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Chuy Valencia's Chilam Balam stands out in a crowded neo-Mexican scene 

Plus: Logan Square's Rustico Grill, felicitous dining at the Hotel Felix

Chuy Valencia with grilled hanger steak in guajillo sauce at Chilam Balam

Chuy Valencia with grilled hanger steak in guajillo sauce at Chilam Balam

Eric Futran

Twenty-three-year-old Chuy Valencia is only the latest—and possibly the youngest—graduate of the School of Bayless to come out of the Frontera/Topolobampo kitchens and stake his own claim. After a pit stop as chef de cuisine at Adobo Grill, in late August he opened Chilam Balam, a cramped but not claustrophobic subterranean spot offering a small-plates menu along with a list of monthly seasonal specials—mostly more antojitos plus a few larger plates. It was a dish from this changing list that would crush my heart: a plate of roasted scallops in sweet corn chilatole, garnished with the year's last cherry tomatoes and wax beans. It disappeared the day after I ate it, as did a salad of the freshest, most vibrant tomatoes of the summer—with queso fresco, sunflower greens, and a chile-avocado dressing—and a mulatto chile-and-chocolate mole, so multidimensional with its shifting notes of bitter and sweet that I barely noticed the slices of lamb leg it was meant to accent.

Happily, not all the good stuff is so ephemeral. The braised mushroom-and-cheese empanadas remain, pockets so light and flaky I'm at a loss to explain how they can contain the earthy fungus, braised with pipian verde and epazote. Even something as mundane as a grilled hanger steak transcends itself, plated on a lava field of guajillo sauce. Solid but not quite so mind-blowing efforts include a cross-stacked plate of pasilla-glazed pork ribs accented with radish and queso fresco and a chocolate mousse with a tangy goat cheese core. But I'm scratching my head over the dessert empanadas stuffed with peanut butter and figs, as tough and leaden as the savory ones were miraculous. And it's hard to figure how a tiny scoop of guacamole, no matter how good, merits a $7.95 price tag. Still, in a fall restaurant season crowded with upscale-Mexican, small-plate, and farm-to-table menus, Valencia's managed to distinguish himself combining all three. —Mike Sula

Riding the success of Lakeview's Mixteco Grill (the Reader's pick for best new restaurant of 2008), chef Raul Arreola has embarked on some bold expansions, not only adding a new dining room to that space but installing Rustico Grill in the oddly designed void left when the Logan Square comfort-food joint Rustik tanked. It's an uncomfortable space, with flagstone walls, a strange atrium behind the bar, and many dissatisfying sight lines. Maybe Arreola (another Frontera vet) is uninspired by the new surroundings, since he duplicates a great number of dishes from Mixteco and adds only a few twists to others. Signatures such as the creamy uchepos gratinados (tamales with poblano sauce) are here, as is the wonderfully dark and complex lamb in mole negro and plenty more.

But what's wrong with more of a good thing? Plus, among the handful of brand-new dishes I tried were two of the best I've eaten all year. (It was a good week for Mexican.) Leaves practically started to fall in the dining room when grilled slices of tender, juicy chicken breast arrived fanned across a plate of warm-spiced pumpkin mole with a spaghetti-squash-stuffed baby pumpkin on the side. And a chile relleno en escabeche—filled with potato, chorizo, and poblanos and served with pickled vegetables—was a dark, smoky-sweet flavor bomb that blew every other dish off the table.

Then again, the arroz a la tumbada, a mushy, odoriferous seafood paella with a sharp chile bite, was summarily rejected by everyone who tasted it. And a crabmeat salad had a fresh-from-the-can flavor that obviated its interesting potato, carrot, and queso fresco components, leading me to wonder whether sea creatures should simply be avoided here.

There is one important difference from Mixteco: at Rustico a liquor license allows a handful of wines, 11 Mexican beers, 17 tequilas, and a short cocktail list, from which the tart, basic house margarita beats out a tooth-splitting deluxe version oversweetened with agave nectar. —Mike Sula

[Editor's note: Rustico Grill closed in 2010.]

I'm a sucker for unexpected amenities, so when our server at Elate noticed we were wearing dark clothing and switched our napkins from white to black, I was hooked. And the offer of free sparkling or still water (from the house's Natura filtration system), with bottles of each left on the table, sealed the deal at this restaurant in the eco-friendly Hotel Felix. It didn't matter that the small dining room spread around the bar felt a bit schizophrenic, with chandeliers hanging from the black-flocked exposed-beam ceiling and couches in several styles flanking the black-stained tables. The noise was a bother, but we ignored it as we tried to decode the one-page menu's categories: oysters, snacks, pizzas, fruits and veggies, plates, small plates, and charcuterie.

Fruit showed up in our charcuterie choice, smoked duck breast, which turned out to be six crostini topped with mascarpone, melon, frisee, and smoky, rosy poultry. A spinach salad skewer skewed the salade Lyonnaise deliciously, with more baby spinach than frisee, a featherlight chicharron replacing lardons, an egg "molten" instead of raw, and crema for even more richness. The octopus pastrami with mustard greens and rye consomme was less successful—it didn't conjure up the classic deli sandwich at all, despite the pastrami spice rub on the handful of tender tentacles. We liked the cracker-flat pizza with diced roasted beets, fennel, and ricotta salata, but too much salt marred both a snack of fried dough blobs with an oddly tart pesto and a "plate" of dainty pieces of halibut fillet with meaty chanterelles and shriveled mussels in a bacon-studded broth.

Frozen peach souffle on lemon pound cake in passion fruit soup sounded better than it tasted, but moist flourless chocolate cake with a smear of cake batter, whipped cream, bananas, and burnt-caramel ice cream left us . . . elated. The single-page global, vintageless wine list includes six half bottles and 18 wines by the glass. —Anne Spiselman

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