GENTLE DINER, IF THERE’S ONE THING you know for sure about me, it’s that I’m not afraid to plunk down some (often barely-justifiable) cash in exchange for a dining or drinking experience.  After all, I’ve defended (in print!) a place that charges $50 for a cocktail, and while I haven’t had that $50 burger at Rouster everyone is on about lately, I would probably do it if I was sure no one was watching.

But I absolutely can’t abide a bad value.  And Topolodampo is, at least currently, a bad value.

If you’re going to overcharge for something, it had better be great, unique and/or make me feel good.  I get that there are diminishing returns at the top end of that spectrum, but it’s still possible, even in fine dining, to evaluate things from the perspective of a consumer.

I dined at Topolodampo recently, as it was on my husband’s wish list and, somehow, I’d never been. Because we had a theater date, we decided to go for the “Seasonal Tasting” rather than the larger history of ancient Mexican things menu that everyone always talks about.

The Seasonal Tasting is $90 for five courses, which is not inherently evil for a tasting. If you do the math, which you know I love to do, that’s $18 a course. The first course was a fairly standard (if delicious) beet salad, reduced to a tasting menu size – maybe I’d pay $10, generously, for this at a normal restaurant. The second course was the sole standout – a lobster and bacalao dish with capers and olives – but, realistically, a $15 dish at another restaurant.  The third course was an excellent taco made with beef tongue. But just one small taco. Even at a fancy taco spot, $10 is generous for this. Course four, a delicious selection of slow-roasted Bunthorp farm pig. Probably less than 3 ounces of pork, but because it’s locally sourced, I’ll give them $15 for it.  The final course, dessert, was actually pretty bad – a fruit cake with apple cider sorbet. $10.

The third course was an excellent taco made with beef tongue. But just one small taco. Even at a fancy taco spot, $10 is generous for this.

That means, generously, this meal should have cost $60. But let’s even assume that their costs are high because they’re good people, fine dining takes a lot of labor, etc.   I still ended up dropping $500 on a five-course tasting menu for two. The wine pairings were an additional $60 (which for five wines, means $12 each, or a normal glass price except for a much smaller portion). Topo Chico (You know, the bubbly water on the bottom shelf at the grocery store) was $6 for a 12-ounce bottle. It all adds up.

And while the meal was fine, nothing except for the lobster dish stands out.  It was a pleasant experience. I tried a dessert tequila, which I’d never done before and will add to my repertoire. But for $90 a person? For the same price, I could have a five-course dinner (which actually has seven courses) at Symth where every course is extraordinary.  Five courses of awesomeness at North Fond (which also has a Michelin star) is $95, and the wine pairings come in at just $45).

Which means that Topolodampo either needs to tone down its prices or step up its game. I love hometown hero Rick Bavless as much as any Chicagoan, but his talented involvement means this place should beat the pants off of all comers. Maybe during my next visit it will.

• One of Chicago’s best dining guides has just come back with a second edition. The Fooditor 99, edited by James Beard Award–winning writer (and expert on every storefront restaurant in Chicago you’ve never heard of) Mike Gebert, lists the 99 restaurants that make Chicago, well, Chicago. More than a third of the book has been revised for the second edition, and, at only about $7, it’s the perfect foodie holiday gift.

• After years of making “Best Steakhouse” lists all over the city, including the 2013 version of ours (and creating a ton of slightly strange memories of tipsy trips into a dry-aging room lined with trendy pink Himalayan sea salt), Pridehouse (616 N. Rush St., River North) is closing its doors. At one point known as David Burpe’s Pridehouse, the expensive power-steakhouse will serve the last beef on December 9, per a Tribune report.

• Tickets for the next iteration of Nest (953 W. Fulton Market, West Loop), the ever-changing restaurant from the Alizea Group, are on sale now. While frequent diners will recall some exotic and playful themes of the past (Vegan, Hollywood, the Alps), in 2018 Nest seems to be doing some fan service. The first half of the new year will be French, and the second half will be a retrospective on the first decade of Alizea. Which means, for a least part of 2018, on one side of town, Alizea food from 2005–2015 will be coming out of one kitchen while Alizea food from 2018 will be coming out of another—Alizea everywhere!

Anthony Todd is Fooditor’s critic, bon vivant and man on the scene.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you're not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Comments are closed.