Californios

Dinner – Tuesday, September 7, 2021

My first (and only) visit to Californios was over four years ago, back when they were a modest operation in a small, dimly lit space. Revisiting those dinner notes now is instructive – it seems I saw promise, but evidently not enough to return anytime in the intervening period. Indeed, it was largely a recent private note from a chef that finally got me off my ass to make a reservation – that, and a certain nostalgia for the former Bar Agricole space that houses the shiny 2-star incarnation of Val Cantu’s vision.

What the Californios team has done is fully realize the potential of the outdoor patio space, building a meditative garden experience appropriate for Covid times and far beyond. Just settling into my seat for the evening was calming and transportative – a perfect way to experience the menu to come.

Saffron, mint and mandarin agua fresca

Introduction
A quintet of small bites kicked off the menu, comprising (from left to right): (i) a chicharron topped with black truffle; (ii) a thick slice of Flavor Bomb pluot with aged Serrano ham; (iii) a Venezuelan arepa with squash salsa and Siberian caviar; (iv) braised Galician octopus with romesco negro; and (v) a cornflour-fried green tomato. The arepa and octopus were highlights – clean, precise flavours and spot-on execution.

Black masa chilapita, smoked sturgeon mousse, Royal White sturgeon caviar, Meyer lemon
Tostada, seaweed-cured hamachi, avocado, fermented red pepper, preserved lemon jelly

The next two bites were both excellent, not just because of the toppings (which were more than good), but for the crisp corn shells upon which they were set – each one showcasing different varieties of heirloom corn with remarkably different profiles.

Azara melon granita, chareau-compressed Hami melon, lemon verbena, mint
A fantastic early interlude to reset – intense melon on the palate.

Ceviche
This sequence comprised: (i) firm spheres of peaches in a chilhuacle amarillo chamoy; (ii) slices of Mexican bluefin tuna, swimming in watermelon aguachile and accompanied by bush basil and jalapeno; (iii) a ‘coctel’ of Royal Red shrimp, avocado, cherry tomatoes and cucamelon, with a small hit of Thai chili for good measure. A very strong set of bites that I thought was woefully mispaired with a rosĂ© txakolina – acid on top of acid did the seafood (and fruit) no justice.

Grilled Cavendish banana, cold-smoked Kaluga hybrid caviar, savory dulce de leche
Banana and caviar seem to be an in-fashion combination. Here, the dish was given a Mexican spin with the addition of a salty-sweet dulce de leche to mirror the interplay between the other two components. Excellent.

Conico Azul masa tlacoyo
Montezuma Red beans, nopales, fresh lettuce, smoked cotija

First, the scene was set – salsa verde (smooth and delightfully complex), lime, pickled carrots and onions were placed on the table. Then the first of three tacos, each with its own unique tortilla, was introduced. This vegetarian rendition was jaw-droppingly good – so much depth in every component from the corn, to the beans and cactus, to the cheese. Easily my favourite dish of the night.

Red snapper al pastor
Hickory Gold masa tortilla, smoked pineapple, Delfina cilantro

Durham Ranch squab breast, sourdough tortilla, cucumber crema, aleppo pepper salsa
Sundried tomato, coriander and fenugreek broth

Snake River Farm ribeye, slow-smoked heirloom tomato
Spring onion, grilled summer squash with nepitella and allium flowers

Frutas
Desserts began with a digestif of young ginger juice, vermouth and Pink Lady apples. I was advised to down it like a shot, then turn to the petite Zante grapes, simply presented on ice. Next, I moved to a substantial tamal with grilled strawberries and a strawberry-corn liqueur – good, but I’ll just never fully appreciate the somewhat mealy texture of steamed masa. Finally, a quenelle duo of sweet corn ice cream and strawberry sorbet – this was very good and I wanted more of each.

Memento Mori, Chocolatl
Despite the grim name, the final dessert course was rather playful. The highlight was a very fancy spin on a chocotaco – here, filled with cocoa nib ice cream, frozen Thomcord grape chamoy, chile morita and decorated with a piping of toasted meringue. A second standout was a miniature pina colada paleta, enrobed in coconut sugar cotton candy.

As I neared the end of my evening, I began mentally kicking myself for not revisiting sooner. It’s clear that Cantu and his team are on to something special here, coupling a unique Californian-Mexican sensibility with high-level technical execution. I did not see this previously, whether through my own fault or because this vision had not yet fully germinated. Nevertheless, this was a terrific dinner and I’m elated that this restaurant lives in San Francisco. I will be back.

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