Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mexican Cuisine with French Techniques??? Mexique!!! Top Chef Dining in Chicago.

OK everyone, I admit it… I have a problem. I am a food television junkie.  Whew, that feels better! Good or bad, I am caught up in the craze that is food television.  It is just down right scary to see the list of food related shows that I never miss:

  • Kitchen Nightmares
  • Hell’s Kitchen
  • Chopped
  • Top Chef
  • Top Chef Masters
  • America’s Worst Cook
  • The Taste
  • No Reservations
  • Man vs. Food
  • Guy's Grocery Games
  • Iron Chef - not always, depends on the matchup

There are probably some others if I thought about it for a minute or two more, and then there are the various foodie shows that I stumble upon while channel surfing.  Are there any I don’t like… not many! Cutthroat Kitchen and MasterChef are the only two that come to mind that I would likely skip over. I like Alton Brown and Gordon Ramsey and really like Graham Elliot... but something about those shows doesn't grab me.

Given all that it may surprise you to know that even though our vacations are typically planned around places to go for great wine and food – we’ve never eaten at a Top Chef contestant’s restaurant.  The closest we’ve come was when Stephanie Izard was at a food and wine festival in Scottsdale, and she was making wonderful grilled oysters.   Even though we go to Chicago a lot, we’ve never made it to The Girl and the Goat – her highly acclaimed restaurant. 


So with my pledge to try new places on a regular basis, and my disappointment with the last season of Top Chef and who they picked as the winner – we decided to try Mexique (a combination of Mexican cuisine with French influence and "technique") in Chicago. Chef Carlos Gaytan was a contestant on Top Chef, but didn’t make it to the finals based on some questionable judging. Don’t believe me? Check out the Facebook and Twitter backlash from this year’s finale!  (Facebook & Twitter). For those of you who watched Top Chef - I don't think Carlos was better than Nina, but I think he was much better than Nick (or was it Dick?).  Mexique is not a new spot - and in fact it won Michelin Stars in both 2012 and 2013.  And hey, if you can't trust a guy that looks like the Michelin Man knows good food - who can you trust?

Our trip to Chicago was specifically to experience Next Restaurant and their Chicago Steakhouse menu (stay tuned for a posting about that dinner… yum!), so we had one free night to visit Mexique.  Opentable.com informed me that the earliest was 10:15p on Saturday night – although young at heart we did have a fairly early flight the next day, so that was a bit too late to start our dining experience.  I opted to try another food television related spot – so instead got a reservation at Iron Chef Jose Garces place – La Mercat a La Plantxa.  I had considered trying this spot before, but for some unknown reason was hesitant – but had recently heard a thumbs up from someone so decided to brave it.  My reservation ended up generating emails from the restaurant to join their “loyalty club” and even a coupon for a free appetizer.   Hey - I'm not a snob, we belong to the Gordon Biersch loyalty club, and I am more than happy to cash in a coupon for free garlic fries. But when we are going out for a nice dinner on a vacation weekend, that's not the experience I'm wanting.  After struggling with the desire to "try something new" and my Iron Chef "coupin" (any Ron White fans out there???), I decided to check back in at Mexique to see if any tables opened up. Bingo! Table for two at 8p on Saturday night - it was our destiny!

It was snowing like crazy, so I didn't stand in the street to snap any pictures - luckily others have so you can see what the place looks like. Just a neighborhood spot two doors down from a Family Dollar store. The inside is very nice, and while on the small side the tables are not too crowded so it is very comfy.

We opted for the Chef's tasting menu, where the Chef selects six course out of a list of about ten possible dishes.  At only $75 per person, plus $40 for wine pairings - a reasonably priced Chef's tasting menu.

First Course
Our first course promptly arrived, a delicious soup with tastes of fennel and bits of lobster paired with a 2011 Highway 12 Chardonnay from Sonoma. The soup was perfect on a snowy night.  The wine was a lighter Chardonnay, lots of citrus with just a hint of oak. The pairing was very nice, the only concern I had was the wine was from the "By the Glass" section of the wine list.  Some spots stick to only "By the Glass" wines for their pairings, and I think this is far too restrictive for pairing, and doesn't show confidence that enough wine pairings will be purchased to justify going outside of the By the Glass list... we'll see!


