CHICAGO (WLS) --For more than 30 years, Rick Bayless has been Chicago's ambassador for regional Mexican cooking. Hut a trio of successful restaurants in the city's River North neighborhood isn't enough to contain his creativity.
His latest restaurant in the West Loop neighborhood tackles a region of Mexico most people have no idea about. Lena Brava isn't focused on the sauce-based cuisine of Mexico's interior, but rather, the seafood and open-fire cooking of the Baja peninsula. That means a lot of wood.
"This is like wood-fired to the max because it's an all wood-fired kitchen. It's 22 feet of hearth with five different fires on it and then a huge wood-fired oven. There's no gas hookup; you wanna boil water, you gotta first build a fire," said Bayless.
The heat and smoke impart flavor, especially with the whole grilled striped bass that's butterflied and served with a choice of four sauces; but not everything is seared or roasted. There are Japanese maki rolls, containing scallion, avocado and rice, turned on their sides, then topped with brightly acidic ceviche.
"A lot of people don't realize that that part of Mexico has a lot of different international influences. About 10 percent of the population is from Asia," he said.
The oven is certainly put to good use, creating one of the best roasted chickens, served with grilled knob onions.
"When you roast a chicken in an 800 degree wood-fired oven, magic happens," said Bayless.
At the bar, there are more than 110 different expressions of mezcal, the rougher, edgier cousin to tequila, fine served neat, but even better in a cocktail.
"Little bit different flavor profile than tequila, which is cleaner, this is more rustic and more artisanal in its methods of making, but it always has that little bit of smoky element to it," he said.
So even though Chicagoans have been quite accustomed to Rick Bayless' regional Mexican cooking over the years - at places like Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco - the food at Lena Brava is quite a departure, and it'll have you thinking about Baja in a different way.
EXTRA COURSE: Rick Bayless' other new concept - Cruz Blanca, which is next door emphasizes beers and taco
900 W. Randolph St., Chicago
904 W. Randolph St., Chicago