Californios is new to the Mission, having only opened in January of 2015. It is not old school, and it’s the polar opposite of divey. It belongs, in fact, to what I think of as the newest wave of the high-end restaurants – places like Al’s Café and Lazy Bear, which appear to be catering to the techie generation or foodies willing to spend big for a dining experience. It has no real roots here, other than the building it is in used to be a Panchitas No. 3 and then the short-lived Manos Nouveau.
Californios is family run, however – San Francisco’s 2016 Rising Chef, Val Cantu, owns and operates the restaurant with his wife and sister-in-law. Mr. Cantu grew up in his father’s Mexican restaurant kitchen, and, after stints at fine dining restaurants such as Benu, Saison, and Sons & Daughters, as well his own pop-ups around the city, he went to Mexico City and cooked at Pujol, considered to be the best restaurant there. He wanted to bring his own version of elevated Mexican cuisine to San Francisco, and it is perhaps fitting that he brought it to the Mission, home of so many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Indeed, Mexicans that migrated here back when this state was actually a part of Mexico, in the late 1700s, called themselves “Californios” – “Californians” – hence, the name of the restaurant. Chef Cantu appears to want to hearken back to those who came before him, while creating a new and distinct brand of upscale Mexican food. The food is not traditional here, although many of the flavors echo the traditions of Mexican cuisine.
The exterior of the restaurant is spare and unassuming – rather like a secret. For me it felt like Cantu is perhaps trying not to shout from the rooftops, “New, conspicuous consumption foodie palace here, in what used to be a pupuseria!” Perhaps he thought it best to be more circumspect. Inside, the décor is dark and elegant, a little clubby. It’s lovely, actually, and the counter seating with a view to the kitchen reminded me of old Hollywood. The shelves are lined with cookbooks, alluding to Chef Cantu’s continuing desire to learn and find inspiration.
When the restaurant first opened, the tasting menu was a mere $57 per person, and consisted of six courses. A little over a year and a half – and a Michelin star – later, that price has gone up to $157.00 per person for 16 courses.
As I sat waiting for my dinner companions, I was presented with an aperitif: a dry rosé cava, setting the tone for the rest of the meal – lightness.
What followed was beautifully plated dish after beautifully plated dish of thoughtful interpretations of mostly Latin flavors. The progression of the dishes was well-considered, and there was familiarity as well as surprises. I did not get a picture of every dish as it was quite dark and some of the courses were served in deep, gorgeous bowls. The cutlery, too, was lovely.
We started out with a delicate agua fresca – a tart/sweet blend of strawberry and celery juices, with a cilantro puree that rose up slowly from the bottom. The freshness of this amuse startled me – the brightness of the strawberry contrasting with the greenness of the celery, and the cilantro bringing its peppery notes at the end. I was hopeful that the bar had been set.
Next up, a chicharron – in this incarnation, wagyu beef on a Oaxacan corn chip. I liked the flavor of the beef, but the chip tasted rather like a Frito to us, which I am sure was not intended. I found it a playful dish.
I loved the silkiness of the tongue course on a blue corn tortilla, but one of my friends thought it tasted like beef barbacoa, which she didn’t like, although she did feel it had the most “authentically Mexican” feel to it.
Next came lovely little pouches, almost like beignets, encasing foie gras, and sprinkled with popcorn powder. These were heavenly bites for me, as I love foie with a passion. I’m not sure I noticed any relation to Mexican flavors in this dish, but it was a very good bite.
A light ice followed, as a palate cleanser, which was a bit of an odd choice at the moment since we’d only just begun the meal. The watermelon sorbet over a tamarind ice was refreshing, however, and echoed the aguas frescas you can get at some taquerias in the neighborhood.
Abulon (abalone) came next (no good picture), dressed in chili, tomato, seaweed, and finger lime – the latter a small citrus fruit with tiny globules that pop in your mouth, almost like caviar, but with a tart sweetness (“Awesome!” – said one of my friends). They made a fun accompaniment to the slight crunch of the abalone. It was reminiscent of a ceviche and one of my favorite dishes of the night.
The lobster dish that followed vied for my favorite – poached lobster in a buttery, creamy sauce, which reminded me of the cheese dip found in many Mexican restaurants, known simply as “queso”, with tomato and tostada. Richness and lightness, in one bowl. I may have swooned a little. My serving had a few good bites of heat as well, but one of my companions said hers had none, so the plating was a little uneven.
