Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Top Chef Masters Face Off

When planning our trip to Chicago we knew we wanted to eat at some places frequented by President Obama. One of the tough tables is Table 52 run by Art Smith. Soon thereafter we started watching the end of the Masters edition of Top Chef. Art Smith made it to fourth place, being done in by not being able to make a vegan desert. The eventual winner was an affable mustachioed chef who was dedicated to preserving and spreading authentic Mexican cuisine.

So here is a side by side comparison of two top chefs in the Windy City.


Table 52

Frontera Grille

Art Smith

Rick Bayless




Claim To Fame

A favorite of Oprah Winfrey, this is where Barack Obama took Michelle for Valentines Day.

Widely considered the best Mexican restaurant in the country, Bayless won the Top Chef Masters.


The d├ęcor is made to resemble a genteel Southern home. With tables pressed close together, groups end up talking to each other. The service is very high end with all the waiters, servers and bussers working together seamlessly.

Typically Mexican with lots of bright colors and adobe textures. Seating is first come first serve, so the line starts forming about 45 minutes before opening. By the time the restaurant is open, the line is literally down the block.


For entrees we had blackened sockeye salmon which came served with a great zucchini ‘peperdelle’ and some sea scallops. But the star of the meal was the three-cheese mac and cheese. I’m a serious macaroni and cheese fan and have eaten a lot of high end flavors but this was one of the best ones I have ever had. We pried out of the wait staff that it was a sharp white cheddar, a yellow cheddar and parmesan cheeses. For dessert we split the hummingbird cake and still couldn’t finish it.

Since it was brunch, most of the dishes had an egg component. The best choice we made was to get the appetizer sampler which included these tasty little Mexico City style quesadillas and Bayless’s signature guacamole. For entrees we had Cazuela de Borrego, a lamb dish, and steak and cheese enchiladas. Several of the deluxe margaritas are shaken at the table with a lime as the shaker top. Two of those will make any brunch go better.

Chef Sighting

Art Smith tours the dining room about once an hour chatting with guests, posing for pictures, and autographing cookbooks. He is friendly and gregarious.

We had seen Bayless at his quick service restaurant Xoco where he politely posed for a picture but quickly went back to managing the open kitchen. As we were seated right at the opening of Fontera Grille, we saw him in the back surveying the crowd being seated. He quietly went to the back, not to be seen again.


Table 52 is a fine high end restaurant with good food but it just feels a little forced. It’s too busy to be intimate and too fancy to be casual.

The Bayless empire also includes the aforementioned Xoco and the higher end Topolobampo, but the flagship Frontera Grille lives up to its reputation as perhaps the best Mexican food to be found north of the Rio Grande.


Ed & Jeanne said...

Good comparisons! I like to find places very few people know about; not the ones in the limelight. It's hard, though...

A Free Man said...

I'd happily dine at either place. Though some good Mexican would be a nice change.