8155 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Rick Bayless finally comes to California at the brand new Red O(nion), though only as a consultant rather than a chef-owner. Chef Bayless is well known for his contemporary Mexican cuisine and is a veritable institution in Chicago where he owns three restaurants: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and the new Xoco. During his 20+ years in Chicago, Chef Bayless has established himself as one of the premier Mexican chefs in the country. Before running his own restaurants, Chef Bayless hosted a PBS television series and studied extensively in Mexico and served as executive chef at Lopez in Cleveland which remains one of the best Mexican restaurants in the area.
Interestingly, though Chef Bayless has been received numerous awards, including James Beard Chef of the Year in 1995 he only seemed to achieve celebrity chef status recently when it was learned that Topolobampo was one of the Obamas' favorite restaurants. Winning Top Chef Masters shortly after didn't hurt either.
Red O is located on Melrose just off restaurant row in the former home of Moustache Cafe. The exterior has a distinctive metalwork grate and the main entrance has a clubby feel with two intimidating doormen checking reservations. The door opens into an airy dining area that one of my companions said had a very "Miami" feel to it. In the back is a small bar and a handful more tables with more of a lounge feel to it. A tequila bar is connected to the restaurant by a "tequila" tunnel where the walls are embedded with dozens of bottles. The overall effect is a restaurant that feels contemporary and comfortable at the same time.
Market Margarita - Fresh cucumber & honeydew melon muddled with agave nectar. Arette blanco tequila, lemon & lime juice. Served on the rocks
This drink looked promising but the citrus and tequila took precedence over the subtle cucumber and melon resulting in a fairly one dimensional margarita. The drink was enjoyable but a lot of the detail was lost in the bluntness.
Mojito Mexicano - muddled mint, cilantro, serrano chile, lime & agave nectar. Arette blanco tequila shaken & served on the rocks
It was good to see Kevin getting back to his roots with the classic mojito. Though I hoped to see the interplay of the chile and cilantro, this proved to be a sweeter preparation.
Classic Guacamole - freshly made, chunky with warm chips & salsa
While we were waiting for everyone to arrive we ordered a helping of the house made guacamole. The freshness is evident in the sweet creamy body, the crisp bite of the onions, and the tinge of citrus pervading the dip. The sun-dried tomatoes were a particularly nice touch, adding a welcome zest to the mix. Probably the second best preparation of guacamole after Oyamel's.
Grilled Mazatlan Blue Shrimp Tostaditas - roasted garlic mojo, avocado with fresh jícama "chips"
A nice light starter, the shrimp itself has a light brininess that lends itself well to the roasted garlic. The jicama was a critical addition giving the dish a light succulent snap.
Woodland Mushrooms Ceviche - grilled knob onion, sun-dried tomato, serrano chile
I wasn't sure what to expect from a mushroom ceviche, but it certainly wasn't the explosive mix of acidity and spice that I got. The brash flavor combination was tempered by a subtle earthy undertone from the mushroom though the heat from the serrano's lingers on the palate long afterward.
Alaskan Halibut Ceviche - cilantro-serrano "chimichurri", cucumber, avocado
After the bold flavor of the previous two appetizers my first bite of the halibut ceviche tasted literally like nothing at all. After my palate adjusted I noticed a distinct vegetal essence from the cucumber. Surprisingly the ceviche had none of the typical acidity nor did it have the deeper flavors of the Ceviche "el Bajio" I had at Oyamel.
Shredded Creekstone Beef Short Rib Sopes - roasted tomato-green chile sauce
First up was a Sopes of shredded beef. The bed is made of corn masa (corn treated with slaked lime or lye) and had a texture reminiscent of a fried tortilla. The simple fried sapor was just strong enough to be apparent against the rich stew-like beef.
Vinho Verde, Twin Vines, Jose Maria da Fonseca, Portugal, 2008
Kevin wanted a sparkler for our white, but we ended up selecting a Vinho Verde instead. The wine proved to be a solid pair with the lighter appetizers. Incredibly lively and vivacious, the subtle effervescence compliments the wine's bright acid and citrus notes.
Grenache, Tintara, McLaren Vale, Australia, 2006
The red took on a drastically different style from the white, incredibly deep and rich, the wine almost overwhelms the palate with ripe jammy fruit. Perhaps a touch sweet, but very easy drinking.
Gleason Ranch Pork Belly Sopes - black beans, salsa negra, sesame
Noticeably richer than the shredded beef the sauce had a smoky-sweet barbecue with a deft finish of spice. The richness of the belly was apparent throughout the dish though I would have liked clearer textural differences between the fat and lean meat of the belly.
