobampo experience. According to the Rick Bayless website, the restaurant is “sleek” and has been praised by the New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant as “Possibly the most elegant and serious Mexican restaurant in the country.” I’m not sure how old that quote is — this very well may have been true circa 1995. However, the supposed “elegance” is a gross overstatement. In short, the restaurant’s interior boils down to shabby, cluttered and dirty. I’ll start with the shabby- there are the worn, outdated, curved red striped fabric benches, worn tiled floors and very cheap (as in the pop-out kind you’d put in a generic office) bright blue ceiling tiles. Cluttered- it’s busy with no unifying theme. The decorating highlight is the beautiful Mexican art on the walls in hues of orange, red and yellow. Colorful and authentic Mexican treasures feels like something to anchor the rest of the decor around…but no so at Topolobampo A very modern, metal shelved bar area is in a central part of the dining room. Continuing in the largely out of place metal theme, there are some chrome floor lamps that clash horribly with the ceiling fixtures: large red, orange and brown fabric lamp shades. And for the main focal point between the two rooms, the 2 large metal bookshelves, well, they looks like a display of the $.50 bin at a garage sale. The shelves feature a mish-mash of empty liquor bottles, jars and vases in what appears to be varying degrees of Mexican authenticity. If diners are expected to shell out a few hundred dollars per person, random empty tequila bottles and vases that look to be from Marshall’s better not be a major decorating highlight. And then, most curiously, where these massive bouquets of flowers. In one section of the dining room, they were autumnal colors that may or may not have been fake. In the other section, they were all pastel pink and purple- an off-putting color choice in a room already featuring a cobalt blue ceiling, maroon benches and terracotta tiles. The worst, however, was the uncleanliness. Every dish- from the chargers to the wine glasses to the plates was spotted and smeared. Combined with flatware that felt like it had been lifted from a greasy spoon diner, the entire visual experience was a muddled, dirty mess.
Service: Service started out excellent. Attentive and prompt. Our server expertly walked us through the food menu which can be approached in a number of different ways. As the night wore on, however, the staff lost energy and focus. The worst display of this was the lack of bussing. The dishes from the fourth (and main) course sat for so long that after visiting our table 3 times, our waitress finally cleared the dishes herself because no busser had appeared and the dessert course was about to arrive. I cannot remember the last time I sat with dirty plates in front of me for so long in a restaurant of any caliber, especially not one with this price tag and reputation.
Beverages: Cocktails were a little sweet (my blood orange margarita was almost cloyingly so, which usually that flavor profile is more balanced). The wine list is large and varied and would likely leave any wine enthusiast pleased. Wines by the glass are a little confusing because they are listed in two places. We came to realize that there were “featured” wines by the glass listed with the cocktails and the beer, running $15-$25. We initially overlooked the small print that directs patrons to additional wines by the glass, more in the $12-$18 range, at the front of the wine book. They also have a nice selection of after dinner drinks including apertifs and interesting coffee concoctions.
Food: Without a doubt, the most uneven food experience I have had in recent memory. To begin with a highlight, the experience is extremely flexible. They have a set a 7 course set menu on the right side of the menu. This is available for $120 pp + optional $90 wine pairing. The left side of the menu is a la carte, available to build your own 3, 5 and 7 menus (though portions are small so certainly do the 5 or 7 course option). Moreover, the dishes that you choose can be from any section- i.e. if you wanted to do 5 meat courses or 5 salads and vegetable dishes, that is the diner’s call (and the same cost). Additionally, if building your own menu, you can choose elements from the set 7 course seasonal menu, an option very few restaurants usually permit. And finally, as for the dishes themselves, this was a true case of love it or hate it. My first 2 courses were absolutely mind blowing. Notably, the”Unexpected Tomato” featured a mezcal infused roasted tomato with mouthwatering pureed celery root center. A gem from ideation to execution. On the flipside, however, was one of my main dishes- the “Duck + Cherries.” Described as slow cooked then grill seared, the center of the duck was actually cold. And while I could see the sour cherries in the dish, their flavor presence was non-existent. Perhaps even worse was the visual. The server presented what I could only describe as a naked cube of meat. There was no crispy duck skin or rich cherry sauce. Just an unappealing pinkish brown piece of flesh over which the server finally spared my eyes and poured the tiniest bit of house dried anchos and sour cherry sauce. The effect of dressing the duck table-side was completely negated by the initial image of that sad, naked meat hunk.
The Devil’s in the Details: Assuming alcohol is consumed, it would be difficult for a couple to have dinner (and actually come out satiated) at Topolobampo for under $400. For that price, the details should be painstakingly considered- a carefully curated ambiance, spotless place settings, impeccable service and a meal that is delicious from start to finish. Topolobampo needs to stop resting on its laurels- overhaul the dining room, retrain the service team and perhaps narrow the menu if the sheer number of offerings is causing such uneven execution. My first visit to Topolobampo several years back was pleasant- this recent trip was wholly disappointing. I hope this Chicago institution gets the TLC from ownership it so desperately needs and does not continue to die a slow death.