Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Top Chef Master's Meal



What's a meal created by a top chef master taste like? Does it transcend mere earthly dishes? Does it haunt your dreams and inspire drooling? I headed to Rick Bayless' newest restaurant creation Xoco, to discover the answer. You might have heard of Rick Bayless. He hosts some cooking shows. Wrote some cookbooks. Won a fancy top chef title. Known for his innovation with Mexican cuisine, Bayless' Xoco, (SHO-ko)which means "little sister" in Aztec slang, focuses on Mexican street food.



Now Rick likes to take his liberties with Mexican food. He whips up traditional dishes with flourishes and twists, to appeal to the American palate. His take on Mexican street food involves a small selection of tortas or sandwiches, caldos or soups and most importantly, freshy ground, hot chocolate and churros or fried dough.



Most of the ingredients are locally produced and organically grown.



My favorite part of the experience was drinking aguas frescas, fresh fruit juice in a wonderful hibiscus and lemongrass flavor.



The set up involves at least a 30 minute wait for a table number and then ordering your choices and paying up front. Hot chocolate and churros are handed over as you trot to your table, well before tortas arrive, which is a very dangerous situation for me.



I ordered the milanesa, a crispy battered chicken sandwich with artisan jack cheese, pickled jalapenos and a tomatillo-avocado dipping sauce. My dining mates, Donna, my former Travelmuse editor and fellow travel writer Cindy, ordered the cochinita pibil or suckling pig and Gunthorp chicken tortas, respectively. We also chose chips and salsa to accompany the feast. Perhaps my first hint that maybe I wouldn't be transported to top chef heaven was a glimpse of the chips. I take my chips and salsa very seriously. For me, a good, homemade, tortilla chip displays enough heft and texture to supply a filling meal coupled with spicy, flavorful salsa. Alas, that's not what I got. The chips were suspiciously flimsy and over salted and the salsa was weak and watery. The sandwich was okay. It didn't taste even vaguely like any torta I've eaten in Mexico but it wasn't bad. For $9 and a 30-minute wait, I expected something closer to mind-blowing than not bad.



The churros also were less than spectacular. They weren't too greasy and were covered with generous sprinklings of sugar and cinnamon but they didn't offer the warm, chewy goodness I expected. The hot chocolate, about which I'm also very particular, was the biggest let down. I ordered the Aztec, which is my favorite blend of dark chocolate with chile. I didn't think the chile was spicy enough or the chocolate rich enough. Donna and Cindy, however, loved everything they tasted. Were my expectations too high? Maybe. I was really thinking that Xoco would provide some sense of authentic Mexican street food, no matter how re-interpreted. I also thought that a top chef master's meal would outdo or at least come close to any great dining experience that I'd had. I suppose even rock star chefs are only human. I still had a great time at Xoco, it's a small and cozy place with a welcoming staff. Despite my journalistic inhibitions, it didn't stop us from harassing the poor man for a photo while he tried to cook in his open kitchen. Over-hyped or not, he's still Chicago's top chef master.

12 comments:

Amanda said...

This post is too cruel, especially for a Mexican-American girl who can't find a decent corn tortilla in all of Switzerland.

Must visit this restaurant if/when I am ever in Chicago - thanks for the tip! and the hunger pains...

Dominique said...

We've tried twice...and failed twice...to eat at one of Bayliss' restaurants when we were in Chicago. I watched a bit of his cooking demo at BlogHer and got a tiny taste then (reminds me, it's one of the stories I'm hanging on to for later!). I'm a big Top
Chef fan and enjoyed seeing Bayliss win Top Chef Masters. Still, I'd love to try eating at one of Baliss' places myself one of these days.
The menu sounds imaginative enough at this place. I've not eaten street food in Mexico, so I'm betting my reactions might be closer to your dining companions' :lol:

Fly Girl said...

Amanda, I know the cruelty of going without tortilla chips. At least you have swiss chocolate and cheese to sustain you!

Donminique, the buzz about Rick is so high that all 3 of his restaurants are tough to get into. If you come back when it dies down a little, you should be able to get into one.

Rachel Cotterill said...

Sounds a bit disappointing. I've had churros in Spain and loved them, but I've never found good ones in England.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

It sounds like it has great potential to be a lot better with a few tweaks.

Fly Girl said...

Rachel, I'd never even thing of eating churros in England!

Jean-Luc, I think you're right.

A Cuban In London said...

What I love about your food posts is that you go... into the heart of the matter :-)! Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Fly Girl said...

Cubano, thanks!

Heather on her travels said...

Oh dear, perhaps this kind of food is best tasted in some Mexican Mama's restaurant in the backstreet with the sun shining in a holiday mood.

Fly Girl said...

Heather, you're exactly right. Mama's kitchen with the sun shining would have been the most authentic way to experience Mexican street food but Rick likes to add his creative spin.

Mary and Sean said...

No! I'm heartbroken about the churros and the hot chocolate and torta! How could it be less than spectacular? I miss Mexican food so much in Japan, as you might imagine!

Darn! I'll just have to fantasize about a trip to Mexico instead

Fly Girl said...

Mary and Sean, I think a trip to Mexico is the real answer to your fantasies. Thanks for dropping by.