You know what? Sometimes first impressions are really wrong. And a lot can happen in six months, as the now fantastic experience at CALIFORNIOS can mightily attest. I was invited to visit the restaurant during its soft opening around the beginning of the year, and while I loved the room, I left puzzled about a number of things, including some odd dishes, the aggressive hip-hop, even the bizarre artwork on the menu. It all felt too edgy and eager to prove something. But my pleasant memories from chef Val Cantu’s earlier pop-ups made me want to give it some time.
So six months later, I returned to Californios and was completely blown away by the entire evening. God I love that. It’s now one of those places that makes you feel lucky to live in San Francisco, or at least in the know (I’m here for you), lifting aside its veil of mystery. You stroll into a dark building with frosted windows and an inscrutable sign off 22nd Street to discover such a chic oasis, with blooming peonies, a long tobacco-colored tufted banquette, black-paneled walls adorned with eclectic and punchy, colorful art, shimmering modern chandeliers, and I’m happy to report, white tablecloths—they work here. Maître d’ and wife Carolyn Cantu designed the stylish and handsome space—she was formerly with Ken Fulk’s design firm. There’s an open kitchen, with a bar and chef’s counter, which is where the culinarily curious will want to perch (you can request these seats when you reserve).
The rowdy hip-hop has been softened to Hall and Oates, reggae, and ska, and the multicourse menu ($75), meanwhile, has been dialed to 11 (actually, 15, if I count each and every dish). Control freaks, put your need to know everything aside (YOU CAN DO IT), because you actually don’t get a menu until after the meal is complete, like a little souvenir from a journey. (But, of course, tell them of any dietary issues when you make your reservation and they will accommodate you.)
Sit back and let the plates tell their tale, which offer a tip of the sombrero to our local history, taking some inspiration from the Californios who were born in Alta California from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. You’ll see some nods to Mexican ingredients, dishes, and techniques, and will note Cantu’s training in his sophisticated handling and elegant presentations of our pristine NorCal ingredients (he cooked at Uchi in Austin and was a sous at Sons & Daughters).
There is a battery of botanas to start, from the palate setting of a Shigoku oyster with jicama and basil water, followed by blistered grilled breakfast radishes that you dip into a smooth pepper yogurt the color of pumpkin pie. The nixtamal puff is topped with a dollop of Royal Sterling caviar and borage flower, but after you pop it into your mouth, within you discover a piquant and molten marriage of black bean, Spring Hill smoked cheddar cheese, and a swat from the fermented peppers (both Hatch and Thai chiles). I could house a dozen of those without even blinking—they would be the most evil fancy bar snack, a Mexican pinkie-up version of Totino’s pizza rolls.
Which moves us right into another snack classic, the taquito, which gets a high-end upgrade with a filling of Andante goat cheese mousse and ramps, topped with a crown of lightly smoked trout roe. The entire thing shatters in one bite, a beguiling swirl of cream and salinity (and vaguely reminiscent of the perfect flavors of lox with herbed cream cheese).
The first wave is completed with a celery-shiso granita, grounded with a layer of a plum and rosé wine pudding underneath; our server tells us it’s an homage to the first written recipe of sangria, which translated to “bloody ice.” Plus there are some “pop rocks” in there to continue the fireworks you just had in your mouth. Pop!
The Yerba Buena fruit cup has been a constant on Cantu’s menus since his pop-up days—his monogrammed version of David Kinch’s Into the Vegetable Garden (you’ll see a big “C” on the plate)—with a colorful riot of seasonal vegetables and greens and herbs. The tarragon coulis and goat cheese mousse bring it all together, almost a whisper from the Green Goddess.
No, chef is not lacking for creativity: his raw spin on menudo is a vintage-looking glass bowl holding thin slices of lightly smoked buri (mature yellowtail), with a broth spiked with guajillo and serrano (and dashi), and the tree fungus underneath is meant to mimic the look of tripe. Chipotle adobo makes an appearance in his clever three-potatoes dish, and any abuelita would approve of the five days that go into reducing his concentrated caldo de pollo, counterbalanced with pickled turnip, carrots, cabbage (and blueberries!). The smell was so entrancing I dove in and completely forgot to take a picture.
Also hypnotizing: their take on an English muffin made with their sour-fermented tortillas (they make a tortilla-like dough with sourdough starter) and then puff them up on the flat-top. Just wait until you layer the warm muffin with the rich house-cultured butter. At this point you should be feeling rather content (and close to full).
There are other dishes as well, sure to change with Cantu’s whims and ideas. Flavors range from deep to bright and are always focused; the ingredients are notably fresh. The only misstep we had was the “molcajete” dry-aged lamb, which got hit with too much salt. It happens. Misstep aside, it’s apparent that every detail is so important and carefully considered here. (I particularly enjoyed the attention that went into the beautiful place settings and dishes—oh, and having an awesome and artful restroom, points for that too.)
You should really consider opting for the pairings ($45) from the talented Charlotte Randolph, previously at The French Laundry, who will take you around the globe with her in-tune choices. Since you don’t know the dishes coming next, it makes sense to just be in her hands. (And there’s also the opportunity to learn a lot from her about each wine if you’re curious.)
Desserts made a strong impression, with a duo of horchata ice cream and strawberry sorbet (a Mexican version of strawberries and cream), and the showstopper, a cold disc of pineapple “glass” that you tap and break, hiding barbecued pineapple, a popcorn semifreddo, and caramelized white chocolate mousse underneath. Plus, there’s a fun trio of mignardises. When you are presented the menu at the end, you see a list of words in Spanish (“botanas,” “menudo,” “piña”), a cheat sheet for all the Mexican culinary references your meal just walked you through.
This is a perfect destination for a second or third date, or for a small group of friends who like to eat and linger together. Cantu tells me he’d like to eventually move to just one seating a night. A tasting menu is obviously his dream format, and he was destined to be his own boss, and do things his way (game recognize game). Get your ticket to ride on this one soon (or again)—you can say you knew him when. First course of the botanas: an oyster. All photos: © tablehopper.com.