Haute Reservation: Rick Bayless’ Red O

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Red O interior by Skott Snider

The first thing you notice about Red O is the décor—it practically demands your attention. As envisioned by designer Gulla Jonsdottir (a former associate of Dodd Mitchell), the dining and bar interiors juggle tradition and modernity, celebration and intrigue with a dance of textures and colors, and continually emerging surprises, such as the swinging chairs and daybed in the main bar, retracting ceiling and walls of the patio room, Moorish ottomans and one-carved-piece wood bar in the lounge past the Tequila tunnel.

Of course, that’s after you get past Red O’s door host, who only lets in a very limited number without reservations. The outlet of Chicago’s Mexican cuisine superstar (and Top Chef Masters winner) Rick Bayless has been booked solid months out since the moment it opened. Saying you’ve eaten here in its opening weeks makes a statement, and that statement is “I’m passionate about good food, and I want everyone to know it.”

Red O interior by Skott Snider

But for all its starchef pedigree, Red O is not a formal dining experience. The rooms are bustling, with several communal tables and the Executive Chef Michael Brown (Pinot, 5 Dudley, Opaline, Vert) is in back getting the food out, not touching tables and shaking hands.

The menu is divided into six sections for multiple approaches, from light antojitos to multi-course degustations, and offering vegetarian selections as well as nicely varied seafood, fish, poultry and meats. Options for cazuelas (meats from which you make your own tacos) include Mazatlan blue shrimp, grilled chicken, beef and pork albondigas, a four roasted mushroom melange, and Sonora lamb. Calling on the traditions of several regions, the Celebrated Seven entrees pay respects to Mexico’s most treasured recipes. Tinga Poblana for example offers Gleason Ranch pork shoulder and belly cuts as well as housemade chorizo in a smoky broth.

Red O's Chilpachole. Photo: Andrew McCaughn

Those familiar with the Mexican-inspired cooking of chefs like Susan Feniger & Mary Sue Milliken, and Scott Linquist, may not necessarily feel their world view being knocked off its axis here, but the preparations are certainly equally informed and inspired. More than anything, it is the freshness and quality of the ingredients that distinguish Red O’s food. The seafood Chilpachole, an almost-Boulliabaise stew of Mazatlan shrimp, buttery Viking Village scallops, Carlsbad mussels and catfish with chipotle, epazote and chayote, tasted like it just came out of the sea, and was cooked with love.

They offer over 75 tequilas as well as a selection of clever cocktails inspired by Loteria cards, and a nicely selected wine list. When they expand onto the planned outdoor patio, expect this to be the scene of all scenes.

Red O Restaurant is located at 8155 Melrose Avenue, 323.655.5009

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