Monday, June 25, 2012

Off the Map: No Free Chips and Salsa? What Kind of Chi-Chi's Is This?!

Carne Asada a la Oxaquena -- Frontera Grill, Chicago, IL
Frontera Grill

Chicago, we love you, but you're bringing us down.
Not Just Because Vodka Keeps Expecting Bernadette Peters to Pop Out of This Painting
Now, we are well aware that Chicago is teaming with food locales worthy of a destination food tour.  Unfortunately, the Food Network stars on Best Thing I Ever Ate don't seem to be aware of any of them.
There's a Whole World Out There, Food Network!
With no offense intended to Phoenix or Philadelphia, the fact that they are currently wiping the floor with Chicago in our rating system seems, in a word, ludicrous.  After all, how could we possibly find a place known for hot dogs and pizza so 1-3 star mediocre?

Well, perhaps because they keep sending us to eat raw garlic, pork rinds, and passive-aggressive dates.
However, if there is one beacon of hope in our Chicago journey, one surefire 5 star restaurant on our mission, we are convinced that Frontera Grill is it.  First of all, Rick Bayless won Top Chef Masters, and you know how we feel about the validity of culinary television shows.  Second of all, Frontera Grill is at the top of the list of any Chicago friend's list of must-dine places.  And third of all, Vodka has been here before, and she fell head over heels in love.  So if any place is going to raise Chicago out of Best Thing I Ever Ate purgatory, it is Frontera Grill, right?

Don't fail us now, Frontera!
Chicago's Last Culinary Hope?
As it happens, we arrive at Frontera a bit disheveled, as we are twelve minutes late for our 9:00pm reservation, and they will only hold our table for fifteen minutes.  The reason we are twelve minutes late is twofold:

1. Avec took a full 90 minutes to serve us a single bowl of dates (shakes fist).
2. We erroneously lost track of time while stuck in the Twilight Zone that is the elevator line for the Hancock Building's Signature Lounge.
Nothing Like Going All the Way to the Signature Lounge ONLY to Go to the Bathroom
After falling over each other to get out of the taxi, we sprint to the hostess stand... and are handed an Olive Garden-style buzzer to alert us when our table is ready.  By this point, we are too utterly exhausted to fully appreciate the ridiculousness of this situation.
Or to Understand Why the Margaritas Are All Coming Out in Martini Glasses
Due to this same tiredness (along with a lingering hint of fullness), it also takes us midway through our meal to realize that Frontera Grill does not provide their patrons with chips and salsa upon being escorted to our table.  In our frugal, chip-loving world, this is a travesty -- after all, even the dumpy Mexican place in Hoboken gave us free chips, and we didn't even buy a meal there.  Instead of our desired appetizer, we are provided with a skimpy bowl of bar nuts, which Ginger consumes out of pure boredom.
Naturally, In Chicago's Continued Desire to Burn Our Faces Off, They Are Spicy
We each order a Topolo margarita, Ginger's with salt, and Vodka's without ("I can't believe you don't get salt on your margaritas.  You put salt on a KUGEL").  Served in a martini glass, they are tasty if sadly unremarkable (or perhaps years of Skinnygirl Margarita consumption have completely altered (read: damaged) our palates).
"What Is This? NATURAL Flavors? Ugh, Bring Back the Chemicals"
For "dinner," we are supposed to consume the carne asada a la oxaquena, as recommended by Alex Guarnaschelli on the FILLED WITH ENVY episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Any Chance This Comes with a Side of Chips?
In truth, we are a bit hesitant about this choice, as we're typically more of, say, enchilada orderers at Mexican joints.  Therefore, we also ask for the mole poblano enchilada, which serves a dual purpose: it allows us to taste Rick Bayless's famous mole, and it provides us with an entree that is more up our alleys.
Only, As It Turns Out, Not Really
When our food is placed in front of us, we say a silent prayer that now, finally, Chicago will reach 5 star Best Thing I Ever Ate status.  We shove aside our skepticism at the honking platter of meat and miniature rolls of brown sauce-smothered chicken in front of us and try to be optimists.

And then our mouths start burning.  Again.  For at least the fifth time in Chicago.

Who knew that Chicago chefs were so intent on burning their customers' faces off?
Perhaps the Constant Red Color Palate Should Start Tipping Us Off
Beginning with Alex Guarnaschelli's choice, the plate features a red chile-marinated (hence the death-by-spice) Creekstone natural black angus rib steak, along with sides of black beans, sweet plantains with homemade crema, and guacamole.
Here's an Idea: Take Away the Steak and Give Us More Than Two Chips
The steak itself, which we have had prepared to medium temperature, is pleasing enough, if a tad on the fatty side.  It is actually difficult to discern the array of other flavors after the intensity of the chile hits our tongues, so we are rendered somewhat apathetic.
Would It Be Declasse to Ask for Some A-1?
Of the sides, the guacamole is our favorite, while the black beans are dripping with reminiscences of Rosa Mexicano.
The Only Kind of 'Mole' We Can Get Behind
No Comment on What This Looks Like (...)
Vodka, predictably, hates the plantains because, well, she hates plantains, and she is convinced that crema cheese always gives her indigestion (and since Ginger is slowly running out of her Pepto tablets, this could turn into a disaster quickly).
Are We Supposed to Be Making Tacos? This Pile of Tortillas Is Confusing Us
What Is Your Purpose?
Overall, the carne asada is good enough, though "We're just not jumping up and down about it" (but to be fair, when do we ever jump up and down?).
Not Exactly a Rave Review In Terms of the Clean-Plate Club
Moving on to the enchiladas, Vodka once again dismisses them on first impact due to the underhanded sweetness of the mole.
Flavors Vodka Hates for Dinner: Raisins, Chocolate, Banana; Flavors Chicago Serves for Dinner: Raisins, Chocolate, Banana
To her, the combination of the savory chicken with the chocolatey sauce is far from ideal (though this complaint is not Frontera Grill's fault -- it is, after all, the whole point of mole).  Ginger finds the combination less off-putting, but once again, she is not overly enthusiastic either.
Someone Send Us Back to Chi-Chi's Where We Belong
For dessert, Ginger orders the frothy hot chocolate (actually, she orders the "hot chocolate," because she refuses to use the word "frothy"), which tastes similar to those whipped up by Jacques Torres (in other words, it tastes like molten dark chocolate, which Vodka, once again, does not enjoy).
Moral of the Story: Vodka Hates Everything
At this point, we are growing frustrated with Chicago -- after all, if Frontera Grill can't reach 5 star-status, what restaurant possibly can?  We are not that picky -- we've given thirty-five Best Thing I Ever Ate dishes 5 stars, for goodness sake!  What could possibly be going so wrong in Chicago?
Besides, Of Course, That They Treat This Lake Like an Ocean
As we near the ends of our margaritas, we believe we have discovered a small part of our problem.  Despite the number of cocktails we have consumed thus far in Chicago, not once have we reached our perfect level of tipsiness.  While we like to keep our wits about us (at least as many wits as we have to begin with), our ideal is to reach the level of drunken merriment when the world seems kinder, the people more tolerable, and the food more delicious.
This Should be 50%-75% Alcohol Is All We're Saying
Therefore, perhaps we should not fault Chicago's dishes for their poor showing at all; instead, maybe the blame lies in their weak, miniature cocktails.

Frontera Grill's Carne Asada a la Oxaquena: 4 stars

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Frontera was (and still is) high on my lists of places I want to visit.