Most important Mexican restaurant since Topolobampo
FEB 19, 2016
By Phil Vettel
for Chicago Tribune
Read full article
Dos Urban Cantina is the most important Mexican restaurant to open in Chicago since Topolobampo. Which, not coincidentally, is where chef/owners Brian Enyart and Jennifer Jones worked, prior to striking out on their own in Logan Square.
This rave review comes without the element of surprise. A few days ago, I unveiled Phil's 50, a list of restaurants currently curling my toes. Dos Urban Cantina, which has been open for all of three months, clocked in at No. 30.
So everybody already knows I like this place. But we're here now, so I might as well explain why.
The background is solid. Enyart worked at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo for 14 years and had been chef de cuisine before departing; Jones was Topolo's pastry chef. Their partners, Michael Rotolo and Erika Martinez Rotolo, are Lettuce Entertain You veterans.
The space is pretty, divided into a 30-seat front room with a bar and open kitchen, and a 70-seat main room with free-standing tables and comfortable half-circle booths. Natural materials dominate (brick and oak particularly), there has been some effort made at sound dampening (not entirely successful on packed weekend nights), and there's a laid-back vibe that doesn't compromise the service staff's professionalism.
The cooking, Enyart and Jones say, is Mexican inspired, and the menu is a very personal expression of Mexican flavors. There are echoes of the American South, Asia and Eastern Europe here and there, and they only add to the appeal.
The menu is divided into quadrants — Vegetables, Masa, Seafood and Meat — and there are stars in every corner. Among the veggies, for instance, are grilled maitake and shimeji mushrooms in a Oaxacan red mole and a slab of chestnut cornbread. Chayote gets a rare starring role amidst avocado and serrano, above a peanut mole so subtle, one needs to linger over it to appreciate it fully. Black lentils with couscous, deep-green watercress and a translucent poached egg offer unexpected depth and richness, but a bright jolt of jalepeno salsa keeps it from becoming overwhelming.
Seafood dishes are irresistible. Octopus pieces swim in an impenetrably dark squid-ink sauce, alongside a bright-white pile of rice. Raw scallops arrive as a virtual mosaic, picking up color and texture from pink pickled onions, cilantro leaves, chia seeds and dabs of sweet-potato puree. Sweet pieces of sea urchin sit over a dice of tomatillo and green apple, with a little chicharron-steeped cream underneath. And whenever the evening's specials include raw salmon belly, piled high over guacamole with avocado, radish matchsticks and hints of soy, citrus, serrano and smoked olive oil, grab it. Better still, order two.
Shrimp and sea bass ceviche lurk in the Masa section, only because of the tostada underneath. This section also includes yummy little shrimp taquitos with pickled vegetables, and a corn tamal, served out of its husk with charred Parmesan, a sweet and earthy dish.
Best is the "street style corn," a mix of sweet niblets, hominy and masa pudding, along with the typical street-food accompaniments of cotija cheese, mayo and chili. Not only is it delicious, it also embraces three representations of corn, each a bedrock of Mexican cooking; it's a very thoughtful dish.
Enyart seems at his most playful in the Meat quadrant, switching up his proteins to create a beef pibil (rather than pork) with black beans, habanero salsa and an ode-to-the-South helping of collard greens. Albondigas (meatballs) are made with goat meat, served in black mole with like-size balls of masa gnudi, a tasty and more tender version of the classic ricotta dumplings. Vivid-red slices of beef bavette stand out from an inky pasilla salsa and bagna cauda, both adding elements of funky flavor. Carnitas come with Polish-style sauerkraut (heavy on the caraway) and buttered potatoes; were it not for the bright tomatillo broth underneath, this could have come from my wife's Alsatian-grandmother's kitchen.
The first time I visited, the dessert menu listed the chocolate cake as "the best ever." These days, it's called "chocolate cake on a fancy plate," a nod to the vintage dishes on which the dessert is served. But it's still a black hole of deliciousness, from which hunger cannot escape.
There are other desserts, of course. Flan picks up textural variations from pieces of crunchy shortbread, whole hazelnuts and thick pieces of quince. Piloncillo sugar pie with malted whipped cream and pecan toffee is nicely complex, while gooey coconut and upright shards of meringue add drama to tres leches cake.
Attentive, personal service turns the menu explanations into pleasant conversation. The budget-sensitive wine list offers lots of options, and cocktails are especially good. I expected a couple of Topolo vets to offer a superior margarita, and they do, but the "Dos Manhattan" and the scorched-lemon "Charred Canary" were revelations. Well done.