Slow-Cooked Sonoma Duck Taquitos - tomato-árbol chile sauce, arugula
Without a doubt, the best taquitos I've ever eaten. The stuffing was redolent with the rich sapor of roast duck complimented by the sweet woody essence of the tomato-árbol broth. The key to the whole dish was the arugula which cut through the acid and fat with a clean refreshing bitterness.
Chicken Tamale - herby Oaxacan yellow mole, banana leaf
What stood out here was the interplay of the sweet ground corn and the smoky herbed mole. The denseness of the savory sweet mixture was mitigated effectively by the sharp tang of the pickled onions.
Homemade Chorizo Sausage Queso Fundido - roasted poblano chiles
The dense melted cheese had a pleasing heft to it and a mildness that lent itself well to the accompanying flavors. The chorizo was quite subtle, a nice change from the typical in-your-face flavor, adding a spicy meaty undertone but not overwhelming the bitterness of the roasted peppers and chiles.
Sonoma County Lamb in Chile Colorado - ancho & guajillo chiles, roasted garlic, cumin black beans
Though I enjoyed the flavor of the chiles and roasted garlic, I thought the seasoning overpowered the natural flavor of the meat, obliterating any trace of the lamb's characteristic gaminess.
Achiote-Marinated Catfish Tacos al Carbon - roasted poblano rajas, bacon-flavored charro beans, grilled knob onions, salsas
I made the mistake of mixing everything together without trying the catfish on its own first. The amalgam had a mouth filling smokiness courtesy of the beans and a complimentary bitterness from the roasted poblano but the fish itself was completely invisible.
Pollo en Mole Poblano - grilled Mary's young chicken, homemade mole poblano, black beans, watercress salad
I'm not normally a fan of mole but this was remarkably subtle and in tune with the dish, the classic interplay between the sweet, smoky, and spicy complimented the chicken without overwhelming it. The chicken itself was marked by a powerful char courtesy of a lovely flame grilling. The texture was a bit uneven, tender and succulent on the inside but a touch dry towards the edges.
Cochinita Pibil - tortilla-fed Gleason Ranch suckling pig, achiote-marinated & slow-cooked in banana leaves, black beans, pickled red onions, roasted habanero salsa
I absolutely loved the pork at Rivera so ordering this was an easy call. The meat was appropriately tender, breaking apart easily with just a fork but it lacked the oily lushness of Rivera's preparation. Though the leaner cut of pork made it easier to appreciate the deep smoky character of the achiote marinade.
Tinga Poblana - braised Gleason Ranch pork shoulder & belly, homemade chorizo, roasted tomatoes, smoked chipotle, Yukon gold potatoes, avocado, queso fresco
After a series of heavy one-dimensional entrees, the Tinga was a welcome change. The shoulder meat had the perfect amount of fat lending the lean meat a moistness and savory unctuousness superb when eaten with the sauce which added a slow growing heat that lingered on the palate. Where the meat was clearly the focus of the earlier courses the chunks of Yukon gold potato imbued with a sour kick from the roasted tomatoes added a fantastic contrast to the richness of the meat.
Creamy Goat Cheese Cheesecake - caramel corn, Mexican "root beer" sauce
This dessert also doubles nicely as a fromage course with a readily apparent gaminess from the goat cheese, tinged with a trace of blue cheese essence. The richness of the cheese paired seamlessly with the savory-sweet caramel corn. On the finish, the herbal sweetness of the "root beer" sauce and buttery flavor of the crust come to the fore and help to ground the dessert.
Golden and Crispy Empenadas - with wild strawberries & mango, mojito sorbet
This might be my first experience with sweet empanadas. The sweetness of the flaky pastry really highlighted the liveliness of the fruit, very much akin to a good fruit tart. The dessert would have been too simple were it not for the sorbet which did an excellent job capturing the verdance of its namesake cocktail.
Veracruz-Style Buñuelos - with salted caramel ice cream, warm Kahlúa chocolate sauce
A cinammon-sugar puffed pastry similar to a cross between a donut and a churro how could this be anything but delicious. Delicious on its own or with the caramel ice cream and chocolate sauce which were natural pairings for the Buñuelos.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Red O, that it was opening night made the achievement all the more impressive. For the most part the food was flavorful and well executed. Though some of the later courses bogged the meal down with their monolithicity, this was more due to the style of the food rather than a lapse on the part of the kitchen. Given that Chef Bayless is just consulting on the restaurant it will be interesting to see if the kitchen can maintain the same level of quality over the long term.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
8155 Melrose Avenue