Sometimes restaurants get it right. And sometimes they get it right with attitude. To hit that perfecta twice would seem almost impossible, but that's just what the owners of A Toda Madre have done.
Since perennial and incessant admirers of Geneva gem Bien Trucha keep flocking to the far West suburban eatery (I know people who drive 60 miles to eat there), the owners decided to open a sister restaurant right next door. A Toda Madre expands on the Mexican small plates concept, but in a more sophisticated way.
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A Toda Madre416 W State St., Geneva, (630) 845-3015, facebook.com/pages/atodamadre
Cuisine: Modern Mexican, small plates
Setting: Long, narrow storefront that seats about 40
Entrees: $6 to $24
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
While Bien Trucha serves lunch and never takes reservations, A Toda Madre (slang for "totally awesome") opens only for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and only takes reservations.
The restaurant holds about 40 seats, lining a deep, narrow storefront that splits with a level upstairs that features a single six-top, and a handful of bar seats overlooking a busy kitchen.
Downstairs, patrons and a hostess walk on bamboo floors, the latter clutching an iPad with a seating chart revealing that although they might make it look easy, this operation is no blind luck sort of thing.
Along the front windows that look out on Route 38 handblown glass ornaments hang from the ceiling each with a real cactus inside. The interest above continues with several bulbs decorated with various non-lamp shade things (like an oversized, upside-down basket) lighting breakfast bar-type seating in the middle of the room. Tables are close, creating an intimate feeling.
The sound of some serious cocktail shaking comes from the bar. Just as at Bien Trucha, these drinks, like the Greengaga: a wide, short glass filled with mescal, cactus juice and a whole, floating serrano pepper, or the black salt-crusted rim of La Paloma Negra, with tequila and mole bitters, are expertly crafted. Craft beers and a handful of mostly Spanish reds and whites (with a few bottles of Chilean and Californian wines in the mix) round out the drinks program.
Fresh oysters (Kumamoto and Bras d'Or on the night we visited) at $3 a pop, but so necessary, especially with a lime-Tabasco maggi sauce, have a way of righting everything that may be wrong in the world, not that we found anything wrong here.
Cold plates are minimalist and brilliant. A cool raw Hamachi, translucent but imbued with a fresh tamarind vinaigrette and with crisp raw radish slices to counterbalance the soft texture, rivals any served in a top Japanese restaurant. And a steak tartare, sweetened by Negra Modela and spiced just enough with serrano pepper, was superb and served alongside crunchy, handmade tortilla chips.
The hot plates have a wider range. Among about a dozen, there's a simple papas: potato cubes in cilantro-serrano aioli, but also pasta (fidilini wrapped around black bean purée and chile de arbol), corn masa (handmade sopes, piled high with brick-red pieces of braised chicharron and a zigzag of queso y crema), and probably the most time-intensive -- a complex, intense red homemade mole with shredded chicken, sat atop mini croissant halves.
There are only three "Large Format" plates -- a whole fish, a naturally raised half chicken or a grilled Slagel Farm steak -- and they each sound so spectacular, it's extremely difficult to choose.
We settled on the fish, prepared in the zarandeado style: whole, butterflied grilled sea bass (deboned), accompanied by handmade tortillas and a vinegary red cabbage slaw. It all made for pretty special tacos.
Dessert is short and sweet: Key lime ice cream with a cookie crumble or daily sorbet. When hot mini churros rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with a side of passion curd pop up on the menu, you'd be a fool not to try them.
As dinner winds down, another idea may come to you -- lunch at Bien Trucha, and dinner at A Toda Madre. If you're driving 60 miles (or even 10 miles) out to Geneva, you might as well make a weekend of it.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not review restaurants it cannot recommend.