Restaurateur Rick Bayless, winner of TV's "Top Chef Masters" and star of the show "One Plate at a Time," has opened the second branch of his Red O Restaurant in a large new building in Fashion Island.
The décor is dazzling, and as you enter, the din is equally dazzling. The huge space is divided into several areas, including a semi-enclosed, heated outdoor pavilion with a capacious fireplace. We chose to eat there because it was quieter than the other areas.
We had a delightful waiter named Chuy, who guided us through the extensive menu and wine list. As we made our choices, we nibbled on a basket of plantain chips with an amuse bouche of crab tostada with bits of pineapple and subtle notes of heat.
Since we were a party of four, we had two different appetizer samplers. The ceviche was served in a dramatic tiered metal arched plate with four small dishes of different raw fish preparations. Scottish steelhead ceviche was prepared with pickled red onions, hot habanero chili and a luscious lime crema.
Slices of ahi sashimi marinated in lime juice with cucumber, avocado and micro cilantro were enlivened by a cilantro, green chili "chimichurri" sauce. Lush albacore and chopped tomatoes were marinated and then combined with olives, cilantro and Serrano chile.
Our favorite, though they were all good, was the Yucatecan shrimp and calamari, which involved steamed Mexican white shrimp and calamari in a mixture of orange and lime juice with habaneros, avocado, jicama and cilantro. Each of the selections used notably fresh fish.
The same presentation brought us four versions of guacamole. The classic one was as good as any we've ever had, very creamy with a slight note of sweetness and topped with slivers of radish and onion. Most interesting sounding, but our least favorite, was the pomegranate seed, walnut and sun-dried tomato variation. The combination just didn't work for us.
We liked the macha because of its unique texture, which included toasted peanuts along with arbol chilies, roasted garlic, tomatoes and onions. Another favorite was the yuzu, featuring citrusy juice plus tomatoes, shishto peppers and cilantro.
A major disappointment was the tortilla soup. It was loaded with pieces of chicken breast and avocado, but it was served lukewarm and had a very bland broth.
The Red O was quickly redeemed, however, by the chicken mole poblano. This mole sauce was outstanding — rich and sweet with no hint of bitterness. The chicken was juicy and came with flavorful black beans, cotillo cheese and a refreshing watercress salad.
Cochinita pibil featured suckling pig marinated and slow-cooked in banana leaves until it was fork tender and scrumptious. More good black beans and pickled red onions came on the side, and the pork was spiked up with a perky roasted habanero salsa, also on the side.
We were less enchanted with the tinga poblano, another pork feast, this time with braised pork shoulder, some pork belly and house-made chorizo sausage, along with tomatoes, smoky chipotle, very good little potatoes, avocado and a sprinkling of queso fresco. It was good but not great. It needed more seasoning.
Our final entrée was the lamb mole negro. It was the hit of the evening. The thick, Colorado lamb chops were perfectly cooked and seasoned. They rested in another outstanding mole, this time smoky mole negro (which Bayless served at the White House and includes 23 ingredients). On the side were sweet caramelized onions, lollipop kale and a Mexican City quesadilla (little corn masa turnovers filled with cheese).
A flan trio completed our meal. The classic style contained blueberries, but the flan itself wasn't the rich, dense Mexican kind I was expecting. The citrus with orange segments was light and refreshing, and we fought over the last bite of the chocolate coffee espresso version.
Red O is a great new addition to the Orange County culinary scene.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where: 143 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
When: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Appetizers: $8 to $17
Entrées: $18 to $56
Bottles: $41 to $600
By the glass: $9 to $24
Corkage fee: $30
Information: (949) 718-0300 or redorestaurant.com