Fans of celebrity chef Rick Bayless will be happy to hear that his outstanding Mexican restaurant, Red O, has opened a location in Santa Monica. A group of friends recently met at Red O for a delightful multi-course dinner paired with cocktails and wine.
I’ve been a fan of chef Bayless since he won the title Bravo’s Top Chef Master in 2009. He’s also been awarded the James Beard Midwest Chef of the Year, National Chef of the Year, and best American Chef of the Year. His Frontera Farmer Foundation supports small farms and, to date, has awarded 128 grants totaling over $1.3 million to small- and medium-sized Midwest farms.
Regional executive chef Keith Stich keeps the kitchens running smoothly while Bayless keeps up a busy schedule – traveling and filming his TV show, “Mexico – One Plate at a Time.”
At the new Santa Monica location, Stitch has brought in chef Seth Vider as executive chef. Vider said he loves the ambiance and location of the restaurant near the Santa Monica Farmers Market and the beach. The night Vider and Stich cooked for us, they had a staff of 12 working in the kitchen, including a woman making fresh tortillas.
Bayless oversees, consults on and approves the seasonal menu that chefs Stich and Vider create. What makes Red O different from other Mexican restaurants is its prime steak, fresh-off-the-boat seafood and quality produce, not to mention its top-notch service. Ensuring super-prompt delivery, servers carry pagers in their pockets that vibrate when the kitchen has a plate ready. Our server, Andrew, was friendly and professional and so responsive to our needs that at times he seemed almost telepathic.
The Santa Monica Red O is a high energy, unpretentious restaurant offering a fine dining experience. DJ Mark Chill, located near the bar and dining room, plays music that enhances the cheerful, beachy mood. When he is not spinning tunes, the restaurant provides nightly live entertainment, creating a festive atmosphere.
The night we visited, we started with thinly sliced hamachi yellowtail sashimi dancing in a spicy lime sauce and topped with avocado, red onion, cucumber and orange. I sipped on an organic skinny margarita made with Tres Generaciones organic blanco tequila, fresh lime, organic agave nectar served on the rocks with a salted rim. Red O has over 250 varieties of tequila to choose from.
Rather than a traditional tostada, Red O’s is made with yellowfin ahi tuna marinated in chile-cumin oil, served with creamy avocado, crisp Napa cabbage, pickled red onion and a harissa aioli with habanero for a touch of heat.
Mexican street corn is boiled, grilled, then cut off the cob before it is mixed with cotija cheese and serrano-cilantro crema.
The taquitos are filled with crispy, slow cooked Mary’s free-range duck, served with a slightly spicy tomato-arbol sauce and strands of wild baby arugula. The dish is dusted with toasted sesame seeds.
I adored the certified Angus beef short ribs, which were cooked until tender and placed into bite-size fried corn shells, then topped with a roasted tomato-green chile sauce, queso anejo and chopped white onion.
The prettiest dish was the grilled Maine lobster tail, served on cilantro-fennel rice along with a large charred Mexican knob onion and slow-roasted baby fennel. The dish was drizzled with a rich Tajin butter seasoned with chile peppers, salt and dehydrated lime juice.
The fish of the day was a grilled Alaskan halibut glazed with a wasabi chimichurri sauce. It was served on white rice and red guajillo chimichurri sauce. We enjoyed this with a plate of sautéed baby kale and Brussels sprouts tossed with caramelized onions and toasted white sesame seeds.
Jeffrey Davis, the regional operations director of the Red O Restaurants, joined our group when the 12 ounce carne asada brava arrived. “This is my favorite Red O signature dish,” Davis said.
It’s a flavorful grilled New York strip steak topped with roasted tomato salsa, goat cheese tamales and grilled Mexican knob onions. The steak was very tender and was enhanced with mojo de ajo, crisp black kale and a garlic chipotle amarillo sauce. A plate of grilled asparagus sautéed in mojo de ajo, with cotija cheese and cilantro flakes, spritzed with fresh lime juice went nicely with the bone-in filet.
Davis also brought out a bottle of tempranillo from Rioja, Spain to pair with the beef. Sierra Cantabria Rioja 2011 is a ruby-red color with the essence of spice and red fruit. He boasted that the Red O wine list is known as one of the top 100 wine lists in the world.
We splurged at the end of dinner and ordered three desserts. The dark chocolate ganache is made with roasted plantain puree, pepita-toffee crunch, and piloncillo marinated pineapple and served with a scoop of mango sorbet.
The most popular dessert was the fruit butter cake. It arrived fresh from the oven and was served with grilled strawberries, passion fruit custard, coconut crumble and a scoop of coconut ice cream. Andrew told us this dish is very popular. Two out of every three tables orders it nightly.
Our last splurge was a goat cheese cheesecake with mint goat yogurt, pickled berries, cornflower crumble, blueberry puree and cornflower cracker.
Red O joins an impressive list of Santa Monica restaurants in an area known as a dining destination for locals, tourists and visitors. Be sure to visit during Red O’s daily happy hour from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Dinner service begins at 5 p.m.
$$$ Red O Santa Monica,1541 Ocean Ave, Ste. 120, (310)458-1600. Locations also on Melrose and in Newport Beach.