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Red O: Affordably Elegant Mexican Cuisine With a Master's Touch

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Upscale Mexican food in Los Angeles could potentially be a hard sell, considering the ease with which excellent, authentic, and affordable can be accessed in the area. For Rick Bayless, however, the Chicago-based master chef, his arrival in Los Angeles as a consultant for Red O was more like a long-awaited response to fanatics' clamor. With a hype poised to usurp the buzz of the town's last big out-of-town chef partnership restaurant (that would be Batali and Silverton's Mozza, 2006) Red O opened late last month, and as they've been dishing out the first few weeks of elegantly affordable Mexican dishes, there is already talk of a second location.

Red O from the outside looks like a resort fortress with a bouncer. Actually, there seem to always be two or three bouncer-types who guard the imposing door, and they will check their clipboards to make sure you are on the list. While you might be outside gawking at the criss-crossed magnificence of the iron work on the interior (it's mean to evoke a wrapped gift, designer Gulla Jonsdottir of G+ Design explained to us) or peeking in at the chic beach-paradise that awaits you, the three doorsmen of the apocalypse are quite possibly--and unfortunately--one of the biggest turn-offs Red O has going on.

But if you're on the list--or manage to convince them you're okay to head in to sit at the bar or the large communal table in the bar area sans reservations--you're about to set foot into what is quite possibly the most beautiful contemporary restaurant in Los Angeles.

You'll want to include a few minutes pre-menu perusal to take inventory of the space. It is an interior that remains constantly surprising, because each direction you turn gives you something new and interesting to discover visually. This is accomplished, however, without being obtrusive or jarring--in fact, the sensibility is that of a luxurious seaside vacation spot. Much as in such a location, it is the subtle touches that elevate the space and the experience, from the open roof with retractable panels to the heated stone floor and the quirky, curved Tequila tunnel.

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The Red O menu is divided into sections, many of which include smaller tapas-style dishes conducive to sharing. In fact, as we did on both visits to Red O, sharing all the dishes is an excellent way to taste the surprisingly broad range of flavors, spices, and ingredients used by head chef Michael Brown, as guided by Bayless. Bayless rose to fame much like how he brought Mexican cuisine to fame; Bayless and his food, particularly in his hometown of Chicago, have come to symbolize a new way of thinking about traditional Mexican cuisine.

This returns us to the "hard sell" because Mexican food is not only ubiquitous here, but for many, so profoundly personal. Many Angelenos have a series of family dishes that are prepared regularly, and with love and the power of ritual, and many of us who may not have Mexian heritage may have also long cultivated our own sense of what "good" Mexican food is, whether it be as comfort fare or a wild celebration of dazzling flavors encountered in the food of particular region.

An example of this is mole, a dark, sweet, earthy, smoky sauce that changes character from chili to chili as employed, and, naturally, from chef to chef. By no means an expert on mole, though I've eaten a fair share of it over the years, the Red O mole, as we sampled it on juicy chicken, was as complex as it should be, with multiple musky, heated notes of spice, though on the sweeter side of the spectrum.

The numerous sauces used really showcase the beauty of Mexican cooking, and punctuate many of the already-delicious dishes with an added bolt of flavor. This is true for the sopes, which sit on a shimmery puddle of megawatt-level spiced sauce. The sopes are one of the standout bites; we sample the pork belly as well as the plantain, and came out preferring the plantain, thanks to the caramelization of the sweet bits of plantain. On par with the sopes are the ceviche dishes, including a tangy, hearty one made with mushrooms served on a plantain chip, and the tangy fish served on a cool, thin triangle of jicama.

