Main Course: Red O

The service shines at Rick Bayless’ O.C. outpost. The food, not so much.

Many of us are familiar with Bayless, especially food freaks like me. We’ve been eating at his Chicago restaurants, reading his cookbooks, and seeing his mustachioed grin on TV for decades. A tireless booster of authentic Mexican cuisine and a nimble self-promoter, Bayless now is out to conquer Orange County with the snazzy Red O, open since November at Fashion Island.

Given that our dining landscape is overblessed with excellent, tantalizing Mexican kitchens of every ilk, it’s no surprise the 8,500 square-foot castillo aims to impress with San Miguel de Allende-inspired splendor, right down to the soaring wall of niches displaying scores of tequilas, each bottle lighted for jewel-like sparkle. What does surprise is the flat, formulaic dining experience.

For starters, the Bayless name is everywhere—on the exterior signage, the menu, even in the waiter’s welcome. Get ready to also hear his resume recited with much allegiance, a squirm-inducing routine. This doesn’t happen in the 65-seat bar, whose pain points are noise and crowds, compounded by live music and uneven cocktails. The oversize chandeliers, carved arches, and crimson ceiling create a sultry refuge if you can sidestep the loud after-work and weekend-night drinking crowds. Topolo, a vibrant rocks margarita, and the fig-infused chupacabra are winning drinks out of a sample field of five. When the average price is about $14, the win-loss ratio should be higher.

Chips, salsa, and ceviches are de facto measuring sticks for judging a Mexican restaurant. When they’re wonderful, I eat too many and find myself less demanding of other dishes. This doesn’t happen here, though the yellow corn chips, pre-cut and ready-to-fry from Mi Rancho in San Leandro, are warm, crisp, and salty. While their supersmooth texture doesn’t thrill, it’s the accompanying red and green sauces that really disenchant. They contain multiple chiles, garlic, and tomatillo, but the flavors are squandered in runny concoctions that provide no lush, juicy bits. Of five ceviches, none of which is terribly vibrant or distinctive, the albacore with manzanilla olives and serranos is tastiest. The best of the raw seafood dishes are the squeaky-fresh oysters with habanero mignonette, and the yellowtail aquachile in a more elegant crudo-style composition that allows each ingredient to sing.

This is no abuelita’s taqueria. With 200 seats to fill in the giant palm-studded dining room, an ample menu makes sense. The massive Bayless repertoire offers something for everyone with deep pockets and a taste for Mexican fare. Despite the deluxe wood-grilled New York strip or ahi tuna, DIY soft tacos make a most satisfying lunch. Unlike dinner tacos, these are assembled by you, from a warm cazuela packed with slow-cooked short ribs in pasilla sauce. Folded into tender, house-made corn tortillas and garnished to suit, they rival your hole-in-the-wall favorites—but at double the price. Rice or black beans add $6 to your tab, and neither is memorable. That honor goes to the fresh Mexican Street Corn, sheared off the cob and dressed with salty cotija cheese and serrano-spiked crema. It’s the best $7 corn side you’ll have all week.

Service is gracious and conscientious, sometimes overly so, especially at dinner when nobody’s in a hurry. One night I fear our chatty waiter will turn our trio into a foursome. Diners don’t lack for attention in this room—just try to move about without squeezing by several white jackets. I wish some of this labor cost could be allocated to the kitchen.

Keith Stich is executive chef, after recent stints at Wildfish and Mastro’s, but the dishes rarely show any nuanced touch. To be fair, he and his team crank out Bayless’ recipes and vision in high volume. You won’t find Bayless himself at the stoves unless a media event is tied to his visit.

The downside of chef-as-brand is most evident at dinner, when most dishes don’t achieve what’s expected of Bravo TV’s top chef master. Oysters are lovely, but hardly special or elevated. Duck taquitos are that and no more—seasoned shredded duck rolled and fried in a tortilla. A handsome slab of mahi mahi arrives undercooked, tasting mostly of wood grill and too faintly of the waiter-praised ancho-honey glaze. Roasted seasonal vegetables and pickled cherry tomatoes add no vibrancy or spark; for $28, this tedious plate should be undeniably succulent and savory. The lamb rack with mole negro also disappoints. The chewy lamb has zero flavor and char, and its puddle of brown mole lacks depth and density. Cochinita pibil, slow-cooked marinated suckling pig—heavy on the salt—is a relative deal at $25, but it’s light on the citrus oomph that typifies this Yucatan classic.

Sunday brunch is a buffet affair for $45, with stations offering acres of eats, from forgettable paella to tacos to oysters and ceviches. The guacamole display is gorgeous, but like the ceviches, the offerings look more exciting than they taste. Mexican chocolate ice cream (flavors are ever-changing), made to order by a nitrogen-wielding cook, is yummy, as is the sweet-tart mango custard sprinkled with bright pomegranate seeds. Bottomless bloodies (or mimosas or tequila sunrises) are a $20 upgrade, which might explain the brawl that breaks out at the large booth behind me. Staffers quickly extinguish it, so I can’t provide any sordid details. But I’m quite sure they weren’t fighting over the food.

Best Dishes
Albacore ceviche, yellowtail aguachile, cazuela tacos, Mexican Street Corn, Mexican chocolate ice cream, mango custard.

Price Range
Appetizers $7 to $18; entrees $15 to $45; Sunday brunch $45 adults, $15 children, younger than 6, free.

Red O’s debut was in West Hollywood in 2012. This is its second location.

143 Newport Center Drive, Fashion Island, 949-718-0300

Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue.

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