Chicago diners will certainly recall the sadness we felt at the closing of Mexique in May 2018. After 10 years, the fantastic Mexican-French fusion restaurant that earned Chef Carlos Gaytan a Michelin star (in 2013) abruptly closed and left his fans yearning for a return.
That time is now – with the recent opening of Tzuco at 720 N. State Street (the space formerly occupied by Roy’s).
Tzuco brings back Chef Gaytan’s inventive fusion of French and Mexican and – in my humble opinion – this one is even better than Mexique. The name of the restaurant is short for Chef Gaytan’s birth city of Huitzuco and is derived from the Nahuatl huixochin, meaning “plants with abundant thorns”.
“Tzuco is a dream come true,” said Gaytan, who spent the last 18 months exploring his roots in Mexico – deeply reawakening the connections between his heritage and culinary vision.
“This menu is a reflection of my homeland and my continued evolution as both a chef and a person. I am truly hopeful that our guests will come away having experienced Mexican cuisine in a way that they never before imagined.”
Chef Gaytan has assembled a world-class team to make Tzuco a special endeavor. Joining the kitchen is Chef de Cuisine Andrew Kim (avec, The Dearborn, Acadia, Takashi).
He has also brought in an internationally-lauded staff that includes a pastry and bread team mentored by Pastry Chef Jesús Escalera, heralded as Latin America’s Best Pastry Chef in 2018 by San Pellegrino’s list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
It also includes international spirits talent Mica Rousseau, named Mexico’s finest mixologist in 2016 after placing first in World Class Mexico.
My first visit to Tzuco was for an opening party during which they had removed nearly all of the tables and chairs. This gave a rare chance to truly appreciate the décor in a different way. The effect for me was rather like entering a stunningly curated exhibition in a natural history museum.
The dining room includes floor-to-ceiling, clear glass boxes framed by indigenous wood. In each box you will find preserved materials from Chef Gaytan’s homeland – thorn bushes, terra cotta fabric, corn silks and husks, woven fabrics.
Everything tells a story of the land surrounding Huitzuco in Mexico. The color palette of taupe and chocolate tones represents the relationship among earth, land, and sea transporting the diner to a poetic kind of place and creating a warm, inviting atmosphere for long, leisurely meals with friends.
As with the amazing team behind the food and drink, Chef Gaytan engaged world-class international design firms to create the unique interior. Making their North American debut with this stunning design are two Mexico City firms – Cadena + Asociados Concept Design and custom pieces by ATRA Form Furniture.
The star of any restaurant, of course, is the food – and Tzuco does not disappoint in either food or beverage programs. The craft cocktails are all well-curated and contain Mexican flair. The wine list, although not extensive, is superbly arranged and has some of the few Mexican wines I have ever seen on a wine list in Chicago.
Mexico is one of the world’s most exciting New World wine regions and it is thrilling to finally see some fine Mexican wine options appearing on a menu in Chicago.
As for the food, my biggest recommendation is to come hungry – very hungry. The portion sizes, even on the smaller shared plates, are generous and the entrée portions are enough on their own for a full meal.
My guest and I shared several small plates and each ordered an entrée. We were both starving when we arrived, but ended up taking home half of each entrée in order to leave room for at least a few bites of dessert.
Chef Gaytan excels not only in flavor combinations, but also in the use of texture and color in his preparations. A meal at Tzuco feels like an artistic experience on every level.
Here are my personal recommendations based on my recent visit:
- Ceviche Verde (Cobia, cured fresh cactus, cucumber, cactus sorbet, serrano pepper, mint, cactus aguachile): The Serrano pepper added a bit of heat to this and at first I thought it would be too much for my heat-averse palate. The surprise was the addition of cactus sorbet. The cool, slight sweetness of the sorbet was a perfect offset to the heat of the pepper. This is one of the best ceviche preparations I have had in recent memory. The flavors made me think of summer at the beach – not a bad memory on a cold autumn night.
- Pulpo Enamorado (Octopus, carrots, peas, potatoes, roasted garlic aioli, dill): Here again I felt the heat of the spices on the octopus might overpower things for me, but the lovely medley of carrots, peas, and potatoes added a beautiful series of flavors to the octopus. The preparation of the meat is also worth a mention – tender and juicy with not a hint of toughness (something that can ruin octopus preparation).
- Steak Tartar (Pickled cauliflower, guacamole, perfect egg, chipotle aioli, bread): My guest is a huge fan of steak tartar and has eaten quite literally hundreds of different preparations over the years. She declared that this was the best she had ever had. That is not hyperbole because I agree completely. There is something special about the flavor combinations. The egg was actually perfect – truth in advertising there. Both of us also decided that we could eat an entire loaf of the superb, home-made bread. Overall, this was the best of everything we sampled during the meal.
- Beets Salad (Roasted beets, brie cheese fondue, radishes, toasted almonds): Such a simple preparation and look, but the overall effect was somehow special. The star of this is the Brie cheese fondue. If you are a beet fan, this is a “must try” on the menu.
- Trucha (Smoked corn husks, trout, tomato- almond pesto): The trout is cooked and served in smoked corn husks. Not only does this give a beautiful, rustic look to the plate, but it also helps the trout retain moisture. I am sure the use of the word “perfect” in this post has already exceeded accepted style manuals, but there’s really not a better word to describe how well the trout was cooked.
- Tomahawk (Tomahawk, oven-roasted tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, goat cheese fondue): Where’s the beef? Right here! If you are a fan of beef then save room for this entrée. The tomahawk is thickly sliced and served with a tasty goat cheese fondue. The tomatoes and potatoes are good, but the focus here is on the meat, and it was done absolutely as we requested – on the rare side of medium rare.
- Guanabana/Aguacate (Tapioca infused with citrus, guanabana sorbet, aguacate foam): If you save room for dessert, try this one. It’s the lightest of the dessert options and something unique. The citrus-infused tapioca adds the little pop of flavor, the guanabana sorbet gives coolness and a bit of a tang, and the avocado foam serves almost like a sauce to bring it all together. Sweet, tart, and savory all create a fun marriage of both texture and flavor without ending the meal with something too heavy.
Here’s one insider suggestion. Ask your server if they have any of the “Tortilla Liqueur.” Yes – you read that correctly. Tortilla Liqueur. I loved it, although the flavor (and aroma) are definitely unusual. If nothing else, you will have never tried anything like it.
Tzuco is open for dinner seven days per week from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Reservations are available by calling (312) 874-8995 or via Resy. Metered street parking is available in the neighborhood, as well as onsite valet.
Panango, Chef Gaytan’s second concept, recently opened adjacent to Tzuco. Derived from pan (bread), the fast-casual/grab-and-go concept is rooted in the Mexican tradition of artisan bread-making.
Tales of Carlos Gaytan, slated to open November 2019, reveals an intimate, 12-seat chef tasting room, presenting an even more elevated opportunity to experience the Mexican-French haute cuisine for which Chef Gaytan has been extolled.
Further details will be announced soon.