As we exited the restaurant, I glanced at the 11:00 p.m. digital clock on my phone and was surprised with how much time had passed. Compared to when we first arrived hours earlier, the night air felt colder and the Mission streets more desolate. With a brisk walk we quickly headed to our car, which was parked several blocks away. When we arrived at the vehicle I unlocked the door, plunked down onto the driver’s seat, and turned on the engine. As the car’s four cylinder engine whined to life, I buckled my seat belt and sat motionless peering through the windshield. Due to overstimulated senses and disoriented thoughts, attempts to reflect and remember the happenings of the last two and a half hours proved difficult. Its ok. I thought. There was a lot to absorb. I’ll sleep on it and record my thoughts tomorrow.
In the days that followed I had time to recollect and evaluate my evening experiences at the newly opened restaurant Californios. We had become participants in a dining adventure where we ceded dish decisions and ultimately our evening fate to the chef and his fervent staff. “No need to remember anything. We’ll give you the menu at the end,” assured our waitress after explaining that the upcoming eight course meal is designed by the whim of the chef with you the patron on a need-to-know basis. With the exception of our chosen wines, we lacked all knowledge of the upcoming meal and ventured into the unknown.
Our dinner began with the server gently placing a plate of four small fried tortillas on our table. Two tortillas were topped with thick sweet cream, fish roe, and raisins while the others were stuffed with a spicy filling. The tortillas’ fried dough was more chewy than desired but the presentation and balance of flavors reflected a finely tuned culinary skill. And the meals kept coming. We were presented next with a dish of two oysters which exhibited just-shucked freshness, meaty texture, and favorable briny flavor. And the meals kept coming. Pop. Pop. Snap. Pop. What was this sound in our mouths? We wondered as we ate through a chilled bowl of kiwi and grenadine flavored shaved ice. Dredging up childhood memories we remembered. Pop rocks! And the meals kept coming. There were no breaks in this dining marathon. What followed included a bowl of potatoes in three differently prepared forms, a crock of homemade four-broth soup, smooth tender tuna ceviche, a cut of steak from the same duck breed that gives humanity foie gras, warm bread accompanied by homemade cultured butter, and on it went.
Our engagement was not only with the food but also the enthusiastic staff. “What do you think of the Cab?”, our server inquisitively asked as she refilled our water glasses. “Citrus flavor profile and grapefruit bitter finish,” my dining companion responded. Throughout the night our conversations with her about the wines were relatively significant. In another instance, a cook responded to our questions about the four-broth soup. His quick glance at the kitchen following our question hinted to his pressing pending responsibilities. But he placed answering our questions a higher priority and thoroughly explained the lengthy multi-day process involved in making the four-broth soup, which included selectively growing a unique array of herbs in a Mission based farm.
Each meal showed innovation, creativity, and a level of refinement found only in a kitchen program containing attention to detail, thorough experimentation, and deep culinary knowledge and experience. Highlights included the duck meat’s tender texture and mild flavor, soup’s complex broth flavors, polenta bowl’s synergistic flavor combinations, and fresh artfully presented desserts. The meal was not without flaws, however. Notable imperfections included a fishy tasting halibut and a plate of significantly chewy pupusas. Additionally, we were not completely enamored by the offered wine glass selections. The Cabernet Sauvignon’s bitterness lingered too long on the palate and the Pinot Noir’s qualities of mineral and oak overpowered most of the blackberry, cherry, and raspberry flavors we have come to expect from this variety of wine.
Our evening at Californios did something that we were not expecting. We got lost. Overwhelmed in the moment and in the fun, we forgot we were reviewing this restaurant. Chef Val M. Cantu took us on a dining adventure and opened our eyes to a whole new culinary world. And when it was finished we were gently placed back in our seats and handed a bill of $225. Was it worth it? The chef delivered on his promises to reinterpret and elevate Mexican cuisine. But he did more than just reinvent the food of his heritage. He added emotion, expertise, and fun. And for this, we gladly paid a car payment worth of money to his new restaurant.