There are some restaurants that elicit strong reactions in me before I ever step through the door. Red O in West Hollywood is one of those restaurants. There are plenty of reasons I’ve wanted to try the restaurant: alluring pictures of the interior designed by Gulla Jonsdottir of L.A.-based G + Design, Mexican food is among my favorite cuisines and I’m always curious to see how my favorite dishes can be reinterpreted and elevated in a fine dining scene, and of course, Chef Rick Bayless. I’ll leave it to LAT critic SIV to tell you why consulting chef Bayless is such a draw:
“If you’re unfamiliar with Bayless, suffice it to say that he’s the best Mexican cuisine chef in the country, a favorite of President Obama’s, invited to cook at the White House for the president of Mexico the week before Red O opened. Bayless, winner of Bravo’s ‘Top Chef Masters,’ has three über-successful Chicago restaurants: Topolobampo, Frontera Grill and the new Xoco, plus his own PBS show. And, I almost forgot, he’s the author of seven cookbooks and an obsessive Twitterer.”
Wow. Quite the introduction. On the other hand, Rick Bayless, specifically his big mouth, is the reason I’ve avoided the restaurant until now. Bayless said in an interview before opening the restaurant that he was “intrigued… how the true flavors of Mexico, from central and southern Mexico, would play in Southern California” and implies that Mexican food in SoCal is not real Mexican food. While he comes off as full of hubris and ignorant of the wonderful Mexican offerings in LA, it was when he started to lash out at LA Weekly food critic/guru Jonathan Gold instead of backpedaling that I started to lose interest in him. Just when it seemed the drama had died down, Bayless did it again:
“People think differently about Mexican food in Los Angeles. People in Chicago are open to a wide variety of dishes. They are a bit more timid in L.A. — I think it’s because there’s such a tradition of California-Mexican food. In Chicago (because of the more recent waves of immigration), food is from one region of Mexico or another, and it’s not very Americanized. In Chicago, mole dishes are in every Mexican restaurant. Even ceviches. But once people eat the food at Red O, they get really excited about it.”
Ok, so Chef Bayless really does think he’s introducing authentic Mexican cooking to Los Angeles. Insulting for sure, but it meant that I really needed to see for myself if there’s something he knows about mole that Guelaguetza, Monte Alban, Gish Bac don’t. With the much-maligned door man at Red O long gone and some cocktail additions to the menu, it was finally time to see if Bayless could back up his bold words.
As all great nights do, the night started with a round of cocktails. The best margarita on the menu was the Alacran, made with Sauza Conmemorativo tequila, Veev Acai spirit, Torres orange liqueur, fresh limonada, and serrano infused syrup to add some heat to the mix. I had a fine Manhattan with Knob Creek bourbon, Antica Carpano vermouth, and grapefruit bitters, but my favorite drink of the night was something mixologist Steven Calabro was still working on: a Mexican Tequila Manhattan. Calabro mentioned to me that he had made one for Chef Bayless earlier in the night and it was Bayless-approved. I batted my eyes, hoping he’d offer to make me one as well. It was quite good, so hopefully it will make it on the next cocktail menu.
Calabro also made me a sample of the controversial $100 margarita. Yes, it’s clearly a gimmick. But I respect Calabro for taking the challenge to make a $100 margarita seriously. He could have just made a normal margarita, thrown some gold on it, and some people would still order it just because it’s $100. Instead, the 1% margarita is crafted with care: Three tequilas (Gran Patrón Burdeos, Partida Elegante, and Herradura Selección Suprema) are joined with Grand Marnier Cent Cinquantenaire and Louis XIII Cognac. Frozen lime sorbet replaces ice cubes as to prevent dilution as you nurse the drink. The drink is normally only offered on weekends, so my weekday visit meant that there was no blood orange “caviar” available. I did get the gold and kosher salt rim, however. The drink was complex and interesting, but I’m a purist – why try to improve upon a $75 shot of tequila? It was an interesting experiment, but I’d take the Alacran over the $100 margarita anyday.
As for the food, it beat my expectations but nothing surprised or amazed me. The corn goat cheese tamales were flavorful, the sopes were beautifully plated, the shortrib meatballs had that pleasant as-advertised smokiness – there were no real complaints. If it wasn’t for the inclusion of Chef Bayless’s name and his loose tongue, I would have approached Red O as another see and be seen Melrose restaurant that hired a solid chef to do good but pricey food. Instead, it appears to be trying to compete with places like Rivera, something that it just isn’t ready for (I had actually just eaten at the wonderful Rivera the prior evening). The food is better than Red O’s detractors admit, and I’m already looking forward to my next visit: a walk through the tequila vault, inviting some friends to take over the Tequila Lounge, and sipping on a tequila margarita and some bar bites. And churros. Plus, Red O really is a fun place to see and be seen. During my visit, my table noticed snowboarder Shaun White, Jenna Ushkowitz from Glee with some actor from the Vampire Diaries, comedian/host Howie Mandel, and the night’s most polarizing star: Chef Rick Bayless himself!
8155 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Note: This meal was hosted