“You wanna go to Red O for dinner tonight?”
It’s the kind of text that inspires whooping, jumping up and down and spastic arm motions. Of course, I wanted to go to Red O that night! I’d been dying to go to Red O! Could I be any hungrier for chips and salsa and overpriced chunky guacamole that I could make myself for under $2, but don’t care because it’s Red O and Red O can do no wrong?
I don’t hesitate to accept my dear friend’s last minute invitation. I leap out of my immobile position on the couch and charge toward my dress closet to find something suitable to wear to Rick Bayless’ newly opened contemporary Mexican restaurant on Melrose Avenue. The hotter-than-a-habenero-chili spot demands that I transform myself from couch slouch to unblemished fashionista in less than 30 minutes. It’s a daunting task, but I’m up to the challenge. An opportunity like this is not to be missed.
Rick Bayless! Rick, Top Chef Master, Bayless!
In the beginning, it seems that the elusive Red O will live up to the hype and its impossible to crack reservations system. The architecture, setting and décor is stunning – the design firm, G+ Gulla Jonsdottir Design, has created a space that is decidedly un-LA. With a glass of M. Chapoutier Belleruche Cotes du Rhone Rosé in hand, I feel like I’m on vacation – a boon for a gal who has been staycationing it since 2008. If I blur my eyes I can almost see a pool or resort beach through the translucent curtained windows...
But when I look again, look more closely, the bright yellow Improv Comedy Club sign across the street stares back.
The ambiance, like the menu, is somewhat of an illusion. It looks like Vegas or Miami or a showy 5-star hotel lounge, but in reality, it’s still located in LA. Similarly, while everything on the menu sounds incomparably delicious courtesy of wordy descriptions like “Golden Corn Masa Bites with Shredded Creekstone Beef Short Rib with roasted tomatillo-green chili sauce,” in reality, it’s still simply gussied-up Mexican food. In this case, corn masa pockets stuffed with the ubiquitous beef short rib. Tasty, yes, but not necessarily what I’m expecting from such a buzz-worthy restaurant.
My party of six will make our way through ten different dishes during our two hour stay in the dining paradise. Two orders of the Classic Guacamole with warm chips and salsa ($9) are gone in the nonexistent flash of a food blogger’s digital camera. The fresh chips are seasoned for salt-lovers -- a favorable preparation for the salt fiends at my table. Paired with the salsa verde that accompanies the guacamole, they are a dangerous commodity – the type of snack that ruins appetites, competes with dinner and eradicates all self-control.
When I reach my limit on chips (i.e. banish them to the other side of the table), two orders of ceviche are there to fill the void. While the Mazatlan Blue Shrimp with mango, red onion, chipotle chiles, and plantain chips ($15) is a favorite of our server’s, we all favor the more balanced Alaskan Halibut with cilantro-serrano “chimichirri,” cucumber and avocado ($15). The shrimp ceviche needs a bit more kick to counteract the sweetness of the mango. A desire for more heat will be a reoccurring theme throughout the evening.
We follow the ceviche with the aforementioned Short Rib Sopes and the Queso Fundido with melted Vella Sonoma jack cheese, homemade chorizo sausage, and roasted poblano chiles ($10) that is meant to be scooped up with the restaurant’s homemade tortillas. It’s essentially a do-it-yourself quesadilla that is predictably satisfying given the different varieties of fat involved in the dish.
More fresh tortillas appear with the Chicken in Crema Poblano Cazuelas with roasted poblano peppers, bloomsdale spinach, caramelized onions, thick crema, yucca ($14), and the Sonoma County Lamb in Chile Colorado Cazuelas with ancho and guajillo chiles, roasted garlic, cumin, black beans ($14). The chicken cazuelas are understated, seemingly content to let the cream do the talking. I enjoy the chunks of al dente yucca, but am quickly distracted by the more robust flavor of the lamb cazuelas. The supple shreds of meat arrest my tongue, delivering the knock-out punch I was anticipating from all the restaurant’s offerings. It is by far my favorite dish of the evening.
For our final savory plate, we order the Crab and Shrimp Enchiladas Suizas with creamy roasted tomatillo sauce, fresh-made corn tortillas, melted Sonoma Jack, black beans, ensaladita ($20). After the wonderful crab and shrimp enchilidas I enjoyed at Javier’s in Newport Coast last year, I have high hopes for Red O’s version. Sadly, my hopes are disappointed. The shrimp enchilada I sample is essentially a few pieces of shrimp rolled up in a tortilla that has been smothered with cheese. Fine for an average Mexican restaurant that doesn’t require reservations, but not necessarily apropos for a dining oasis like Red O.
To counter the savory flavors lingering on our palates, we opt to end things on a sweet note with the Creamy Goat Cheese Cheesecake with caramel corn and Mexican “root beer” sauce ($8.), and the Pecan Pie Bars with pretzel crust, Kahlúa whipped cream and chocolate sauce ($8). The four mini goat cheese cheesecakes are delightful in presentation and delightful in execution. I love the creativity and “fun factor” – the caramel corn is the perfect flavor and textural counterpoint to the savory goat cheese. The pecan pie bars are less inspiring and don’t quite live up to their description as pecan pie bars. Perhaps a solid hit for unequivocal chocolate lovers, but the sweetness of the whipped cream combined with the brownie-esque bars is a bit cloying for my tastes.
While I most likely won’t be leaping, whooping and flailing my arms about at subsequent Red O invitations, my overall impression of the charmed restaurant is still favorable. The experience of playing unblemished fashionita in such an unblemished, fashionable space is one that I’d eagerly have again. I can certainly see myself sipping Rosé, eating my weight in chips and salsa verde, and massacring some lamb cazuelas when I can find another moment to sneak away from my real life. Because even if the grandeur of most of the dishes is an illusion, it’s hard to escape reality in a city like LA. Which I suppose is why we needed Rick Bayless to blaze in from Chicago to teach us how to do it.
8155 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046-7016