Second Course
A raw tuna dish - a bit of a deconstructed ceviche, paired with a 2012 Ostatu Tempranillo Rosé from Rioja, Spain.  I have not had much luck finding a good Rioja Rosé, and we are still on the "By the Glass" list... drat.   I should learn to be more trusting, the Rosé was delicious (I will be looking for this one!), and it paired nicely with the dish, picking up the taste of the red sauce which contained strawberries.  Simple, clean, but delicious and an excellent pairing.


Third Course
Next up was a white fish dish (my greatest regret of the night I did not note what type of fish) served on a spiced polenta and paired with a 2011 Can Feixes Chardonnay from Penedes Spain (the home of Cava sparkling wine). Great news - we have left the "By the Glass" list for this pairing... nice!  I do like fish quite a bit, but often am looking forward to the turf portion of the meal - but this fish was one of the best I have ever tasted... and I would order it again in a second. So moist I would guess it might have been prepared Sous Vide. The wine was crisp and clean, and allowed the fish to be the star.



Fourth Course
Yes! One of the things I wanted to try at Mexique was the molé. Molé recipes vary from region to region in Mexico, and this version was a recipe from the Chef's home - Teloloapan.  We were served a version of the dish on the regular (non-tasting) menu where the pork cheeks were replaced by pork belly.  This dish was paired with 2010 Chateau du Caillau Cahors - a French Malbec.  My favorite molé to date (though I admit I haven't tried that many) was from Chicago neighbor Rick Bayless at the Frontera Grill. I've even tried with some success to make the Chef Bayless version at home.  The taste of this molé was a tiny bit sweeter and had more chocolate notes... and was absolutely fantastic!  I'll call it a draw for now as my favorite. The pork belly was a perfect vehicle for the sauce, and the Malbec highlighted the complex flavors nicely (Molé typically has like 25 ingredients at least).  Another dish I would order again without question.




Fifth Course
A beautiful slice of duck with red quinoa and a chipotle tamarind glaze "Pato al Tamarindo", paired with a 2012 Bread and Butter Pinot Noir from Napa. Back to the "By the Glass" list but who cares, this meal is great!  The duck was the tiniest bit tough - the only food criticism I could find all night, but the taste was great. The tamarind sauce was wonderful with a touch of heat from the Chipotle.  This Pinot Noir is about a $16 bottle retail, and I haven't run across may inexpensive Pinot's that I like. Nothing wrong with this wine, but I would rather have had more Cahors from the prior course, but I realize Duck and Pinot are a safe pairing.      A better Pinot would have been great with this dish, but the Bread and Butter was not a bad pairing by any means.



Sixth Course
In my old age my tastes have gone more and more to savory and less to sweet.  For dessert, the wine pairing was presented first - an Oloroso Sherry from Jerez, Spain.  Intriguing... not a sweet Sherry like you might expect with dessert and the cardinal rule that the dessert should not be sweeter than the wine. I did not catch the winery for this Sherry, but it was very nice with a tiny touch of sweetness that my come from some sweeter Pedro Ximenez based Sherry blended in.  Our dessert was a Tres Leches Cake with mint, starfruit and chocolate.  A great dessert for me, just a hint of sweetness that paired nicely with the Sherry. A great end to a great meal. 



Wow - overall a fantastic dinner.  I was expecting to enjoy some of the dishes, but was surprised that they were all really well done. Not that I doubt Chef Gaytan's skill, but in the mad rush of popularity after something like Top Chef, you figure that there will be a few misses here and there.  The only bad part was needing to head back out into the snow to find a taxi back to our hotel!

Mexique received some grief from the press after it was awarded a Michelin star - some thought they didn't deserve it.  Really great food, great service, and nice wine pairings from a reasonably priced wine list... what else would the Michelin Man want???  

Try this place - you will like it!

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