Red O (La Jolla)

The atmosphere was very nice, the service had just a couple of minor hiccups, and although the noise level was deafening for the first hour and a half that we were there, we enjoyed our dinner last night at the new Red-O in University City. Decent, if not great, food, and the rebuild of Donovan’s is impressive, especially as you first enter.

We arrived 15 minutes early for our 7:30 reservation, and being as the (very large) place was completely packed, we ordered drinks at the bar, which is truly gorgeous. There was only one available seat, since happy hour had just ended, so because the wait was going to be short, I stood. My DH companion got a “La Paloma” (tequila-based drink) and I ordered a “Red O Fashioned”, which is mezcal-based. Both were house specialties and both very well executed and enjoyable.

Once at our table, we wanted to get a bottle of some kind of sturdy red wine opened, to give it a little time to breath in the bottle, and in our wine glasses, while we finished our cocktails. Alas, they had no Baja wines on the wine menu! We were told they were coming, but not yet. Downer. So we ended up ordering a Chilean malbec-centered blend from Coyam, which was truly excellent and paired well with everything we ended up ordering, including the dessert.

I was surprised that in a classy venue that offers Modern Mexican cuisine, we were given complimentary chips and a salsa. The chips were ordinary, the salsa very good, but I was a bit taken aback by the idea of it.

For an appetizer, we shared carnitas empanadas. They’re small, and you only get three. These were bland, and the green salsa that came with them, while ok, actually wasn’t as good with them as the tasty red salsa that came with the chips.

My main course was the lamb mole, which for all practical purposes is rack of lamb, served on top of a very thin layer of black mole sauce. I ordered the lamb cooked medium-rare, and it was done perfectly to my taste. The mole sauce was nicely bitter, but flat and uninteresting. The bone ends of the three separated lamb ribs were resting on top of an asparagus and mushroom medley, which we also had ordered as a side, since my companion wanted some too. I thought it was too acidic; she liked it a lot.

My companion’s main course was the scallop dish. This consisted of four large wonderfully sweet and tender, lightly grilled (I think) scallops served on top of a yellow-colored but bland-tasting (to me) vermicelli. They looked to be similar to Vietnamese “mi”, but they were almost tasteless. So I’m not sure where the yellow color came from – perhaps a light sauce of some sort. My companion was fine with it, but I wouldn’t have liked too much of it.

For dessert, we split a chocolate tart. Excellent crust, very nice chocolate, and numerous fresh berries. And yes, this went well with the wine.

What were the service hiccups? Well, our server herself was very friendly, helpful, and attentive. But two of the courses were brought out by people from the kitchen who were wandering around with them trying to find who they belonged to. We had to personally intervene to help with that. They seemed to lack a system for identifying tables – to all involved. I can’t recall a similar experience in recent memory.

Will we return? Maybe. The noise was awful and we had to shout at one another and the server to hear. We were told that if you want a nice quiet meal, the time to arrive is 5 to 5:30. If we go back, that’s when we’ll go. During Happy Hour, which runs 3-7 pm.

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Red O doesn’t claim to be modern Mexican. The menu has a bunch of traditional dishes plus some American / Californian dishes.

I won’t argue your point about “Modern Mexican”, and in fact I think my companion would agree. Here, for example, is an interesting article about what “Modern Mexican” food is (that you’ve probably already seen). This is really more of what I thought Red O was going to try to present to San Diego, more like Bracero when it first opened, or Romesco. We didn’t choose things like tostadas at Red O, but the NYT article describes what I would have expected from their renditions of such classics.

In any case, this is definitely an “upscale” place, and I was just slightly “put off” by being delivered chips and salsa with the menu. I got over it. As a menu item, fine, but I associate free chips and salsa with a somewhat more basic level of service.

I think Red O is trying to be upscale and use higher-quality ingredients while still meeting mainstream American expectations of what a Mexican restaurant is. And also appealing to people who don’t want Mexican, so they won’t lose customers if one person objects.

Bayless reportedly has no ownership interest.

Yes, I think you’re right. It’s interesting because last night my companion, a Mexico City native, would only agree to go as far as to call the food we had at Red O “Mexican-influenced”.

I didn’t know that about Bayless – only that he has a presumably significant influence on the menu, howbeit indirect.

Robert is correct, RB has no ownership stake in Red O. He works with them as their hired menu consultant and does recipe training with the kitchen staff.

I had been assuming with no justification that Bayless had a more direct business connection with Red O; that’s been corrected. I’ve been hoping since it was first announced that the Red-O in San Diego would be different, trending more towards Modern Baja and using Baja-sourced ingredients, and that the food would be closer to the level of what’s served, for example, at his Leña Brava restaurant in Chicago. No, I’ve not been there, but accounts of it – and Bayless’ reputation – make it sound more like what I was hoping for here.

Looking forward to going for happy hour Dr. Chow!
Thanks for the great report.

I’m still traumatized by the Bayless and his daughter Lanie TV segments years ago…burned and seared in my head that I cannot remove.
:see_no_evil: :hear_no_evil:


Love Rick Bayless and his shows and I have really learned some interesting things from them, but when he interacts with Laine on TV, there is a bit of a creepy vibe that bothers me as well. Bayless seems like such a nice guy especially when compare him to his brother, Skip. However, I too don’t watch his show as much any more because of that.

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I’ve had dinner with both Skip and Rick, and both are extremely nice, down-to-earth people.

Nice to know, because everything I heard was that they were very different.

They are. But both still very nice people.

If I had to choose a person to drive cross-country with, it would be with Skip, not because I’m a sports fan, but simply because he’s a quite bit more interesting.

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