When Rick Bayless opened his first restaurant Frontera Grill nearly 30 years ago, he changed how the world thought about Mexican cuisine by offering rich mole sauces, flame-grilled meats in freshly made tortillas, and seasonal vegetables in a vibrant environment. Tonight, he hopes to open diners eyes again with a deep dive into the seafood-centric realm of Baja cooking — complete with an open hearth and adjacent brewery on Randolph Street.
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Rick Bayless is a chef, restaurateur, television star, cookbook author, and arguably the godfather of modern Mexican cuisine. You'd think he might want to sit back and let his empire thrive. You'd be wrong. Instead, tonight, Bayless debuts his most ambitious project since opening Topolobampo in 1989.
Leña Brava will bring together a 75-seat restaurant, raw bar, Mexican wine and the largest mezcal selection in the city, and it'll open right next to Cruz Blanca Cervecería brewery and taqueria. It is a sprawling project on the corner of Randolph and Peoria Streets, which pays tribute to many parts of Mexico's food and drink culture, but most importantly it shines a light on Baja cuisine. It's a departure from Bayless' regional interior Mexican cooking that is deeply rooted in rich mole sauces. Instead, it will offer simpler fare focusing on seafood and the flavors of live fire.
Bayless admits that his guests will likely not be familiar with the Baja region of Mexico, located in the northernmost portion of the Baja Peninsula at the base of California. The chef says it captured his attention for two reasons: 1) Its climate, which is similar to the Mediterranean. This results in ideal conditions for growing olives and grapes, earning Baja the nickname "Mexico's Napa Valley." The fertile waters of the Gulf of California and Pacific Ocean also make Baja a prime seafood spot. 2) Its cuisine, which is based around wood fire powered cooking.
"It's the most elemental form of cooking and something that people from all over the world will react to in a really positive way," Bayless says. "I think we're migrating slowly back to the satisfaction of stuff cooked over wood because it's in our DNA and we love it."
The centerpiece of Leña Brava is the hearth. Here, the husband-and-wife team of Fred and Lisa Despres roast onions over red-hot embers, blister ripe plantains, and grill swordfish that is served over wood oven-baked red chile rice. One thing Bayless was adamant about was that there would be no crutches, or gas lines, obstructing the kitchen's commitment to cooking with live fire. "It's like cutting off an arm, knowing you don't have a stove," Lisa says. "It really challenged us to be creative in what we're doing."
"It's like cutting off an arm, knowing you don't have a stove. It really challenged us to be creative in what we're doing."
Unlike the cuisine guests might be used to at Bayless' Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, the cuisine of Lena Brava is lighter, more vegetarian friendly and seafood-focused. The star of the menu is a whole striped bass (pictured top) from Anguilla Farm that is grilled and served in a choice of four marinades: Oaxacan-style a la talla (red chile adobo glaze), Nayarit-style zarandeado (roasted garlic, Worcestershire, soy, ancho, and tomato), Yucatecan-style tikin xik (achiote and roasted garlic), or Leña-style green chile-mayo glaze.
The extensive menu of raw items is designed to represent the Asian influence in Baja cuisine. It's also convenient in the burner-less kitchen. Options range form the traditional, such as aguachiles clásico made with sashimi-grade Hudson Canyon diver scallops in spicy cucumber-cilantro-lime broth to the contemporary Bloody Maria (pictured right) with albacore tuna, cucumbers, green olives, red onion, and a spicy celery salt rim served with a shot of mezcal.
With this many options, finding a quality seafood source was a top priority. Not coincidentally, Bayless did so in Baja. Leña Brava relies heavily on Catalina Offshore Products, a San Diego-based company that specializes in sustainably-caught yellowtail, tuna, salmon, and sea urchin. The rest of the seafood is sourced domestically to reduce the restaurant's carbon footprint, with the exception of octopus, which comes from Spain.
"If you go to Mexico City right now, mezcal reigns supreme," Bayless says about his longtime spirit of choice. (He introduced a mezcal margarita to the menu at Frontera 27 years ago.) "If you're under 30, you will not drink anything but mezcal." He continues to add that the United States is beginning to catch up with Mexico in terms of its drinking preference as well as its ability to carry the spirit. The latter is largely due to recent James Beard Award winner Ron Copper of Del Maguey, who many, including Lena Brava's beverage director Jeff Walters, credit for revolutionizing the high-end mezcal industry in The States.
