It finally came, the highly anticipated L.A expedition of the Mexican-cuisine Top Chef Master himself--is here.
Red O: Mexican Cuisine By Rick Bayless
I'm not going to lie that I almost did a back flip when I received an invitation to eat here. I remember one a many Saturdays when I wouldn't go out just to catch Mexico: One Plate At A Time, his show on PBS. His passion for Mexican food culture seemed so genuine, so ardent. And the way he strived to recreate regional dishes himself as traditional as he can was truly inspiring. I learned stuff about my culture's food that I didn't even know about.
I remember I would try to cook up what I saw on his show on a daily basis at times, the only food show that has ever made me do that.
Although I heard that its technically not his restaurant and he will not really be cooking there, his name is on it and he did consult with the menu. Well, better than nothing. The actual executive chef is Michael Brown, a veteran from Wolfgang Puck catering and the Patina group.
With a web like metal facade, the unique looking building catches your attention. It was designed by Gulla Jonsdottir, a respected architect who was in the team responsible for The Getty Center. She wanted it to look like it was 'wrapped' kinda like a present.
I'd never seen this before at a restaurant but there was a bouncer type guy in front making sure no unreserved shmoozers got through. Pretty harsh I thought, but could only imagine the hotness of the seats inside.
Suave Resort-esque Ambiance
Inside, the place is pretty nice. Lit mostly by natural light, the main dining area looks like an indoor patio but with long chandeliers that drop in from the retractable roof. There is a bar on the side with seats and a pair of beach resort style swings. And of course, there is the "Tequila Tunnel" that takes you to a ritzy Tequila lounge that is built around real tree.
Yup, A Tequila Tunnel
I was rather surprised by the menu, it was not the signature Southern Yucatan slanted Bayless specials that he is known for back in his restaurants in Chicago. Instead, the menu highlighted his contemporary radical approach to more Northern and Central style Masa-based Antojitos dishes, things like braised duck Taquitos and pork belly topped Sopes. Only seven renditions of Mexico's traditional dishes are available, he calls these "Mexico's Celebrated Seven" and they are the more pricier options. Overall, the rest of the menu is pretty affordable actually.
Just A Couple Of Cocktails: Mexican Mojito & A Tamarind Re-Fashioned
We started off with some mixed drinks. Matt opted for the Tamarind Re-Fashioned, a Don Julio Añejo Tequila based drink with Luxardo Cherries, orange bitters and tamarind syrup + soda. It ended up being too sweet for its own good, got a little better--but flatter--as the ice melted. I settled for the Mexican Mojito, a lighter cocktail that used the swanky Arrete Blanco Tequila mixed in with the popular Serrano + Cilantro + Agave preparation with a little mint. Again, that dang ice doing its thing. Watery. After voicing my concern, I was told that the cocktails are still "a work in progress".
Topolo Margarita: Served Straight Up
The best drink ended up being Bayless's signature Topolo Margarita that everyone else on the table ended up getting. It consisted simply of the Conmemorativo Sauza Tequila, a decent low- note Tequila that works fine when mixed. Along with Gran Torres Orange Liqueur and fresh Limonada it was clean and smooth.
Guacamole: Fresh, Tasty, Fail Proof
Some food was ordered for us. First up was the essential classic of Guacamole served with thin, warm tortilla chips. Guacamole is one of those minimalist dishes that almost can't be messed up, especially if the ingredients used are exemplary like here. Props for choosing to fly in Aguacates from Michoacan, this variety has an unparalleled creaminess with a neutral taste. Not like local ones that often times imparts an unwanted semi-rancid/light anise flavor when used to make Guacamole.
Pacific Sole Ceviche: Not Your Everyday Ceviche
With sun-dried tomatoes, Manzanilla olives, serrano chiles, and jícama. This was not your basic Mexican Ceviche, not to say that was a bad thing when the opt in ingredients make as much as sense as the traditional. Firm to the bite, the bland jicama crunch was a pleasant one against the acidity of the small pieces of olives.
Goat Cheese, Tomatillo, Arugula & Wild-Caught Salmon On Grilled Baguette 'Tostada': Why Not?
Its hard not to like any combination of tangy Tomatillo with some sort of creamy agent, its just one of those food matches in life that cause swoon no matter what. And a beautiful fish too, with its different hues of crimson flesh. Peppery Arugula was the final touch. Of course, the La Brea Bakery designer Baguette was chosen for this.
