Mexico City's Gabriela Cámara Opens Cala in Hayes Valley

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The dining room at Cala. Photo by Chloe List.

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The communal table at Cala. Photo by Chloe List.

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The communal table in the bar area at Cala. Photo by Chloe List.

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The entry, with plants. Photo by Chloe List.

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The famed Contramar tostada, now a trout tostada, with chipotle, avocado, and fried leeks. Photo by Chloe List.

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Sweet potato with bone marrow salsa negra. Photo by Chloe List.

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Halibut ceviche à la Mexicana with avocado. Photo by Chloe List.

After much local excitement building up, chef and restaurateur Gabriela Cámara—internationally known for the Mexico City restaurants Contramar and MeroToro—has opened the doors to her first SF project, ~CALA~. The name is Spanish for “cove,” and a fitting one for a restaurant that will be so seafood focused.

The 3,000-square-foot, 90-seat space (for now, it can accommodate even more seats) is quite fantastic: it’s near Hayes Valley and Civic Center, just next door to the Rickshaw Stop on Fell, with the Symphony, Opera, Jazz Center, and more nearby—there isn’t a Mexican restaurant of this caliber in the neighborhood, so its location is quite ideal. The space was a garage that dates back to 1919 and was most recently a recording studio.

Charles Hemminger Architects (State Bird Provisions, SF’s Heath location) worked closely with Cámara on the design on of the restaurant—it has a unique blend of industrialism with a tropical chic to it. When you first walk in, the dining room is separated by a row of fast-growing kangaroo vines that extend to the ceiling, an installation by Jeronimo Hagerman. There’s a semi-open kitchen, demarcated by a wall of textured gold, and the L-shaped limestone bar in the back right corner is equally shimmery with all its bottles. There’s a zinc-topped communal table (with an edge made of brass) and comfortable backed stools that mimic the style of the seats in the dining room (Cámara imported the same seats she uses for Contramar, but used a soft leather the color of turbinado for the seats here). In the center of the room, separating the bar from the dining room, is a fiddle-leaf fig tree (Ficus lyrata), again softening the concrete elements with lush foliage.

The lighting of the space is quite stunning—I love the custom-made barro negro clay orbs from Oaxaca that are suspended from the ceiling throughout the restaurant, with light emitting from the cutouts like a rustic disco ball. The ceiling also has numerous skylights, letting in soft light before sunset takes it away. This is also the first San Francisco restaurant to feature a Constellation Acoustic System from Berkeley’s Meyer Sound Laboratories, with a Libra acoustic image system.

Cámara’s first visit to the Bay Area was when she was a teen, and she remembers her parents taking her to Chez Panisse. Her business partner and the father of her child has been wanting to live abroad, and Northern California bubbled to the top of their list (they had already lived in New York).

A huge help with the project arrived in the form of Emma Rosenbush, whom Cámara met in Mexico City (Rosenbush ran an American brunch pop-up on the weekends, using locally farmed ingredients from somewhat urban gardens) but had moved to San Francisco. Rosenbush reached out to Cámara, acting like an on-the-ground location fixer and helping her find and look at spaces. Rosenbush was so instrumental in the project that she became the project manager, GM, and has a percentage in the business.

Be sure to read this piece on Hoodline about the unique and admirable staffing solution Rosenbush has launched at the restaurant. She used to work at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, and in an attempt to reduce the rate of recidivism for recently released convicts, Cala has hired and trained a staff that is 70 percent comprised of employees with a prior criminal record. (Rosenbush has been working with the Adult Probation Department’s re-entry branch, Delancey Street, and the Young Community Developers.) It’s so admirable and unique—here’s wishing them much success in this progressive approach.

Cámara has been blown away by the hospitality of the city: “I have been feeling welcomed in the most extraordinary way—everyone has been so generous.” She has close ties with some of the culinary world’s most powerful muses, Diana Kennedy and Alice Waters, and has bonded with Gilbert Pilgram of Zuni. She will easily become the toast of the town—she is vibrant, energetic, and has a keen sense of hospitality. She is so obviously a people person.

Her menu will be focused on local and sustainable seafood, and seasonality will play a big part in what is offered on the menu, plus heirloom ingredients—she has a very Slow Food approach. She is even trying to find an alternative to bringing in limes from Mexico by using housemade fruit vinegars to lend acidity to her dishes. Her famed albacore tostada has morphed into a trout tostada, with chipotle, avocado, and fried leeks, and her pescado a la talla will be on the menu too. But, to be clear, there will be dishes here that you won’t find at Contramar. Nor will they be direct facsimiles of Mexican dishes—her mother is Italian, and growing up with her cooking has a strong influence on Cámara’s cooking style. She says she likes to make pleasurable food, and that is her guiding principle for Cala.

She found a source for native organic white corn in California, and they are nixtamalizing their corn in-house. Wait until you take a bite of a warm tortilla, slathered with a spread made of bone marrow and dried chile, with a mole-like complexity that is a total blast of umami. At a preview party, we sampled a restorative caldo de camarón, halibut ceviche, and there were also some delicious tamales, with the surprise of whole shellfish inside—one had a mussel, still in its shell, and another had a clam, tucked in with chile serrano. There were also sopes with midnight black beans, crema, and ricotta salata—expect plenty of vegetarian dishes on the menu.

Weekend brunch will eventually be a part of the picture, too, serving mollete (a sliced roll topped with beans, cheese, sauce, and pico de gallo), torta ahogada with fish “carnitas,” and more. Cámara is also working with Tartine Bakery on a special bolillo, like a little baguette roll.

The restaurant is currently in a soft opening mode, running a limited preview menu that will expand in the coming weeks as everything ramps up. In about a month or so, there will be a taco stand (Tacos Cala) launched in the back of the restaurant, opening on Hickory Street. The taqueria will be open for lunch, offering soft tacos de guisado, featuring seafood, meat, and vegetable fillings. It will be stand-up style, like you’d find in Mexico, with tacos that are meant to be eaten quickly with your aqua fresca. You’ll also be able to pick up tortillas to bring home. The space will transform into a private dining room in the evenings or be used for spillover from the dining room.

The bar is run by former Blackbird bar manager Regina Schauerte, highlighting mezcal and tequila, of course, plus unusual spirits like aged sotol too. Cocktails will be more on the simple side, but still carefully crafted. The house margarita is made with Amarás mezcal and housemade cane syrup infused with orange and lemon, while a variation on an old-fashioned is made with sotol and finished with spicy bitters and a brandied cherry.

Lauren Feldman—previously at L’Artusi in New York, and for the past three years, working in the hospitality program at Scribe Winery—missed the restaurant world and is managing Cala’s wine list. Since the menu is focused on seafood, she let that be her inspiration for the list, sourcing wines from coastal areas where seafood is central to the diet, like Spain, Southern France, Italy, Chile, and California. Her list features small producers, and ones working with indigenous grape varieties and ancestral farming methods—expect a focus on whites and rosés (you won’t find any pinot noir or cab on her list). There will be about 18 wines available by the glass, or you can go for a carafe or bottle.

Hours for now are Mon-Sat 5pm-11pm.