Another standout dish from the rest of the menu include the Steak & Heirloom Tomato Salad with watermelon, red guajillo chile dressing, wood-grilled scallions, and grilled Creekstone skirt steak, though I would want to come back to taste this again at the peak of the tomato season, since the tomatoes are a bit too pale and meek right now to properly balance the bold flavors of the grilled meat and the sweetness of the watermelon. A dish such as this salad really typifies the contemporary approach to the cuisine Red O is taking, making room for new techniques (the watermelon is compressed to enhance the flavor) to shaking up the humdrum expectation of a "meat salad" by presenting it with bold colors and flavors, with an emphasis on seasonality. (As an aside, however, the addition of a handful of cliche California greens, like frisee or arugula, to most of the dishes seems like a goofy nod to the location, and more often than not, a move that does nothing to add to the dish but to make it, well...prettier.)

Of the entrees, in addition to the mole, the two favorites, both of which I tried on both visits, were the Cochinita Pibil (tortilla-fed, Gleason Ranch suckling pig, achiote-marinated & slow-roasted in banana leaves, served with black beans, pickled red onions, and roasted habanero salsa) and the Crab & Shrimp Enchiladas Suizas (with creamy roasted tomatillo sauce, served with freshly-made corn tortillas, melted Sonoma Jack, black beans, and ensaladita). The Pibil is sour-sweet and velvet-soft, and when folded into a tortilla and drizzled with the salsa, a heavenly bite. The Enchiladas illustrate the simple beauty of fresh, well-seasoned seafood, bedded within a tortilla and coated--but not drowned by--with melted swiss cheese and tomatillo sauce.

If you've saved room for dessert, the goat cheese cheese cake with sasparilla (like root beer) sauce is divine. For imbibers, the drinks program at Red O is admittedly immature right now, though will likely be addressed soon, we're told. The Topolo Margarita is the undisputed top dog of an otherwise lackluster selection of cocktails, including a timid Sangria (tastes like Kool-Aid) and a Melon-Cucumber margarita. The downfall of both of the latter are how they are served: In a wine glass, with too much ice. Hard to drink (hello, wall of ice smacking your face!) without a straw, hard to find a place to stick the straw if you get one, and eventually, unless you have a powerful thirst and eschew sipping your pricey cocktail, it's just too watery.

For Tequila aficionados, the selection is on the "outsider" side. Outsider in the sense that the selections don't reflect L.A.'s proximity to the world's foremost producers of tequila. We were treated to a flight of four tequilas (Oro Azul Tequila Blanco: Highlands, Aged Less Than 6 Weeks; Corralejo Reposado Tequila: From Guanajato, Aged for 6 Months; Don Julio Añejo Tequila: Highlands, Aged for 2 Years; Jose Cuervo Reserva De La Familia Extra Añejo: Highlands, Aged For 3 Years) which illustrated a progression of flavors based on the aging process. The older, the smoother, and more whiskey-like in experience. As I sipped, I couldn't help but think of the revelatory tastes of tequila I'd had at the hands of Jon Sedlar at his Rivera in Downtown, and how much I preferred those sips to the sips of Red O.

One of my dining companions on my first visit was Javier Cabral, of Teenage Glutster, who has, thanks to his turning 21, rapidly acquainted himself with the art of tequila drinking, and explains the Red O tequila issue:

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.
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Perhaps the tequila program, along with their cocktails overall, will grow in time, as well--an endeavor I would happily raise my glass to.My two meals at Red O contrasted somewhat in experience, as the first meal was a hosted dinner for which we sat in the main dining area with a reservation, and lingered as the sky went from evening bright to nighttime dark through the open panels above us, and our servers were omnipresent and attentive.

The server on my second visit was similarly effusive (possibly because there were some recognizable faces at the table), though as the meal progressed, less attentive (we had to walk our bill to someone, practically begging it be taken off our hands), and sans reservation, I had to face the "door guy" and insist I was joining a group in the bar area. Both times, however, the food was consistent and enjoyable, with far more high notes than low, the space inviting (once you get inside!) and dynamic, and the price reasonable (from snacks to large entrees, the range is $8-$30).

So "bienvenido" to Los Angeles, Chef Bayless! Our appetite for affordable, elegant Mexican cuisine thanks you for the "gift" of Red O.