Finding Faith - By luck, I’ve had a couple days off in a row this week and a wonderful byproduct of all this alone time has been the opportunity to confront my inner demon...
Monday, August 2, 2010
Red-O: Tinga tu Madre and Guacaviche at LA's Ultimate Palace of Pretense, Cuisine by Rick Bayless?
I must admit, when I heard all the commotion about Rick Bayless coming to Los Angeles, I was excited. Rick along with Diane Kennedy, has done a lot to educate Americans about authentic Mexican cuisine--that is to say that they've gone to Mexico, learned recipes and studied the techniques, and then published legitimate cookbooks. Diana Kennedy currently lives in Mexico, and has done so for a long time.
I've dined at Frontera Grill and had a great dinner there with friends some years back, it was quality cooking and the plates were recognizable, but it wasn't anywhere near the best Mexican cuisine I've had in Mexico, or the U.S. I really see chef Rick Bayless as an enthusiastic American ambassador of Mexican cuisine, and a food anthropologist. Certainly, he is an outstanding chef, and worthy of being a champion on Top Chef Masters.
But, I thought--this can help raise the profile of Mexican cuisine, and perhaps contribute to the overall dialogue about Mexican cuisine here in LA, which has been increasing with the efforts of more chef driven Mexican cuisine here in town. John Sedlar, in the vanguard of Mexican cuisine, Jaime and Ramiro of La Casita, Rocio Camacho of La Huasteca, are some of these chefs representing L.A. And, not to mention the scores of regional Mexican restaurants in L.A., many of which are chef driven, or run by highly skilled specialists. These talented Mexican chefs, cooks, and specialists are the true spokespeople for Mexican cuisine here in town, a place that Rick Bayless really hadn't visited in 15 years.
In an interview on Feast while discussing the opening of Red O, Rick Bayless claimed to be bringing a cuisine no one has seen here in LA, because of the strong Mexican-American food culture. He is partly right--L.A. does have its own Mexican-American, or pocho food culture, but it is also home to the third most important center of Oaxacan cooking in the world--after Oaxaca, and Mexico City respectively. He mentions his southern complex moles as if we don't already have dozens of Oaxacan restaurants serving moles, and not to mention our Mexico City style restaurants serving mole, and the handful of Pueblan restaurants preparing Pueblan moles.
Yes Rick, many of our restaurants represent the simple cooking and antojitos of Jalisco,and in many cases these places are serving tacos, and burritos that are more Mexican-American. But, we have the largest Sinaloan and Nayaritan population in the US,and they have a sizable amount of restaurant presence here in LA. We have a broader range of recently arrived immigrants and established Mexican-American communities here in LA. Chicago has many "regional" restaurants with non-Latinos in the kitchens, but the best stuff in Chicago isn't at those places.It's in the Chicago Mexican-American neighborhoods.
But immigrants alone don't necessarily make the cuisine happen, especially since most Mexicans coming to the US are coming for manual labor jobs, not to be professional chefs. Skilled specialists and taqueros don't need to come to the US for work, they have enough work in Mexico. There are plenty of line cooks, but I haven't come across a true al pastor practician yet.
Once the initial hype died down, Rick Bayless let loose some tweets that led me to believe his involvement in Red O would be minimal.Are these Rick Bayless'recipes? Did Rick suggest a menu, did he train Michael Brown in a style of cooking, or did he run him through this menu like a drill sargeant?
Arriving n LA to help chef Michael Brown and the Red O team thru opening days! Many months of training; tonight brings Frontera flavors 2 LA
12:47 PM May 26th via Twittelator
Day 4 of Red O in LA. Very please w what Chef Michael Brown is doing here! Frontera flavors in beautiful LA resto on Melrose.
4:14 PM May 29th via Twittelator
Frontera Flavors? Not recipes, just...."flavors." At no point has Rick really claimed ownership of the food here.