Woodland Mushrooms, Grilled Knob Onion, Sun-Dried Tomato, Serrano Chile
I was fascinated to see this on the menu. A ceviche made out of mushrooms is not that nouveau in the Central-Southern parts of Mexico. I once had some after spending a long, brazen day walking climbing the pyramids of Teotihuacan after our Taxi driver took us to a nearby town to eat. The version here is served on tasty sweet plantain chips which added a nice touch, we just couldn't get over the acidity of this ceviche. It tasted of that artificial "Limon 7" lime flavored salt Mexican candy, I didn't mind it as much as everyone else did though. But I basically snorted it back then.
Flight Of The Red O Tequilas: This is L.A, Not Chicago
It was around this time that we finally received a flight of Tequila that I had requested. Although Tequila is not the most ideal drink to be had with food, I wanted to see what they would serve us. My appreciation of Tequila has recently been growing fast since I started hanging out with a certain Tequilero recently.
The chosen flight was:
(From Left To Right)
Oro Azul Tequila Blanco:
Highlands, Aged Less Than 6 Weeks, Somewhat Vanilla Notes,
Corralejo Reposado Tequila:
From Guanajato, Aged for 6 Months, Peppery
Don Julio Añejo Tequila
Highlands, Aged for 2 Years, Ripe Apples, Whiskey Like
Jose Cuervo Reserva De La Familia Extra Añejo
Highlands, Aged For 3 Years, Cognac-Like, Smooth
I will not try to front and romanticize about each one of these, my tequila knowledge--and wallet, ha ha-- is not of that much experience yet. But I will tell you that with the exception of the pleasant Whiskey-like añejos, most of these were kind of harsh. Harsher and not as clear tasting as other Blanco's and Reposado's I've been having lately. It seemed like most of these Tequilas are under the Diageo, a British multi national corporate company who has bought a lot of independent Tequila companies lately, including Don Julio and Jose Cuervo. It seems as if no real consultation for the Tequila list was made upon opening up in Los Angeles since many of great locally distributed Tequilas that are around every other Mexican food restaurant...were not found here.
Now, back to the food!
Gleason Ranch Pork Belly, Black Beans, Salsa Negra, Sesame: Sopes
I've had one a many Sopes in my life, but never with pork belly! Sopes are usually a special occasion food in my family, a church fair food favorite too. Its basically fried corn masa that is formed into a little fluted platter of sorts, then topped with usually a smear of beans, meat, crispy garnish and a dry cheese.
Here it was black beans, and the crispy thing was pork belly that was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. With that black mole like Salsa Negra, Ay Guey! Me chupaba los dedos! Good quality, white corn masa too.
Slow-Cooked Sonoma Duck, Tomato-Arbol Chile Sauce, Arugula: Taquitos
It would not be a Mexican American restaurant without Taquitos, some moist duck was the filling of choice. The tomato-Arbol Chile sauce had a stunning color and nice viscosity, all the better to coat the crispy Taquitos with. Peppery Arugula was a way better garnish than the usual shredded iceberg lettuce.
Sweeet Tamal With Tomatillo Salsa and Crema: Classic
The subtly sweet tamal was not too different from the ones you find in the roaming Tamaleros in the wee hours of East L.A mornings. Not as moist as homemade ones but not too dry and inedible as some. Again, you can't go wrong with anything topped with cream and tomatillo.
Sonoma Jack Cheese Queso Fundido: On A Cazuela
Props earned for serving stuff on cast iron cazuelas. First of all, really adds a home-y and rustic feel when eating off from them. Second, I swear that some Mexican food made on cast iron just tastes better somehow. This queso fundido was topped with a Sofrito type guiso, with only tomatoes, garlic and onion with a little cilantro. Simple, tasty and all the better to scoop up with the soft, steaming handmade tortillas.
Tortillas: The Foundation Of It All
It would not be a true Mexican meal be without Tortillas. And these...well there were not the best ones in town. Tasting vaguely handmade, as they were on the flatter--machine made--side. Also, not as toasty as I would of liked them, a little bready and underdone. But, alas they did the job way better than any other machine made ones.
Steak & Heirloom Tomato Salad: [compressed]watermelon, red guajillo chile dressing, wood-grilled scallions, grilled Creekstone skirt steak, [añejo] cheese
I don't know where the Mexican inspiration for this dish came from and didn't care too much for it. Think it was made to appeal to those who can't bear the guilt of eating anything less than a "salad". Quality of beef was good and nice funk to that aged crumbly Queso Añejo that was sprinkled through out.
Crab & Shrimp Enchiladas Suizas: creamy roasted tomatillo sauce, freshly-made corn tortillas, melted Sonoma Jack, black beans, ensaladita
Being a straight-up beaner, I was excited to finally see some jet black ones on the plate that were perfectly al dente and smeary to boot. This dish was easily, the tables favorite of the night. Comfort food in its zesty and wholesome finest with the folded and seafood stuffed soft tortillas. And really generous with that wonderful zippy yet creamy sauce of roasted Tomatillo and creamy cheese melted in the sauce too.
