Now open in the Mission is CALIFORNIOS from chef Val Cantu, who previously hosted pop-up dinners at Naked Kitchen. It’s his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, and his wife, maître d’ Carolyn Cantu (formerly with Ken Fulk’s design firm), has created quite a chic space.
The entire experience is designed to be a bit mysterious and abstract: the restaurant has frosted windows and cryptic signage, and diners aren’t presented with a menu. It’s a tasting menu ($57, seven courses), and even when you receive the menu at the end of the meal, there isn’t much in the way of description—it’s basically just a list of words. So control freaks may have some problems with the format, but personally, I think it’s fun to be in the chef’s hands. (If you have issues with ingredients and allergies, I’d let the restaurant know when you make your reservation—and there is a vegetarian option.)
Cantu’s style is said to be “an avant-garde and reimagined interpretation of Mexican cuisine,” and his cooking experience includes Sons & Daughters, along with Pujol in Mexico City and Uchi in Austin. You’ll see some nods to Mexican ingredients, dishes, and techniques, and there’s a Californian and seasonal bent to his cuisine as well. I attended a test dinner, and already one week later, the menu has evolved and changed, which is in keeping with his creative style.
Our meal included Cantu’s spin on chips and salsa (with fermented chile pepper paste); a pomegranate granita with blueberry purée pudding, white chocolate, and “pop rocks”; kampachi aguachile with thinly sliced radishes and jalapeño (served on a fun vintage plate); chicken soup in a rich grain broth and pickled turnips; his version of barbacoa (tender beef tongue braised in black garlic) with a clever pairing of avocado and wasabi; and a few desserts, including blood orange yogurt and Mexican wedding cookies. The very personal food is modern, experimental, and playful, with a number of different temperatures and plating styles as well.
You can opt for wine pairings ($35), chosen by beverage director Charlotte Randolph (French Laundry), or survey the list for wines from small-scale vintners, plus beers and ciders too. Linea Caffe and Red Blossom Tea Company make up the coffee and tea menu.
The intimate and dimly lit space is perfect for a date: it’s like a funky study that would belong to a cool gallery owner, with tufted leather banquettes in a soft tobacco, black paneled walls, eclectic art (including a fun piece in the washroom), and modern chandeliers. But it’s not a romantic environment: the hip-hop and rap soundtrack keeps it feeling pretty urban. There’s an open kitchen with seating at the counter, with 25 seats in the dining room in all.
Open Tue-Fri 5:30pm-10pm, Sat 5:30pm-10:30pm. It’s worth noting there’s a $40 cancellation fee if you cancel your reservation less than 24 hours before your seating. 3115 22nd St. at Mission, 415-757-0994.
The dining room. Photo: Dana Eastland. © tablehopper.com.