“I do not believe in either Mexican or Latin American painting. I can only conceive of painting in its most universal sense. My main concern, really, is to resolve the picture with its own elements: to define its balance, with that mysterious sort of mathematics which, even when it is applied intuitively, makes it possible to turn a picture upside down without any loss of significance, quite independently of the subject — for the subject doesn’t really matter. But what interests me most of all is man and the way he faces the problems that surround him. Art must belong to its time: it should not be concerned with memories but with what is happening now. And the artist is the antenna. He cannot be passive or content merely to dream. Art is fundamentally a message, a means of communication.”- Rufino Tomayo
With a pair of crispy soft shell crabs as their summer centerpiece, the Topolobampo kitchen crafted a Taste of Art, a five course celebration of the works that adorn their dining room walls. Though it arrives at the mid-point of the meal, the course is the best entry point to one of the restaurant’s most daringly conceptual menus. In terms of color palate and plating, it is the only dish that directly mirrors the piece that inspired it. Dos Cabezas, Tomayo’s striking study in tart cherry reds and impenetrable midnight black exemplifies the qualities that the Oaxacan born painter stressed when interviewed. Built on earthy barley, sea-fresh crab, and summer stone fruit, the dish’s creator understands that with such purposeful restraint, its focal points are amplified and enhanced.
At first glance, neither the dish nor the painting bear the obvious hallmarks of what is traditionally termed “Mexican”. Take a bite. Taste the tequila that pickled Mick Klug’s plump Michigan cherries and the chile ancho that enhance their sauce. Such fruit may not be a common element in Mexican kitchens, but Topolo is first and foremost a Chicago restaurant. They take full advantage of the midwestern bounty that is within their reach. While other kitchens toy with gimmicks such as adding giardiniera to mole poblano, this kitchen’s inventions are far more thoughtful. They only incorporate novel ingredients when they enrich the dishes.
If the menu’s centerpiece suggests the universality of the sea, its second course has specific, unalterable roots in the southern state of Oaxaca. Inspired by Felipe Morales’ Woman Carrying a Cathedral, Tlayuda with a Spoon, transports the street food staple’s flavors into a steaming bowl of soup. Full appreciation of the dish requires at least a passing knowledge of the traditional preparation. I once overheard a fellow traveler describe Tlayuda as Mexican pizza. Although I was initially taken aback, the description is not without merit. A large corn tortilla is pressed flat and crisped atop a comal. Depending on the cook’s skill and expected number of guests, the circumference ranges from dinner plate diameter to the size of a small table top. The base is often smeared with a black bean paste and topped with chorizo, cheese, and various vegetables.
The Topolo team takes tart tomatillos, housemade Oaxacan style string cheese, Rancho Gordo’s rustic black beans, and a toasted tortilla and sets them aswim in a spicy chorizo broth. Though the conceptional connection should be obvious, they’ve reconfigured an iconic element of Mexican heritage without sacrificing its fundamental identifiers. I found this the most challenging dish of the menu because I approached it with preconceived notions. Initially I struggled with the texture of the tortilla. It had little of the paper-thin char found on many Oaxacan tlayudas. I soon realized that my reaction was not only unsurprising, but to be expected. Like the Morales’ painting that inspired it, the soup required a second glance.
The final savory course is the night’s most traditional. Titled If Mole Were a Dream, it is drawn from memory and tradition. Gunthrop Farms’ Rock Hen is infused with garlic and dressed with a mole inspired by one of the chef’s grandmothers. With its emphasis on nuts, the sauce most resembled a savory take on Veracruzano mole de xico. It pairs well with local root vegetables such as carrots and turnips.
Inspired by Roman Andrade’s In This House They Eat Iguana, the kitchen does not strive for the shock of transporting diners to a remote stretch of beach along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec where lizards are fair game for the tamale pot. The chefs highlight the piece’s emphasis on family ties and hand crafted cooking. As is often the case with Topolo’s main courses, they forgo the experimentation of the appetizers and dessert in favor of offering elevated takes on established classics. This choice speaks volumes about the restaurant’s ability to tackle abstract ideas that would be the ruin of less levelheaded kitchens. Although they are able to press forward with a specific theme, they never allow it to supplant their ability to offer diners a satisfying meal. The same can be said for their twisting of tradition. As Tamayo emphasized, although their art draws from memory, it is not clouded by it. This is deliciously rustic food presented elegantly. This is a contemporary kitchen that looks forever forward.
It is with the first and final courses that the kitchen enters more conceptually experimental modes. The meal can be read as a celebration of life in all of its stages. It begins with sight of a garden in bloom and concludes with earthy bites of fungal cacao and smoked masa.
The First Morning is a sweet salad inspired by the gigantic yellow globe that shines down on the dining room. Roasted beets and sea beans burst through a bed of smokey cacao-pasilla dirt that is cemented by a savory hazelnut-goat milk flan. It is a beautifully composed prelude that recalls Rene Redzeppi’s acclaimed recreations of Nordic landscapes.
Though it bears little physical resemblance to the piece that inspired it, they share the same emotional wavelength. Rolando Rojas’ Diptych with Yellow Circles and Flying Figures suggests more than a humdrum sunrise. It stands for the world’s rekindling after a dreary winter. Its figures may as well have been etched in a forgotten French cave as painted in Mexico or hung on a wall in northern Illinois. Look close enough and you may spot bits of blood red beet bursting through the surface of his neolithic sun.
With Life, Death & a Bowl of Hot Chocolate, dessert is the dish that ties this menu together. Chocolate mingles with mushroom. The same nixtamaled corn that added crunch to liquid chorizo is rendered light as air. Fresh plucked cherries surround cinnamon spiced Oaxacan nicuatole. All are dressed with marigold-orange flowers that recall autumn’s Dia de los Muertos. As suits Mexican culture, there is no shame in death or decay. It is an inescapable aspect of life and should be celebrated as adamantly as birth and everything that falls in between.
Incorporating cherries into such a melancholic dessert bears special significance. Though store shelves are stocked with Washington’s Rainer cherries, local farms stand decimated. Unseasonably warm March winds lured the blossoms out of hibernation before the winter’s final frost. As a result, upwards of 80% of Michigan’s crop was lost. Topolobampo is the only restaurant in the city offering Klug Farm cherries.
The dish was inspired by an untitled Rodolfo Morales piece that illustrates fragments of an anonymous woman’s life. Flowers sprout. Tears flow. She dons a bright red dress. Jackals rend the flesh from her bones. Someone smiles. It hardly matters what order you opt to tell the tales. Discussing one aspect of her life before or after another is insignificant. Each episode is part of a larger, cyclical canvas.
The same can be said for Taste of Art. It is a successful menu by any standard. As Tamayo stressed, if each individual piece is able to resolve itself with its own elements, an inexplicable balance will be achieved. An interest in the underlying concepts will certainly enhance an appreciation of this meal, but its success does not hinge on a knowledge of Oaxacan art or obscure aspects of Mexican gastronomy. Whether ordered a la carte or studied at obsessive length, each dish is beautiful, delicious, and memorable. Striking such a balance is an art not easily achieved.
All images come from www.rickbayless.com