The bar at Lena Brava will carry 110 different varieties of mezcal, including a house bottle produced, bottled, and labeled in Oaxaca. "I'm trying to make it the best selection and overall cocktail program for mezcal that is offered anywhere," Walters says. This means 11 of the 15 cocktails on the opening menu have an agave element, from the refreshing 23 Degrees (Chinaco Blanco tequila, coconut water, guava, and lime) to the boozy Mexico City Manhattan (Templeton rye, Banhez mezcal, Carpano Antica, and Benedictine). The cocktail list will also feature several local spirits, such as Koval gin in the Ravenswood Flip (gin, Framboise, lime, and Fee Brothers Aztec hocolate bitters) and CH rum in the Sarong Song (rum, guajillo chile, fresh lime, and sparkling water).
If mezcal isn't your thing, sommelier Jill Gubesch has a wine list that takes equal inspiration from Baja. Mexican wines join bottles from the cultures that influence the region, including Mediterranean wines and Japanese sake.
"There are too many people out there who think wine doesn't work with Mexican food. It's always been my goal to make sure they leave our restaurants with their minds changed."
Gubesch has been curating Balyess' wine programs for the past 15 years, which means much of her job is sourcing rare or hard-to-find bottles of small-batch Mexican wines that pair with the cuisine. "There are too many people out there who think wine doesn't work with Mexican food," she says. "It's always been my goal to make sure they leave our restaurants with their minds changed."
The opening list at Leña Brava has 150 bottles, 20 of which are from the Guadalupe Valley. While the grapes used in these wineries are familiar — Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and Tempranillo — the flavor extracted from them might be unfamiliar to the regular wine drinker. As a result of its terroir and proximity to the coast, wines often have a lighter body, are more fruit forward, soft in tannin, and strong in minerality, which translates to a light amount of saltiness on the finish.
Two of Gubesch's favorite wineries from the region are Casa De Piedra and Adobe Guadalupe. The latter of which is currently aging a Cabernet Franc blended with Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot — grapes that are not usually seen together, Gubesch says. The wine will become the house red when it is released later this year. "I can tell you honestly that we're the only restaurant opening right now that has these labels," she says.
In case that isn't enough action other one roof, Bayless is opening a brewery too. It will not, however, be serving what most American think of as "Mexican beer." Head brewer Jacob Sembrano explains, "Mexico doesn't really have a brewing identity as far as most people know and most brewing documentations show. Mexican beer is just the industrial lager that was brought from Germany. It's light, low in alcohol, and basically similar to what we know today as the Mexican lager. Going back to what was happening at that time, the influence is really coming from the immigration of European settlers into Mexico, so we just took that and ran with it."
"Mexico doesn't really have a brewing identity as far as most people know and most brewing documentations show."
Sembrano found his brewing muse in Emil Dercher, a French immigrant who opened the original Cruz Blanca in Mexico City in 1869. He specialized in Alstatian technique of bottle-conditioning as well as a style of beer known as Bière de Garde. This refreshing beer style boasts toffee, caramel and lightly toasted notes. It is lightly hopped and has a dry finish. It will also be the main style served at Cruz Blanca Cervecería.
The opening menu features three versions of the beer: La Guardia Rubia, a blonde ale made with Illinois honey; La Guardia Ambar, a medium-bodied amber ale made with Mexican hominy; and La Guardia Morena, a full-boded beer made with Mexican Piloncillo sugar. The brewery will also open with a Smoke Alley dry-hopped smoked wheat beer, Básica IPA, as well as a porter that uses the cocoa bean husks from Xoco's chocolate program and named after the process used to remove those husks, Winnow. The 12-tap bar overlooking the glass-encased 10-barrel brewing system will also pour six guest brews, including Tocayo, Bayless' hominy white ale brewed by Constellation Brands, which also own Modelo and Corona.
"I'm not sure how it happened, but there is a taqueria over there," Bayless says about the final element of the massive project. The walk-up taco stand is located in the back of the brewery and is designed to mirror Oaxaca's 20 de Noviembre Market. This vibrant market offers DIY tacos prepared by dozens of vendors. The team took a recent trip to visit the rows of meat vendors who yell at patrons to get them to buy their pork, steak, or chorizo. After selecting a meat source, visitors can purchase vegetables and freshly made tortillas. At tables, one can assemble the tacos and add assorted salsa and toppings.
"Cruz Blanca is going to change what Chicago thinks a taco is."
"You're so intoxicated with the smoke and the smells and the sounds that when you finally get your food, you're like a ravenous animal," Lisa recalls. The version at Cruz Blanca will be slightly more civilized, offering a choice of five different proteins (cured flank steak, red chile pork loin, chorizo, garlic chicken breast, or garlic-agave Portobello mushrooms) served with grilled güero chiles and knob onions, Oaxacan pasilla, and roasted tomatillo salsas, heirloom corn tortillas, and lime. She adds, "Cruz Blanca is going to change what Chicago thinks a taco is."
Leña Brava is open Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at 900 W. Randolph St. Cruz Blanca is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 12 a.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 904 W. Randolph St. (with the exception of today though Sunday when it opens at 4 p.m.).