Give the man full credit. When Rick Bayless decided to break out of his comfort zone, he went all the way. The Chicago-based chef traveled 1,700 miles west to Los Angeles, landing in West Hollywood. That's where he went to design the signature Mexican cuisine served at Red O restaurant, which opened in late May.
He's an absentee chef by design. “I'll have all the fun of creating and continually evolving the menu and the tequila program, but then I'll get to leave the overall management of the restaurant to the Red O team,” Bayless told a Chicago newspaper.
Few chefs have a comfort zone as well-constructed as the one Bayless had before the Red O (short for Red Onion) venture came along. His signature restaurants, Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, share the same kitchen in Chicago. His new fast casual torta outlet, Xoco, is located in the storefront immediately next door. He's got six cookbooks, a string of Mexico One Plate At A Time shows on PBS, a dandy product line that's earned shelf space in supermarkets across the country and, most recently, was the big winner on the first season of Top Chef Masters. Why risk upsetting this beautifully balanced career now?
We're hoping the answer is that Bayless just wanted some new challenges, because he wound up with two doozies in the space of a week in late May. First came the White House state dinner honoring Mexican president Felipe Calderon. You try serving your signature restaurant fare — dishes usually fired to order one at a time — to 200 dinner guests all at once, working out of an unfamiliar White House kitchen that, we learned from a Bayless tweet, is surprisingly small.
A few days later, a quick flight west brought Bayless out to Los Angeles for the opening of Red O. In addition to the usual challenges of any restaurant opening, this one had an extra degree of difficulty. In Chicago, the well-traveled Bayless is the reigning guru of authentic Mexican cuisine. In L.A., many of his customers may know as much or more about this type of food as he does.
So it's no wonder Red O is careful to describe its offerings as authentic modern Mexican and “lighter, California-style” dishes. Signature items include Albondigas al Chipotle with Beef & Pork Meatballs, Smoky Chipotle Tomato Sauce, Caramelized Onions and Yukon Gold Potatoes ($12.50); Chilpachole, a seafood broth with Shrimp, Scallops, Mussels, Roasted Potatoes and Chayote ($24); Pork Belly Sopes with Black Beans, Salsa Negra and Sesame ($8); and La Espanola Cured Chorizo Tacos al Carbon ($15.50).
There's a good range of dishes and price points, too. Patrons can go with simple tacos and enchiladas, or select something pricier from the “Mexico's Celebrated Seven” section of the menu. It offers items such as a green chile-marinated Creekstone Natural rib-eye ($29) or achiote-marinated Gleason Ranch suckling pig ($26).
But no matter what customers order, they'll be sitting in a dramatic space when they eat it. The dining room is handsome, but it's the atrium area that's getting people talking. When weather allows, Red O lifts its handsome garage-style doors (made with bronze-tinted glass) so one side of the restaurant is open to the street. If it's less clement, the doors come down, the retractable roof is closed and heated floors keep customers comfortable.
Another key design feature is Red O's all-glass tequila tunnel, through which guests pass on their way from the dining room to the restaurant's Tequila Lounge. We're not quite so sure about the pair of black leather swings that grace the main bar area, so we'll leave their evaluation to the design experts.
Because Red O has zero parking, arriving guests are greeted by a fedora-wearing valet attendant, and then have to convince a clipboard-toting bouncer-type at the door that they have a reservation. This practice might be a turnoff back in Chicago, but lends a desirable club-like vibe that works in L.A.
The current dinner-only schedule is keeping Red O executive chef Michael Brown busy for now, but he and Bayless should have the kitchen whipped into shape when lunch and brunch service start later this year. In the meantime, L.A. diners are showing what happens when a chef famous for cooking a cuisine they consider their own comes to town and sets up shop: They're all over it.