@Rick_Bayless: I am consulting on a restaurant, but i dont own it RT @Susie_LA @Rick_Bayless Is it true you are opening restaurant in Los Angeles? 5:43 PM Jan 30th from Twittelator
Consulting? Well, among the only writers to get their story straight was Amy Scattergood of LA Weekly's Squid Ink. The blogging community and other writers were believing this farce, and even blogging the wonders of Rick Bayless' cuisine at the media hosted opening dinner.
In a interview with KCRW's Evan Kleiman, chef Rick Bayless back peddled even more when asked about Red O.
Kleiman:"I have to ask you,what does Red O mean?"
Bayless:"You know...I'm not one of the owners of Red O, I'm just running the kitchens.."
The chef went on to state he was "heavily involved in the kitchen maintenance".."developing all the recipes".."all of the training"..."quality control."
You can listen to the full interview here, about 23 minutes in, but all Evan had asked him was what Red O meant, and he was quickly distancing himself from any kind of ownership or accountability.
I was uninterested from then on, but more things came to light, as in this ridiculous door host, which is completely absurd. Some friends of mine were even insulted by these guys, others were just yelled at for breaching the restaurants outer defenses. It's the only restaurant in LA you can't walk in and try to get a table, grab a business card, or just have a look around.
I then got of hold of the menu. Mr. Bayless, these are dishes that LA hasn't seen? Really, did you have the respect to perhaps visit La Casita, La Huasteca, our many Oaxacan restaurants,our specialists and regional restaurants from so many states in Mexico? You say LA mostly has antojitos, yet Red O's menu is mostly......antojitos. There are the celebrated seven, well....we have all those too. And, I can tell you, that in most cases, I can name an infinite number of better versions here in LA than Red O's.And in the case of the two dishes that aren't well represented here in LA, chilpachole and cazuelas, I can find BETTER versions if I can find even just one place that serves those dishes.
If chef Michael Brown wanted to learn about Mexican cuisine, why didn't he go to Mexico? This I find quite insulting as someone who reveres the Mexican kitchen. A month of consulting and preparing Mexican food with non-Mexicans in Chicago? Even the non-Latinos that run all the kitchens of Rick Bayless' restaurants get to go to Mexico at least once a year to study.
Well, on the night of this impending meal, I met up with friends with the intent of having a good time. I followed all the rules so my meal wouldn't be tainted by an overzealous door host. Yet, two of our diners walked in without submission and were scolded by the door host.
With Josh, Allison, Zach, Tomo, and my friend Chris all assembled, we sat down for a shot of tequila to get into the mood.This was a tremendous group of people to dine with, all we needed were a couple of good eats.
It is a beautiful room, and certainly qualifies as an upscale Mexican piece of property.
The bar swings are pretty cool, too. Tomo and Allison had fun sitting on them before we left for the evening.
The tequila tunnel is--I don't know--I've seen these before, and I'm a little bit more about the juice. This is a shallow tunnel of commercial, straight to US market, and pricey, ordinary brands.The only gem on the list of anejos was Regional, which they were out of. After that, they have Arette, and Don Fulano, which are both excellent, but these are in just about any decent bar's tequila collection. So we went with the Don Fulano--everybody loved it--So far so good!
We ordered across the entire menu to really give Red O a chance. Up first was the guacamole served with salty, store bought chips. The guacamole was nothing special, and yes, it can be folks. All the money here is in the plate. It just was an average guacamole, not better than one you could make at home.
The crab tostaditas were bland, but not any way offensive. If you've spent any time in high end Mexican restaurants in Mexico, this type of plating should not set the hairs on your back to stand up. A bite like this should be action packed, and it wasn't.
Again,lots of blogs and reports talking about fine products and complexities, but the theme of the night, at best, was cloying, one-note flavors.This food has complexities if your idea of refinement is ketchup or alfredo sauce!
The sope felt more like a puffy taco, and the pork belly didn't wow. Sopes are antojitos and the realm of specialists like Nina's Food, Antojitos Carmen, and so many more here in LA.
The first real stinker of the night was the ceviche verde, or green ceviche. Zach and I went back and forth on the name of this new dish and settled on Guacaviche. It is the guacamole from the first dish with fish. The fish was a good quality fish, but the texture was grainy, and there was no acidity. Maybe Michael should have tried the ceviche verde at La Casita? Still not too late.
