Friday, June 11, 2010

Red O: Is it all an illusion?

“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.

Red O
8155 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046-7016
(323) 655-5009


weezermonkey said...

So awesome! I'm going to have to wait a year or something before I can get in. :P

Anna A. said...

Lamb cazuelas?! I could hate you TALF! ;) BTW, what kind of leaf is that on the chimichurri ceviche? Good, good stuff!

Nomsnotbombs said...

I feel like the whole Red O as somehow Rick Bayless' is an illusion unto itself. He isn't an owner and won't regularly be in the kitchen; he came up with the menu. Now there's some good marketing for ya.

Jenn said...

Sweet!!! Another place I have to try out. My list just keeps growing and growing.

mattatouille said...

Interesting. Hard to see how the shrimp and crab enchilada disappointed since I thought it was easily the best dish we had that night. Could be a consistency issue. Your reviews certainly read like a food critic's!

mattatouille said...

Nomsnotbombs - Have you tried the food? If you think about it, his involvement isn't necessarily different than Mario Batali's at Mozza (though that kitchen does have Nancy Silverton there almost every night), yet no one faults him for that. Rick Bayless was there for the first week or so and should be stopping by regularly. He was working the kitchen (not the floor) on the night we were there and seemed to be a bit worn out. I'm not sure it necessarily bodes well that he doesn't have skin in the game. Who knows where Red O will be in 2-3 years, but it's worth checking out for now.

Nomsnotbombs said...

@Mattatouille- I'd like to try it but not really because of the Bayless connection; the crab enchilda idea hooked me :) I wasn't criticizing him at all--just the hype surrounding the idea of "Rick Bayless' Red O" when it obviously wasn't his intention for the restaurant to be his per se.

Diana said...

Weez - They have a really nice bar/lounge area -- you could always just pop in and eat there!

Anna - It's a decorative leaf. Chic, no? ;)

Jenn - It's a fun spot - definitely an experience!

Matt - I remember reading raves about the crab and shrimp enchilidas which may have contributed to my disappointment. It could very well be a consistency issue. It seems strange that my least favorite dish of the night would be a universal favorite on the night you went.

Misty - It's hard to say just how much of a hand Rick has in Red O, but it doesn't necessarily bother me if his role is more of a silent one. I wasn't really expecting him to take on the same involvement as with his Chicago restaurants. I actually think it would be great if someone out here stepped in and gave Red O a bit of their own twist - much like Nancy has put her twist on Mozza with her mozzarella bar and epic crust at P Mozza as Matt said. But I get what you are saying - the Rick Bayless name certainly was what had me all hot and bothered about Red O. I'm normally not that excited about dining at Mexican restaurants.

mattatouille said...

Diana, I would recommend that you try some really good Mexican food in parts of the city that may be a little bit far, but are worth traveling to. That way you could have a context to your commentary on the food at Red O. La Casita Mexicana is a good place to start, but from there I would consult Javier or Bill (especially their blogs). I also recommend trying Rick's food in Chicago. I thought very highly of my experience at Xoco.

Nomsnotbombs: One thing is clear - Bayless is in the kitchen. Maybe not every day, but at least periodically. Also, all the kitchen staff was trained for three weeks at his Chicago-based restaurants. If something offered you a lot of money to lend your name and training to a restaurant, it would be hard not to take. The shrimp and crab enchilada was excellent when we were there - very fresh shrimp (perfectly cooked and flavorful), sweet tender crabmeat and addictive creamy green tomatillo sauce. Seems hard to mess up to me but hey I wasn't at Diana's table. In the least I think the restaurant is worth a try, and I'd go on a slow night to ensure a better experience. The service staff seems a bit overworked, I think.

mattatouille said...

Ok, upon investigating your photo of the shrimp/crab enchilada, it looks like it has a lot more cheese and less sauce than the photo on Javier's blog (which is the sample I ate). Just an observation.

Nomsnotbombs said...

Rawr, I hope that they work out the kinks and get a yummy crab and shrimp enchilada when I go!

Kung Food Panda said...

While I'm probably not gonna visit Red O anytime soon, I'll be eating at Frontera Grill in 3 weeks! :)