Two years ago, when Rick Bayless devoted the entire eighth season of his PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time to the syncretic food of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, someone should've guessed that his long-gestating, closely guarded plan for Randolph Street—something he promised would be completely new to Chicago—would be somehow related.
Well, here it is: Leña Brava is the chef's love letter to the seafood-dominant riches of Baja, with its inherent Mediterranean and Asian influences, cooked in the crucible of three wood-burning fires at the back of a busy, clamorous room. The alluring aromas of the "ferocious wood," as the name translates, permeate the restaurant, particularly the second-floor bar, and even the restrooms, where you might feel as if you've wandered among the fading embers of a forest fire.
Under chefs Lisa and Fred Despres, dishes treated by those flames take up the second half of the menu, but its first page, titled "Ice," is dominated by raw seafood, aguachiles, ceviches, cocteles, and other dishes cooked, so to speak, in acid and served cold with a brilliant kaleidoscope of flavors, colors, and textures.
This is where Baja's confluence of Mexican and Asian influences becomes most apparent. Uni, served atop a refined brunoise of grilled cactus paddle, sea beans, tomato, and olives and sprinkled with toasted sesame, is a creamy, surprisingly mild counterpoint to its briny garnish. Slabs of rosy, pearlescent opah bathe in a pool of cool lime, spiked with habanero and lemongrass, scattered with sweet, bubble- gummy Asian pear dice, and dotted with deposits of garlicky chive oil. These aren't the dainty, fussy plates chefs try to pass off as crudo these days. They're surprisingly meaty slices of fish treated with extraordinarily vivid flavors, like tiles of pink yellowtail offset by a plate painted with a sweet and sour sauce of guajillo chile and hibiscus flower, garnished with a mango relish. Worlds collide with a makimono of ceviche, avocado, and jalapeño, moist with Peruvian leche de tigre. Even a classic Mexican coctele of shrimp and octopus in mildly sweet sauce gets a hit of wasabi-scented jicama.
Fruits and vegetables sometimes feature prominently among this section of the menu. Avocado, coconut, hearts of palm, and pineapple all take center plate, the latter grilled and mounted atop dollops of goat cheese from Indiana's Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, with a hazelnut-based salsa macha to approximate something like a 70s-era hors d'oeuvre as done south of the border.
The "Fire" side of the menu contains a whole other cohort of compelling dishes that require significant tolerance for dithering to settle on. Gingery shrimp albondigas feature ground crustaceans and pork shoulder with a tight but almost absorbent texture in a chipotle-laced tomato sauce that glances toward Italy. Fat salty scallops mounted over mashed plantains are smeared with a sweet pasilla-almond salsa macha and tufts of shimmering bonito flakes. Chunks of grilled swordfish swim in red chile rice, sticky with black garlic and enriched with crema and avocado in a cast-iron skillet, straddling the border between paella and risotto. Raw yellowtail, blue cod, shrimp, and spring vegetables arrive in an otherwise empty bowl until cooked to the ideal texture by a pour-over of steaming pasilla broth that renders the bowl something like a delicate, noodleless ramen.
There are a number of appealing sides to augment these dishes: roasted eggplant and shiitakes in salsa negra, sprinkled with goat cheese, could serve easily as a meat substitute. Soft, buttery plantains are slathered in cream and house-made fresh cheese. Ruddy kale wrestles with roasted poblanos and caramelized onions in a roasted garlic mojo.
Difficult as it may be to choose among these fascinating dishes, it's critical to reserve digestive real estate for one of the whole striped bass, butterflied and grilled in one of four regional Mexican styles, shareable among two to three people. I chose the Yucatecan style, seasoned with brick-red achiote and roasted garlic, and served flayed on banana leaf with pickled red onions and a tiny but painfully active habanero salsa, mitigated by the hedge of crispy greens with which the beast is garnished. Fresh, tender tortillas arrive in waves as you eat. You can construct a taco. You can pick out the cheek meat. You can assemble the perfect bite of crispy charred skin and moist white flesh with just a dab of the incendiary salsa. If you're like me, you'll do all three, over and over, trying to capture the moment as many times as you can, picking bones out of your teeth while preparing the next forkful, amazed each time that this magnificent creature has arrived in our freshwater port in such impeccable condition. You won't stop till the carcass is bare.
Leña Brava's desserts, by Suzanne Imaz, are every bit as imaginative as its savory plates. A zesty yuzu cheesecake is so of the moment with local roasted strawberries and rhubarb that I already yearn for high summer's version. A free-form pistachio tres leches cake with dabs of lime curd and pistachio crema is offset by a sweet, tart raspberry sorbet. The roasted plantains and toasted cashews and coconut of a banana split take their turn through the oven before being piled on smoked vanilla, chocolate, and cajeta ice creams. Chile-laced chocolate sesame bars with mezcal-spiked custard conjure a deluxe Whatchamacallit.
Speaking of mezcal, which is having its moment right now, the list at Leña Brava is overwhelmingly broad, broken down by some 20 agave varietals. One could easily drown in the depth and variety of this group of spirits. Initial tastes feel like the first tiptoeing explorations into a country whose character would take a lifetime to comprehend, so it's a pleasure to listen to expertly trained staff expound on the production process. Among them is general manager and Bayless progeny Lanie Bayless, whose command of the 20 small- production, light-bodied Baja wines is striking. Beer is limited to Bayless's Tocayo Hominy White Ale. For more you'll have to go next door to Cruz Blanca, the sister cervecería/taqueria.
The volume and frenetic tempo of the music in a Bayless establishment usually inspires a canine pace of eating, and Leña Brava is no different. It joins Roister and Duck Duck Goat in forming a trio of new, boisterous, and impossibly crowded celebrity-driven restaurants. The fact that they're located within spitting distance of one another means it's getting harder than ever to choose a party in the Fulton Market District. v