Cascabel:  a small, round Mexican chile pepper.
Cascabel:  A gourmet Mexican feast with wine, beer, circus, flamenco, comedy, live music and love story performed on a Chicago stage starring Chef Rick Bayless.

N and I were recently in Chicago and snagged one of the hottest tickets in town to see “Cascabel” at the Lookinglass Theater.  Rick Bayless is the co-creator and star of this one-of-a-kind sensory dining experience. He doesn’t actually cook for the 100+ guests, but he does a bit of acting and a small amount of dancing towards the end. I have watched Rick Bayless’s cooking shows since before the Food Network began, and as a fan I was curious to experience his latest creative attempt… and hopefully his mole.

The base story in the show is one of an unhappy woman, brooding over a long-lost love as a new suitor woos her. She refuses all food that the chef in her boarding house has worked tirelessly to make. Can he prepare something that will pique her curiosity and lure her out of her melancholy? As the supporting stories unfold they incorporate some stunning acrobatics and dare I say… magic? One character performs a risqué hand balancing act from a bathtub after sampling the chef’s cooking. Another manages to change clothes while walking a high wire. My favorite was the gasp-inducing, seductive, and spectacularly athletic routine of the last two characters… in essence an acrobatic pas de deux on a stripper pole.

photos by Sean Williams

And what of the food you ask? I shall tell. There is a single menu for everyone with no substitutions, but since you’re in Rick Bayless’s skilled hands, there really is no cause for concern. We were greeted at the door and ushered to a long community table, designed to look like a courtyard table joined to a Mexican boardinghouse. The chef was already on stage, in character, and was preparing a meal. Audience chatter bubbled noisily around him as each guest was served a margarita dusted with ground cascabel chile. Qué apropiado! On each end of the table were galvanized tubs holding several [fancy, still and sparkling] waters and beer and at each setting was a mysterious dish enclosed in a banana leaf and pinned shut with a toothpick and a note that “Patience is a virtue. Do not open.” More on that later… after all, patience is a virtue.  ; )

A series of small bites were offered to guests. There was no real description of the food we ate, which was a little frustrating, though no less delectable. Happily, guests received a thank you email following the show which detailed the entire menu. Here are the bites as listed in the email:
“All-Green Guacamole and Crab”  Green pea guacamole with Bayless garden hoja santa and mint, Alaskan king crab, pumpkin seed crunch, peashoot
“Eggs Benedict”  Sweet corn sphere, “hollandaise” (saffron, heavy cream, house-made crema), smoked paprika
“Smoked Salmon and Caviar”  Apricot “salmon” lámina, kaffir-lemongrass coconut crema, red chile apricot bits, black garlic and squid ink “caviar”
“Burnt Toast”  Crispy pork belly in salsa negra glaze (mulato and morita chiles, garlic, piloncillo), huitlacoche toast

The lights dimmed after the last tapas were served and the show began. The maître d’ character orchestrated the consuming of each dish from the stage and the audience happily obeyed his first directions to open, inhale and savor the mystery plate in front of us. We were served the same dish that the characters on stage ate. It was a delight to consume the food and listen to commentary and description as we savored it. The first course was a “Ceviche de Salmón en Maracuya”: Lime-marinated salmon, jicama, and cucumber, limey avocado, coconut-passion fruit tapioca ceviche which was topped with an orange passion fruit habanero gelée veil, and enclosed in a banana leaf surrounded with popcorn. The popcorn on my plate was finished well before I was instructed to dig in. Patience is clearly not chief among my virtues.

The main entrée was “Lomo de Res en Mole Poblano”: Grilled beef tenderloin in traditional Mole Poblano (mulato and pasilla chiles, almonds, peanuts, and 16 other ingredients), braised black kale, avocado leaf-black bean tamale with toasted sesame salt. This is the dish that I’d been waiting to try, and Chef Bayless’s legendary mole did not disappoint. Complex, nutty, spicy, velvety… it was everything, everything I thought it would be.

photo by Sean Williams
The sweet finale was “Oaxacan Chocolate Cake”: Chocolate cake, orange cinnamon ganache, blood orange buttercream, blood orange mousse, obleas. *sigh*

photo by Sean Williams

Cascabel is a very sexy show and its magic lies in environmental immersion. It is designed to stimulate all the senses. The sincere and rowdy ovation was well-deserved by both the performers and by the kitchen staff who trooped out to the stage to bask in the adulation. We the audience were entertained, we were impressed and we were sated.