It was high noon on a sunny but brisk Newport Beach day. The Bentleys gleamed in the valet lot. I was first to arrive. Then Dave Lieberman in a sport coat. Then Gustavo Arellano. We'd agreed to eat at Red O together, the second outpost of Rick Bayless' controversial restaurant, which debuted last month in Fashion Island. The controversy came nearly four years ago, when Bayless—in anticipation of Red O's opening in LA—said in interviews he was intrigued "how the true flavors of Mexico" would play in Southern California. To some, the careless statement sounded ignorant to our area's ready stock of regional Mexican food specialists; to others, it was downright insulting. During a talk at a fund-raiser, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Gold poked fun at it. Provoked, an angry Bayless bit back in what became known in the annals of food-blogging history as the Gold and Bayless Food Fight of 2010.
Which brings us to now, when Gustavo, who attended that fund-raiser and wrote the blog post that sparked the Gold vs. Bayless spat, was joined by your humble scribe and Dave, a man who spends nearly every other weekend eating and drinking in Mexico for our award-winning, online Tijuana Sí! column. We came with open minds, as well as elevated expectations. Bayless, after all, won the only season of Top Chef Masters anyone actually watched, is a prolific cookbook author and presides over one of the most successful restaurant empires in Chicago. Even his most ardent detractors, especially Weekly contributor and food blogger Bill Esparza, will concede that the man is "an outstanding chef."
In the lobby, a room surrounded by tequila bottles, I asked Dave for his thoughts on one particular bottle with what looked like a plain, hand-typed label. "That's $10 tequila in a $20 bottle," Dave huffed. Most of the money spent on that brand went to getting George Clooney's endorsement, he said. When I looked up, I saw that more than half of the tequilas covering the wall bore the same identical, mass-printed labels, all with the famous actor's signature. How apropos to Red O, I thought. Bayless' name, like Clooney's, was here because someone paid for it. The restaurant is, at best, a consulting gig for Bayless.
Red O, 143 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 718-0300; www.redorestaurant.com. Open Sun.-Tues. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Lunch for two, $50-$100, food only. Full bar.
Marveling at the arches and the intricately tiled walls in the soaring dining room, Gustavo remarked that the design looked "Mediterranean meets Chapman University"; it's more Moorish than Mexican, he observed. Meanwhile, Dave came back from surveying the bar's tequila selection. "It's a good list," he said, "especially for Orange County."
As we drank in the scene, Gustavo noticed the music wasn't Mexican either. It was the Colombian salsa of Joe Arroyo. Though he's an Arroyo fan, Gustavo quipped, "Why are high-end Mexican restaurants so ashamed of accordions and tubas?"
Once we were seated, chips came out in a ceramic vessel, and with it salsas Dave thought were a bit salty and Gustavo deemed "whatever." We asked our server, a Latina who spoke with a Valley Girl accent, for something hotter. She brought a habanero blend that we agreed was better, although too lemony. The guacamole sampler was served on an elaborate curved metal contraption; half of the plantain chips deposited below it were already stale. While they were decent guacamoles, they all tasted the same. If it weren't for the soggy shishito pepper on top of the yuzu guacamole, it would've been indistinguishable from the one made with lime.
We shared some well-fried, stretchy-cheese-oozing empanadas mislabeled as quesadillas. But Gustavo questioned why a man who touts Mexican authenticity would use Sonoma Jack instead of quesillo. Meanwhile, Dave sulked that the server left the rest of his margarita sitting in its ice-filled shaker. "That's not going to get any stronger the longer it sits," he grumbled.
Upon tasting the aguachile, Gustavo shook his head. "Aguachile is supposed to electrify the tongue; this is a ceviche!" he said.
"No, it's a tiradito! And it's not good," Dave added.
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Both of them liked the short rib sopes more than I did. I found the hors d'oeuvre-sized masa cups filled with braised beef ropy and dry.
Later, Gustavo groused at the torta he ordered, with bread more suited to media noche than bolillo. It was pressed flat into a pseudo-panini and came with salad that would be pointless to anyone except the white-haired ladies who lunched around us. The lamb chops that the waitress told us won Bayless the Top Chef Masters title were underseasoned and came with mole negro that tasted more like mole poblano to Gustavo. I winced as I ate the bitter sauce. "Is it supposed to taste like it was made with spent coffee grounds?" I asked Gustavo.
As we left, I posed to my companions the inevitable question: Javier's, or Red O? Red O, they replied, adding they shouldn't have had to make the comparison. "This was supposed to be the place," Gustavo noted, "where the savior of Mexican cuisine finally brought its 'true flavors' to Southern California!" And as we went on to better Mexican food in the evening, we all agreed: Back to Chicago with you, Rick.