Albondigas al Chipolte: beef & pork meatballs, smoky chipotle roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, Yukon Gold potatoes«
I've never had Albondigas in this Italian meatball style presentation, its usually a Mexican stew with lotsa veggies. Albeit, I didn't mind these, they were not as tender as you would expect and the potatoes were a bit mealy. The tomato-based, smoky chipotle sauce and caramelized onions were this dish's saving grace.
Cochinita Pibil: Tortilla-Fed, Gleason Ranch suckling pig, achiote-marinated & slow-roasted in banana leaves, black beans, pickled red onions, roasted habanero salsa
The first the signature Yucatan fangled Bayless dish that he is known for of the night finally. The pork was pulled apart and re-formed into rectangular cubes for a more stunning appearance. It was pretty tender--probably because the pig knew what's up and only ate tortillas!--but that was it. Very one dimensional and lacking in those stronger trademark exotic flavors of Yucatan Mexican cooking. Pickled red onions were bright and much appreciated though.
Sonoma County Lamb: Ancho & Guajillo chiles, roasted garlic, cumin, in Chile Colorado, black bean
Red O's take on the Mexican classic of Birria I'm guessing, the quality of the lamb was the first thing I noticed. More on the friendlier "beefy" taste spectrum than actual lamb gaminess. The chile broth was smooth with very nice viscosity that adhered to the fork-tender meat generously. And you can't go wrong with adding fried onion to anything, here it elevated the dish with its Funyun taste.
Pollo en Mole Poblano: grilled Mary’s young chicken, homemade mole poblano, black beans, watercress salad
The moment we had all been waiting is here. I am no stranger to Mole Poblano, all my old punk band members were from puebla, not to mention all the surrounding poblano party animals neighbors in my complex! This means that almost every other weekend there will be a bowl of steaming hot, painstakingly made Mole from either the Tepeaca, Tepaclasco or Cholula region right at my doorstep. Neil of Food Marathon and Kat of Eater can attest to this as last time they happened to be around and taste the Tepeaca one...
And it was not that bad here. Super smooth in its medium body texture and...rather spicy surprisingly! But with great spice, comes great sweetness. As it was quite sweet too. The grilled chicken was charred and succulent with a high quality clean poultry taste . By this time in the meal, I learned to appreciate the fresh greens that came in almost every plate. The watercress here enlivened the dish and kept you going for more.
It was finally time for desserts.
Golden and Crispy Empenadas: wild strawberries & mango, mojito sorbet
These 'Empanadas' were basically the Mexican Pan Dulce known as Ojaldras (puff pastries) with fresh and ripe fruit. These were light and tasty. But the best and most refreshing part was the Mojito sorbet.
Veracruz-Style Buñuelos: Salted cajeta ice cream, warm Kahlúa chocolate sauce
Only being used to the northern style paper thin, crispy Buñuelos that my mom pumps out by the hundreds every Christmas. I had trouble grasping the concept of these Sopaipilla-type donut things that the waiter poured hot chocolate sauce all over. A bit heavy. The best part was the salted caramel ice cream.
Creamy Goat Cheese Cheesecake: caramel corn, Mexican "root beer" sauce
Last but definitely not least, my favorite part of this meal probably. These were ethereally velvety and rich without being cloyingly sweet. And of course....that unique goat-yness flavor that is loved by few and hated by many. Its' a slightly gamy flavor...of fresh pastures and blossoming alfalfa sprouts. It seemed to be atop a Mexican cookie crumb crust--I think. And that single caramel popcorn kernel brought it all together with its sweet and salty crunch. The lush green "root beer" sauce tasted exactly like what it was called, lightly anise like at that.
And now for the low-light, out of focus, paparrazzi shot of Rick Bayless:
He came out briefly during the dessert course to say what's up to the table. The only time I saw him come out out the whole evening. He seemed winded and out of voice, I was buzzed and star struck. But it was now or never, so I poured my heart out to him from across the table and told him thank you for making Mexican food haute, and finally making it known in the American mainstream of food.
In conclusion, Red O is cool in my book. Acknowledging that I am coming back for classic Mexican rooted fare that is executed with lighter--arugula spiked?--flavors and rockstar meats/produce. This is not signature Rick Bayless but this is Los Angeles not Chicago, northern Sopes and Enchiladas will always prevail over southern Panuchos and Papadzules. But will the true enthusiasts score those 7:00 PM seats over the Hollywood-scenester-Rick Bayless-groupies who just want to be seen eating here?
Comments are now open...
8155 Melrose Ave
(west of Crescent Heights)
Los Angeles, CA 90046
$9 Apps. (Snacks) - $30 Entrees