CHICAGO, Ill. -- E
Every time I visit a Rick Bayless restaurant, I learn something. That's no idle statement when you're talking about a guy who has been feeding Chicago for more than a quarter-century.
First there was Frontera Grill, eschewing chips-and-salsa Mexican for serious Mexican cooking that took sopa Azteca and chile relleno to new heights. Then Topolobampo, demonstrating that fine-dining, regional Mexican cuisine was not only possible, but that there was also an eager market for that sort of thing. And then Bayless applied his sustainable and organic ethos to inexpensive, fast-casual food at Xoco (while opening my eyes to the thrilling possibilities of hot chocolate), and, at Tortas Frontera, applying his culinary magic to airport food. Dear God, airport food.
And now there is his latest, Lena Brava, which introduces the seafood-rich region of the Baja California Norte. Having spent decades introducing palates to authentic Mexican cuisine, Bayless now turns his eye to a region that embraces fusion, whose cuisine is informed by a multitude of immigrants.
And Bayless, ever the culinary evangelist, preaches with enthusiasm.
"Just 22 years ago, there were five boutique wineries (in the Valle de Guadalupe area within the Baja Norte)," Bayless said. "Now there are 102. That's a fast growth rate, and now some of them are winning prizes, and that's drawing chefs to the region. Baja Norte is a desert-y, rustic environment, with a sort of Old West feel, and the food focuses on the simplicity of wood-fired cooking. And these chefs are bringing beautiful ingredients and a ton of technique into that. I don't know of a single restaurant there that doesn't have a big, wood-fired grill as its cornerstone."
My elevator pitch, for those familiar with Bayless' restaurant, is that Lena Brava combines Frontera Grill's high-energy atmosphere with Topolobampo's thrill of discovery. You'll eat well here, often raucously, and have so much fun you might not notice that conceptual doors have been opened for you.
The focal point of the restaurant, done in surprisingly neutral tones — no riot of colors as at Frontera, no abundance of Mexican fine art as at Topolobampo — is Lena Brava's massive wood-burning hearth. It's a decorative element as well as a functional one; the floor of the hearth is raised, and the pickup counter (where food is transferred from cook to food runner) is lowered, the better to view the whole operation. (The best tables are those closest to the hearth — sometimes you can feel the heat on your face — but the views are good wherever one sits.) And this really is the whole operation; Bayless didn't even install a gas line to the kitchen. At Lena Brava, if it's not being kissed by fire, it's not being cooked.
That said, some of Lena Brava's most inspiring dishes aren't cooked at all.
The "Ice" half of the menu (three guesses as to what the other half is called) offers an abundance of ceviches, aguachiles and laminados; ordering from each category allows you to explore the subtle and unsubtle differences among the three styles. The aguachiles are all superb (scallops in serrano-tinged cucumber-lime broth are light and lively; opah reflects Asian influence in its habanero-lime-lemongrass broth), but the revelation is the pineapple, a vegetarian dish of the fire-blackened fruit in an orange-lime broth dotted with dabs of goat cheese and a spicy hazelnut salsa macha. This dish is so stunning that on my third visit, I ordered it again.
Among ceviches, opt for the ceviche maki roll, a real multiculti appetizer; maki-roll slices of avocado, sushi rice and roasted nori are topped with Lena ceviche (which can be ordered on its own), which includes Hawaiian albacore, tomatoes, picholine olives and spicy green chili. There's a lot going on here, but the flavors are harmonious.
Laminados are composed plates starring sliced raw fish. Hiramasa, offered in mouth-satisfying thickish slices on a plate painted with a tangy-spicy chamoy (pickled fruit, spices) and sprinkled with tiny pieces of mango, is wonderful, but the surprise in this category, again, is the vegetarian contribution (chefs Lisa and Fred Despres, who do most of the heavy lifting at Lena Brava, have one vegetarian option in most menu categories), an array of sliced avocado topped with cubes of ginger-laced jicama and bold dashes of grapefruit, black pepper and habanero.
Oysters, always a strength at Bayless restaurants, are good here as well, pristine and ice cold; among the accompanying sauces is a shaved ice flavored with cucumber and a hint of chile de arbol, and it's terrific. Sea urchin, presented in slices that appear to be marching from its unishell home, is a major treat (and slight financial indulgence) as well. There is a classic seafood cocktail of blue shrimp and octopus that's very good, but I'll go with the Bloody Maria, a tuna cocktail with a spicy salt rim and a side shot of mezcal. (You can taste the cocktail and mezcal separately or dump the mezcal directly into the glass — making it a true cocktail, I suppose — and the serving is large enough that you can do both.)
Then it's on to the Fire half of the menu. Assuming you can keep your hands off the addictive tlayudas, the fire-crisped corn flatbread that tastes like buttered popcorn in cracker form, you'll find plenty of dishes to try. There are Mexican-Asian dishes such as the shrimp and pork albondigas, the ginger-scented meatballs swimming in a roasted tomato and chipotle sauce, sprinkled with anejo cheese; and regional specialties such as Oaxacan caldo de piedra, in which yellowtail, cod and shrimp and grilled asparagus gambol in a murky pasilla-chili broth.
Must-try dishes are the scallops over sweet-plantain ash and pasilla-almond salsa macha; the scallops are topped with bonito flakes, so onion-skin thin that the flakes curl, as if alive, reacting to the scallops' heat. I'd also make room for the wood-roasted black cod with sour pineapple-shiso salsa; and garlicky swordfish over rice with black garlic, avocado and cilantro.
There are three main courses sized for two or more. Chicken a la Lena has a garlic-agave glaze that gives the skin a black-lacquered sheen; the chicken is excellent, but the creamy jalapeno-garlic salsa on the side is the stuff of dreams. The tomahawk steak, a 2-pound, bone-in rib-eye, is a $90 indulgence, but it's a first-rate steak, served with a complex steak sauce the kitchen calls Mexican A1.
Whole striped bass is available in four preparations, representing a virtual tour of Mexico. "No matter where you are in Mexico," Bayless said, "they're doing a butterflied fish with the local flavors." I lean toward the Lena-style prep, which bathes the fish in a bright-green chili glaze, but there are Oaxacan (red adobo glaze), Pacific-coast zarandeado (garlic, soy, chile de arbol) and Yucatan tikin xik (achiote, garlic, habanero) versions as well.
Among sides, the richly flavored, chipotle-dusted cauliflower mash calls to mind a south-of-the-border pommes puree; butter-roasted plantains with cream, butter and house-made queso fresco are irresistible, and could serve as a dessert.
Speaking of dessert, Lena Brava is strong in that area as well. There's a free-form, asymmetrical puffy tart with caramelized apples and thin stripes of tamarind sauce, topped with a globe of smoked-vanilla ice cream; and a soufflelike tres leches cake surrounded by lime curd, burnt meringue puffs and pistachio crema. The banana split, overflowing with buttered plantains, grilled pineapple and scoops of cajeta, chocolate and smoked-vanilla ice cream (along with cherry-cashew toffee, toasted coconut and hot fudge) is so massive that you probably should win a T-shirt if you finish it.
The beverage program is impressive, offering wines from the Valle de Guadalupe (although the sommelier is just as likely to suggest a wine from the Canary Islands), beers from next door, signature cocktails (the Awesome Blossom is my favorite, but the vodka-grapefruit Quiero Un Selfie made me laugh) and at least 100 sipping mezcals. And the Cafe Oaxaqueno, a coffee drink with mezcal, pasilla syrup and whipped cream, makes a fine liquid dessert.