The duck taquitos didn't taste like duck, and the sauce was not special, nor did it do anything to this dish. Quack!
Tamales? You can get these for a dollar from our many specialists in LA, the masa here was a tad stiff, and over all, I've had similar types of tamales from 7-11. Of course they didn't come with a beef short rib, which is a nice idea, but it must be delicious, which is always a challenge in making tamales. Tamales are the realm of the tamalera, not a great choice for a restaurant, unless there is a master on hand.
What is a queso fundido? It's a cheese dish, and should focus on the cheese. Here, it was covered in chile strips and onions, with a bit of the chorizo we ordered with it.I don't care if it's Vella Sonoma Jack, it must be a proper melting cheese . In Mexico, this dish is done with local melting cheeses, which vary from region to region. This is another dish that is done best in the northern states, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Sonora, and even down in Jalisco. How about La Casita's version that has four Mexican cheeses and is wrapped in a banana leaf? Red O's lacked flavor, was too busy with the chile strips, and the cheese quickly stiffened.
The chilpachole, which is supposed to be a spicy seafood soup, touted its fine seafood ingredients, yet the broth wasn't a chipachole I know. It isn't delicious and spicy, it tastes artificial. And the Carlsbad mussels? They tasted more like Long Beach! After Josh concurred that there was something foul in this dish, we sent it back. I haven't had to do that a whole lot, nor do I enjoy having to send a plate back, but this was exceptionally nasty.
These things happen, but even with a friendly mussel, this dish doesn't deserve to called a chilpachole. The version at Mi Ranchito, the kitschy Mar Vista Mexican restaurant that while is by no means serious kitchen, is looking pretty damn good right now.
The suckling pig cochinita pibil also has an unpleasant texture and I could only handle one bite. I wasn't expecting anything authentic, as this menu reads more like an El Torito, but I do expect it to taste good. This also had something artificial in the flavor that was off putting.
The pescado zarandeado was a first for me, on a couple of things. First, it came out in less than ten minutes after we ordered. A pescado zarandeado is a whole fish cooked on a metal grate that is flipped over a mesquite grill with a marinade--this is what they call a filete zarandeado in Mexico. Rick in his interview described this as a Pacific dish, but it comes from Nayarit, and is the state dish of Sinaloa. We have serious pescado zarandeado here in LA, from a region that Rick doesn't consider as being as interesting as Vera Cruz, DF, and Oaxaca? Well, why do a dish from that region?
This dish takes 35-40 minutes even on a kitchen grill, it came out in less than ten minutes as it is just a filet. It is done with snook, sea bream, sea bass, and other Mexican fish, but American stripped bass doesn't cut it.
I was so surprised by this dish that I asked one of the runners what it was. He replied, "fish". I said, yes, but what's the name of the dish? He fired back, "fish, fish!" I've never encountered such a rude runner, especially not a Latino. We had three runners, a floor captain, and a waiter, yet service was awkward, and clumsy. I asked another runner, this time in Spanish the name of this dish, and he said pescado zarandeado, the rude runner came back as he was putting down other plates and chimed in, " and this is chicken, this is pork..", without humor.
It wasn't a quiz, I just couldn't recognize this as zarandeado and wanted to know a little bit about the food. Our non-Latino waiter didn't seem to know the dishes either, at least not so much by their spanish names. Hey, the names are in Spanish on the menu!
Was this pescado microwaveado? It was no zarandeado, no magnificent splayed open tender fish oozing with flavor.It's just a grilled filet o fish.
Chef Michael, Rick isn't interested so much in Nayaritan cooking, I mean it doesn't turn him on, so maybe you should check out Sergio Penuelas at Mariscos Chente's on Imperial. He does a superb pescado zarandeado, whole fish, Mexican snook, and nails it every time. This dish is what El Torito would call a zarandeado.