One dish that surprised us was mysteriously called a “fruit cup” and the surprise tonight was that there was almost no fruit in it! Our server said that the dish had originally started out as a fruit dish, but had evolved into sort of a mix of things that might have caught the chef’s fancy that day. On this night, ours contained cabbage, pickled carrot, green beans, goat cheese, dried cherries, and beets. There was a tang and a smokiness here. Two of us really loved this dish – such a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures. The beets were a stand-out.
Two other highlights of the night contained the most, at least to my palate, Mexican “sensibility.” One I didn’t get a good picture of, sadly. It consisted of rice, fermented ramps, preserved tomatoes, smoked trout roe, and pea tendrils – an umami dreamboat of a dish. There was a lovely piquant quality, and as well as an earthiness to this course. Two of us found this our second favorite of the night. Each flavor was distinct, the rice was comforting, and overall I would have just loved a big bowl of it. I felt it was one of the bites that most succeeded with my perception of Chef Cantu’s intent – to take Mexican flavors, not its traditional dishes, and to reinterpret them.
The other star of the evening was a bean soup. I believe this was our favorite dish. It was an elevated take on a staple in Mexican cuisine – frijoles. It was hearty yet elegant, subtle. The bean varieties were, I believe, moro and cranberry, and a third, perhaps. There was a shallot relish under the beans, and a smattering of caviar resting over the foamy top. It was a delight, with deep, homey flavors, through and through.
Next came a “gazpacho” – (no good picture) one delicate little oyster in a pool of tomato juice and jalapeno. I don’t think any of us really liked this dish, as there was an odd flavor to it – one of my friends likened it to a burning tire smell/taste…
Wild king salmon came perfectly cooked, silky and almost translucent, topped with its crispy skin, with chia seeds and plum in a habanero broth. It was a beautifully cooked piece of fish, and obviously one of excellent quality.
The quesadilla was another pleasant surprise. The “tortilla” was made with sourdough, and the stuffing was chanterelle mushroom, Oaxacan queso, and tomatillo, with an herby nasturtium salsa. It was very tasty, but could have used more mushrooms, and the salsa lacked any heat.
Our final savory course was lamb, with fried okra and ramps. Again, the quality of the meat shone here, and it was cooked perfectly – the meat was tender and moist and had a delicate flavor. I could have had three more chops to myself, but I could not tell you what Chef Cantu was trying to say about Mexican cuisine with this course, if anything.
Desserts were three separate little dishes. . .
One was a sweet queso fresco on some type of cookie – a creamy, pleasant bite…
…the second was banana ice cream with cajeta – a swirl of caramel…
…and the third was a simple piece of yellow cake – like something you’d get at a quinceañera, or maybe a child’s birthday party, complete with a piñata. My friends loved the yellow cake most of all the desserts.
Overall, I felt that the desserts were the weakest part of the meal. We were certainly full, however. The dishes, while small, were substantive enough, if not all electrifying.
Funnily enough, one of the most memorable parts of our meal was the wine pairing ($97 for seven pours). This may be the first time I’ve felt that a wine pairing was integral to the enjoyment of a meal. Each – from Germany, Spain, Italy and France, and a sake from Japan – was new to us, and even if we’d heard of the grape or the blend, they were all unique, complex, surprising. And delicious. More than that, they paired exceptionally well with the dishes –enhanced them. The wine director is Chef Cantu’s sister-in-law, Charlotte Randolph, formerly of The French Laundry. She’s quite an asset and I hope they hold on to her. I would say if you go, at least one of your party should do the wine pairing. While we also liked the wines we got “ala carte” (only one of us got the pairing), they were not as impressive, to me, as the ones selected for the meal by Ms. Randolph. If you’re going to spend money in a place like this, you should do it up right.
The service, by the way, was exquisite. Unobtrusive, attentive, and warm. The staff made us feel at home, and were eager to answer our questions. There was nothing stuffy about any of these very knowledgeable, professional, and friendly people.
For me, as for my dinner companions, although we truly enjoyed almost everything at Californios, and while many moments of the meal were particularly noteworthy, not everything soared. For the price, every dish should have been a supernova, should have transcended its ingredients. If I spend $157 for a meal (or rather, $254, with the wine pairing, plus the automatic 20 percent service charge) I want a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Perhaps some people who eat here don’t see it as such – perhaps they can afford to eat here a few times a year. But most people cannot, and so Mr. Cantu needs to create that excellence, that feeling of wonder that a meal can be so transportive, sublime. Perhaps Californios will get there.
3115 22nd St.
San Francisco, CA 94110