Brian Enyart spent the first 14 years of his career quietly climbing the ladder in Rick Bayless’s kitchens, rising to chef de cuisine at Topolobampo—easily the most rarefied and progressive restaurant in the Bayless empire—before stepping away in 2011. There were a few consulting gigs and a stint at a Saint Louis Mexican restaurant, but now he’s back, along with former Topolobampo pastry chef (and wife) Jennifer Jones, at Logan Square’s Dos Urban Cantina. Given the extraordinary number of restaurants in and around town that employ at least one of those three words, it’s a bland name, one that undersells what’s going on inside. Enyart and Jones are doing something similar to what Diana Dávila did during her regrettably short tenure at Andersonville’s Cantina 1910. They’re taking Mexican food to places it’s never been before.
The large two-room space, formerly Katakana Sushi Bar, seems similarly matched in size and ambition to the work being done in the kitchen. This is Mexican food at once familiar and new. There are no molten blankets of cheese, no searing chile burns, no baseline foundations of acidity. Instead Enyart goes deep, exploring bitter, thick moles and intense flavors while harnessing the fulsome power of nuts, legumes, and fungi. The current menu, whether intentional or not, is ideal for winter.
Hearty, earthy flavors like grilled Japanese mushrooms and soft, toasty sweet chestnut corn bread are only amplified by a thin but intricate red mole. A quartet of taquitos bathing in tomato broth are stuffed with an intensely briny shrimp mousseline countered by the giardiniera-like hash of pickled vegetables they’re topped with. From under slices of seared rare flap steak, swipes of inky black garlic, bagna cauda, and pasilla salsa, sweetened by raisins, add a deep funk reminiscent of dry-aged beef. Gamy, dense goat meatballs swim in a stygian black mole buoyed by airy masa gnudi. With these dishes Enyart brings Mexican food to the dark side.
And yet he also has a knack for subtle mashups too seamless and complementary to be described with the F-word, or even to be put in ironic menu quotes. A trio of dips that accompany the housemade tortilla chips include a pumpkin-seed hummus rendered creamy by lime and roasted tomato. Worlds collide with long, gnarly chicharrones standing up in a thick French onion yogurt dip—a salute to soup mix. Buttery chunks of juicy chayote wallow in a peanut mole that recalls Chinese sesame noodles. A mound of black lentils is tossed with springy Israeli couscous, topped with a jiggly poached egg, and given a Mexican touch with the addition of a sparky jalapeño salsa.
Enyart’s boldest cross-cultural move is a plate of carnitas paired with Polish-style sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, set on a sour tomatillo broth—a tribute to the synergy of his eastern European upbringing and his long immersion in Mexican cuisine.
There are some bursts of pure sunshine on the menu however: a gorgeous mosaic of raw scallops—bathing in spicy-sour lime aquachile, dotted with dollops of pureed, roasted sweet potato, and sprinkled with black chia seeds—looks like a supernova and is a taste explosion. Enyart’s nod to the street snack esquites is a bed of smooth, cool masa pudding sprinkled with crunchy hominy and cotija cheese. A long fillet of smoked trout is pillowed by a pile of charred broccoli and cauliflower, seasoned in nutty peanut salsa macha with a long finger of sweet pureed butternut squash stretching alongside it.
Jones comes in strong with a half-dozen desserts, from a relatively simple but rich dark chocolate cake to a vanilla flan textured with hazelnut and quince to a delicate tres leches cake piled with oozing jellylike coconut. A dark piloncillo sugar pie is made with unrefined cane sugar and suspended nuggets of pecan toffee that make it an early favorite for top dessert of 2016.
Cocktails generally skew slightly toward Mexico, including an eye-opening margarita made with sour orange, an intensely grapefruit-forward Paloma, and a manhattan made with the floral anise-and-fermented-honey-based Yucatan liquor xtabentún. Wines come from all over the map though the list is dominated by midpriced bottles from California, France, Italy, and Spain, while local beers make a strong showing, with the three taps occupied by hometown breweries and quite a few represented among the nearly two dozen bottles and cans.
Were it not for the recent shakeup at Cantina 1910, I’d be more tempted to say that 2016 might be the year Chicago chefs take Mexican food someplace radically new. If that’s true, Dos Urban Cantina is ground zero. v