It has to be intimidating to cook Mexican food for Chef Rick Bayless, sort of like delivering a sermon in front of God. Yet Chef Kevin Tubb's menu for Saturday's REAP Food Group fundraiser, where Bayless was the guest of honor, showed no wobbles in confidence. Around 70 people gathered at Eldorado Grill on Williamson Street for the event.
At 11:30 a.m., Eldorado's dining room was filled with warm sunlight and diners enjoying morning margaritas. Bayless, who was in town to speak at Isthmus's annual Green Day event, circled the room, signing cookbooks and flashing a genial smile. A copy of REAP's 2010 Farm Fresh Atlas, a guide to local food purveyors, farmers' markets, and restaurant partners, sat at every place.
Chef Tubb started off a five-course blowout of Wisconsin ingredients and Mexican flavors with an elegant fish tostada. A crispy corn tortilla no bigger than my palm held a fillet of annatto-rubbed fish (annatto is a seed used in Mexican cooking that gives food a deep red color), a fat slice of avocado, smoky chipotle rajas, pinto bean puree, and slaw. With a squeeze of lime over the top, it was a most pleasant way to begin the meal.
Next came Tubb's pollo con mole poblano. Mole, the national dish of Mexico, combines numerous ingredients -- nuts and seeds, garlic, dried fruit, tomatoes, chiles, chocolate, spices, fried bread, plantains, and more -- to create a smooth, deep and complex sauce.
At the four-star Topolobampo in Chicago, Bayless serves a reportedly stellar Oaxacan black mole, the secrets of which he has shared with only one other cook in his restaurant. (This was the dish, one could argue, that won him the title of "Top Chef Master" last year.) Bayless later complimented Tubb's mole, calling it "lovely, silky, and balanced," and indeed this evocative dish was one of the favorites. A chicken thigh from JenEhr Family Farm sat in a generous pool of the mole, drizzled with crème fraiche and topped with grilled portobello rajas. The dish was crowned with a piece of crispy chicken skin, which Dylon Tubb, Kevin's son and a cook at the restaurant, dubbed a savory "skin cracker." Knowing we had several more courses to go, I forbade myself to scoop up the rest of my mole with tortilla chips.
After a palate cleanser of pineapple spiced with chile pasilla flakes, servers brought out plates of cochinita pibil, a dish of purebred Berkshire pork from Willow Creek Farm, slow-roasted with achiote (similar to annatto) and banana leaves. The tender pork was topped with a small blue corn pancake whose earthy sweetness balanced the tangy sauce.
A citrus and jicama salad provided a prelude to the last dish, chiles rellenos filled with Wisconsin white cheeses and battered in a blue corn meal crust. The ancho puree that sauced the chile packed an alluring heat to offset the rich cheese. I was too full to finish my chile, but late on Saturday night I thought wistfully of what I'd left on my plate.
A petite piece of flan de almendras with housemade cajeta (caramel) arrived to complete the meal, and everyone at my table agreed that Chef Tubb had done Madison proud.
After the meal, Bayless took the microphone, describing his first visit to Mexico at age 14. "By the time I got to the hotel [from the airport]," he said, "I was already madly in love." Bayless cited the "generosity of spirit" and openness of the Mexican people and Mexico's "great street food culture" with its "explosive, fabulous flavor" as compelling forces in his life.
To find the best food in Mexico, Bayless noted, skip tourist destinations like the Riviera Maya. A decade ago, the Riviera Maya was "the outback -- no one lived there." Instead, Bayless advises making a "triangle" by starting in Mexico City, traveling east to Veracruz and then south to Oaxaca. Bayless described Mexico City as "the most sophisticated city in Mexico," its cuisine having roots in the Aztec and colonial empires. Veracruz is known as the "Mediterranean of Mexico" due to its coastal location and the influence of the Spaniards who landed there. Oaxaca, in the southern mountains, has the most indigenous Mexican cuisine.
Though audience members at the keynote later that day begged Bayless to open a restaurant in Madison, it looks like he has enough to keep him busy in Chicago. Luckily for Madison, Chicago's just a short drive, and we have Kevin Tubb's mole to inspire us in the meantime.
And as Tubb, Bayless, and members of REAP would all point out, it is entirely possible for any one of us to make a fantastic Mexican meal using ingredients from right here. I bet a lot of those who were at the luncheon will be hitting the farmers' market next weekend, stocking up on spinach and onions and other good stuff, and taking those autographed Bayless cookbooks for a spin.