Cazuelas, hmmm, another one of those "tricky" dishes. It's a stew in a cazuela, and can be amazing depending on what's in it. We do some great stews, called guisados in Mexico, here in LA, but not many are served in the cazuela, or casserole dish. Is that reason to stop the presses? Hardly. The chicken in salsa poblana should have been rich, and creamy, with a mild poblano heat, but no.....watery, flavorless, and a bunch of chile strips and onions again. This isn't a hard dish to make, a type of simple tinga, or spicy meat.I love this dish and often make it at home, it is easy to make, brilliant, and not many places serve this since it's more of a home cooked dish. It's a perfect filling for tacos if Red O could make it tasty. This is reason alone to head back to the test kitchen. You can't make a chile cream sauce with any flavor?
There are plenty of places around LA though, that will give you a plate of something good to place in tortillas.Get an alambre plate from Antojitos Carmen, or Tacos Cuernavaca. You will get soft tortillas to make your tacos at these places, which is a lot of fun.
The camarones al mojo de ajo, another simple and satisfying dish found everywhere, was our replacement for the chilpachole a la Long Beach harbor.
It's garlic, butter and seasoning folks. Nothing to see here, make it at home or try one of the countless average to excellent versions we have around town. They will all be more satisfying, even at most Mexican-American restaurants. I'd even say to go to Serenata de Garibaldi for this if you long for a little presentation.
We ordered all the desserts, and by this point I was feeling so unsatisfied from this meal I was eager for some decent sweets. I'm usually with little room for such things but this meal left me hungry, just a collection of little sad bites was all the evening had afforded.
The chocolate mousse wasn't very appetizing, at all Again, something about the flavor.
The flan was a yawn, but the
bunuelos were fine.
I enjoyed the sorbet, and this little cake which I later found out was tres leches. Given the base flavors of the night I would call this un leche.
Finally, an intact dish emerged from this destroyed meal, the goat cheese cake. It's a fine dessert, deeply flavored, interesting, and a nice textural addition of a piece of popcorn atop this dessert.Bravo.
This past year has been full of so-called Mexican restaurants moving into LA, the awful Provecho(good ridduns), Rosa Mexicano and its tableside guacamole and bad commercial food, and now this? Do these people believe us to be fools? Pay a celebrity chef to exploit the public's infatuation with celebrity chefs so that they'll buy into this illusion.
Rick Bayless is a consultant, and a very well paid one at that. He is no stranger to such transactions as he lent his name to a Burger King commercial a few years back, even Emeril hasn't done that.
He's also started a fast food chain called Frontera Fresco, no doubt these will be coming to an airport near you.
But, this idea that non-Latinos from Chicago are cooking real Mexican, and Red O is this high end Mexican restaurant lifting up Mexican food here in LA is such a crock of beans.
It's not authentic, it's bad food, it's bad service, and this door host nonsense is not how we dine here in LA. Zach Brooks said it best, "If the door host stops you from going in, he did you a huge favor."
I would ask the blogging and writing community to look to our Mexican chefs, cooks and fine street food vendors for authentic Mexican. This isn't alta cocina, it's not authentic Mexican, and it is about as inspired as a Beverly Hills El Torito. As Gustavo Arrellano would say, " Ask a Mexican!"
Finally, the tinga poblana on Red O's menu goes for about $27. This is just spicy meat, the kind Nina and Carmen put in their antojitos for a couple of bucks. A whole quesadilla from one of these women will fill you up and leave you content. But luxury ingredients are not what this dish is about, it's about taking a simple piece of meat and elevating it with spice, and a Mexican mother's touch.Despite the high prices for Red O's simple fare, I can't help but wonder about how much of cost of the lousy food is Rick Bayless' pay-off and piece of the action, the door hosts, the runners, floor captains, waiters, managers, bartenders, hosts, expensive real estate, and costly interior. Tinga? Tinga tu madre Red O! This place is as empty as that tequila tunnel.
I respect Rick's love of Mexico, dedication to learning its cuisine, cookbooks and TV show, and know he is a talented and professional chef. I just question why he doesn't either remove his name from that sign, or fix that kitchen. I mean, far too many people are believing this is the real deal and that's a pity.
All photos for this report are courtesy of Tomoko Kurokawa of Tomo Style Blog
8155 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA