If you didn’t read the headline, and only looked at the picture above, you might think - based on the floor-to-ceiling sheer curtains, ornate chandeliers and soaring palms - that the dining room you see is at The Delano in South Beach. If you saw a picture of the bar without any explanation, you might be thinking it’s an über-hip watering hole in New York’s Meatpacking District:
Yet both images are from superstar/celeb chef and Mexican majordomo Rick Bayless’ first restaurant project outside of Chicago - Red O - in Los Angeles. After watching my Badgers suffer a heartbreaking loss at the Rose Bowl last weekend, I had some time on Sunday - before taking the redeye home late that night - to grab dinner at the West Hollywood location.
I kept thinking about the similarities and differences, as I made my way through the night. I realize this restaurant is more of a consulting project than it is a full-time job for Bayless. His name is at the bottom of the menu, afterall - making a brief cameo - so I know that this isn’t necessarily supposed to be a Frontera spinoff. In Chicago, of course, we’ve all become familiar with the 400 block of North Clark Street that Bayless’ empire has slowly taken over the past 20 years. But as you approach Red O, you drive by swanky, low-slung Melrose Avenue boutiques, an ivy-covered Fred Segal store and countless sushi bars. As we rolled up at 6 p.m., I half-expected to see the usual Hot Doug’s-like line out front, snaking down the street, just as it does by 5 p.m. each day in front of Frontera. But there wasn’t, thanks in part to the fact they take reservations. The spacious bar provides plenty of places to sit and hangout, just in case your table isn’t ready, including a love seat sort of “swing” off to the side of the bar. I was also struck by the massive communal table, which is great for entertaining a large group of eager eaters:
Of course, all of this atmosphere is a clear departure from the mothership’s decor scheme. In Chicago, one of the things I’ve always loved about Frontera is the casual vibe and comforting surroundings. Even after 20 years, not every guest is familiar with authentic, regional Mexican flavors, and so Frontera (and Topolobampo and Xoco, to some extent) have become ambassadors of the cuisine. The menu is, of course, the document that diners get to read and dissect and ask questions about, but the ambiance also serves a purpose: transporting you into Bayless’ world of cultural and culinary exploration. You know the folk art on the walls has been sourced by Rick and/or his wife, Deann; there are those colorful plates, the whimsical characters on the menu and the soundtrack is always trying to transport you to some region of Mexico. Next door, at Topolo, the chargers and glasses are fancier, the lighting is even more intimate and the servers speak as if they’ve just returned from an eating trip to Veracruz (they probably have, Bayless takes his entire staff to Mexico every July).
In Los Angeles, it’s a different ballgame. The food is, not surprisingly, spot-on. Tortilla soup has a deep, earthy flavor, but it’s gussied up as it’s poured tableside from an all-white mini-pitcher over a haystack of thinly-fried tortilla strips:
There are the Frontera signatures of sustainably-sourced ceviches and mini sopes filled with savory ingredients - although they, too, are served on narrow, white plates - more akin to NoMI than N. Clark St. The guacamole was as good and chunky as anything I’ve had in River North, but it too, was served in a sterile, white china bowl that hovered above another white plate carrying the salty, crunchy chips, rather than an earthy cazuela or stony, pockmarked molcajete. Our table loved the delicate corn and goat cheese tamales, laced with roasted poblanos, and I could have cared less how it was presented. It reminded me of the well-made snacks I’ve had at Frontera Fresco and it was summarily polished off in a matter of minutes:
With the South Beach-like decor and the more elegant (some would say minimalist) plating, it’s no surprise the soundtrack is also more modern, leaning closer to Daft Punk techno rather than Gypsy Kings acoustic guitar. Service was extremely competent, and while the entire staff doesn’t get to visit Mexico like the Chicago gang does, our server knew the dishes and ingredients as well as anyone, and could confidently explain nuances to members of our table not as well-versed in the art of mole. He did intimate that Red O could become another brand, spinning off siblings in other cities, much like Colicchio has done with Craft or Matsuhisa has done with Nobu. No doubt they’ll do well, as long as the kitchens stay consistent, but it would be a shame if fans of regional Mexican cuisine only became acquainted with Rick Bayless through the swanky lens of those Red O designers. As much as I like sexy, I also love the simple honesty of the man’s original vision; getting a chance to step into another country I’ve hardly been to, and being transported - temporarily at least - as I walk through those doors at 445 N. Clark Street.