Thursday, August 28, 2008

I'm supposed to be on vacation: Sipping in the Second City pt. 2

August 21st — Frontera Grill and Topolobampo and the Seasons Bar and Lounge

My brother was having his first day of classes so I was left to my own devices until the afternoon. I pretty much had stumbled across Rick Bayless' restaurants without meaning to the day before. In fact, I'd managed to stumble across a bunch of familiar sounding restaurants. The weird thing about working for NRN is you get excited for the oddest things. Like familiar restaurants that you've never actually been in because you're in New York. I remember squealing "Ooh! Ooh! IT'S A RED ROBIN!" the first time I saw one to a group of befuddled friends on a road trip to Virginia.

"Wow, a Portillo's. Oh, hey, look! Zed451!" I'd say to myself as I walked along N. Clark Street like a kid at Disneyland.

I made it a point that I'd return to Frontera/Topolobampo because I remembered many a lazy afternoons watching PBS and having Rick Bayless earnestly explaining to me what OG Mexican food is really like as he'd wander about some open-air Mexican market in Oaxaca or something. All of this was done with a quiet, patient, soothing voice that almost made him sound like a culinary version of Bob Ross. ("And then, we're going to sprinkle some Oaxacan cheese over this...Happy crumbles of Oaxacan cheese. Oops, we sprinkled some on the edge of the plate, but that's OK. There's no mistakes; it looks rustic.")

Watching Bayless pretty much had the same affect on me as watching Bob Ross.

"Damn straight there ain't no mistakes, Rick. I can make mole too! It ain't no thang," I'd say to the TV. He made me feel like I could jump in the kitchen and bang out some tortillas and chile rellenos once I got a hold of some masa harina or something. Like, you know, I could effortlessly paint a happy cloud or happy little tree with just a palette knife and a super wide brush after only one episode of "The Joy of Painting" or something.

But I never did. I'd just sit there entranced with half-opened eyes for the entirety of the show. Then when the show ended I'd shake myself from my reverie sleepy, bleary-eyed and super hungry...wait, what?

When I entered Frontera Grill and Topolobampo's main entrance I couldn't decide which menu I wanted to order off of and got directed to the bar since I could juggle between both menus there. I wasn't planning on sitting at the bar, but this was a happy accident since I got to chat with David, a bartender there with a serious Dali 'tache. He pointed out items of note from both menus and I decided to start off with the Trio Trio Trio, a sample platter of three of Frontera Grill's ceviches. The Ceviche Yucateco was made with steamed organic shrimp and calamari tossed with lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jicama and cilantro. Then there was the Ceviche Fronterizo of lime-marinated Hawaiian sunfish with tomatoes, olive, cilantro and green chile. The third was the Ceviche Playero, with Maine dry-packed scallops, Alaskan king crab, Honey Manila Mangoes, Mexican papaya, pineapple and jicama with Oaxacan pasilla, grapefruit, lime and garlic. All of this with tortilla chips.

Looking through the beverage menu on the back of Frontera Grill's menut, it didn't take me long to decide that I really, really wanted to try the Sparkling Passion. Passion fruit puree, fresh lime juice, sweet hibiscus tea and Ayinger Ur-Weisse, which is...a wheat beer? Yes! Beer cocktails!

David explained that the hibiscus tea used for the Sparkling Passion is brewewd concentrated and poured me a bit of it. I took a sip of the tea and pursed my lips at the sweet tanginess. Hmm, I could drink this all on its own. What about the cocktail? I picked it up. The wheat beer added a whole different kind of fizziness to the drink that was at once mellowed out the concentrated sweet and sour of the tea while adding a bite of its own. It was sparkly and fizzy, but the beer lent it a more velvety texture of bubbles.

For the main I had the Enchiladas de Chivo, slow-roasted goat meat rolled in homemade tortillas topped with dark pasilla-tomatillo sauce, frisee-watercress salad and Mexican aged queso anejo, that David said has been getting some good response.

I debated about grabbing a michelada, but I thought that flavor really was not going to work with the enchiladas at all and went with the Champagne Margarita (Sauza Conmemorativo tequila, Gran Torres orange liqueur and fresh squeezed limonada topped with Feuillatte Brut champagne). David asked if I wanted the rim salted or not and I asked for half salted, to which he answered, "I have the technology for that."

I quickly looked over the dessert menu and noticed the wide selection of dessert wines. I lingered a bit over the Chocolate Mezcalera. It was Oaxacan hot chocolate and a dash of cinnamon spiked with Maguey Creme de Mezcal. However, I managed to exercise some self-control and I'm glad I did.

I then checked out the Contemporary Art Museum, which included highlights such as me snickering at an elderly couple that got really uncomfortable when they rounded a corner only to walk smack dab into some pieces from Jeff Koons' Made in Heaven series (NSFW IF YOU PLAN ON DOING A SEARCH) and accidentally finding the Kara Walker exhibit. As I left the building I realized I still had a little bit of time before meet up with the younger sibling AND I was in the vicinity of the Four Seasons hotel.

Not to get all $40 a Day with Rachel Ray here or anything, but when I first checked into my hotel room, I perused the complimentary magazine in my room that had a whole thing on cheap eats. Again, I was set on trying to get some eating and drinking done while I was in town, and you can't really ignore the info that your hotel provides you with. While reading about summer cocktails I read about the Summer Floats being served at the Seasons Bar and Lounge. I was curious as I read about them so when things worked out so that I could pop in for a visit, I took the opportunity.

At the Seasons Bar and Lounge I met Bob, the awesomely old-school hotel bar bartender. He's a bespectacled guy with gray hair who can make idle conversation with slightly tipsy businessmen, chats up old regulars whom he all remembers by name, even helps them out with their crossword puzzles like he's done for years and make a kid off the streets like me feel as welcome as Norm did in Cheers.

It was fun watching Bob interact with the guests. Especially when he was fielding all the disgruntled, yet friendly, grumbles from regulars who weren't too happy about the upcoming renovation to the hotel. They liked the bar just as its been for years, thank you very much.

The Summer Floats section had several drinks such as the Honeydew Sensation (honeydew sorbet floated with Midori and lemon vodka) and the Lemon Lush (lemon sorbet floated with a lemon drop martini).

Since I had skipped dessert, I went with the Cosmo Crush because the cranberry sorbet was speaking to me.

A glass with cranberry sorbet came out and Bob poured the Cosmopolitan (Grey Goose, Cointreau, cranberry juice) into the glass.

To be honest, the drink was very boozy for me, though. My guess is it was made that way to accommodate the sorbet and the sugared rim. The sorbet definitely did help to cut it a bit, but soon I was out of sorbet and found myself licking at the sugared rim like a deer at a salt lick.

Bob also told me that they had a special Olympics section on the menu (sorry, not available post-Olympics), with drinks created to correspond to the color of the Olympic rings.

The Summer Floats are for the summer, and will be replaced soon with something more season friendly.

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