Color me impressed. I had an excellent meal at Californios this past week and I’m looking to return very soon. This is exciting food that’s very well thought out, even if they’ve been open for less than a year.
The food has a unique ethos not seen elsewhere in Northern California: it’s modern high-end Mexican-Californian and it captures well the “terroir” and feel of SF and the Mission district over the course of its 17 or so plates. There’s some familiar flavors, some original and brilliant combinations, but it always feels distinctly Mexican (even if not all ingredients are Mexican). The food is quite delicious and pure, nothing superfluous (unlike many other new restaurants in SF), and the menu is very clever but never gimmicky.
Started off with about 6 or so botanas (aka canapes) which set the stage with a mix of refreshing flavors and crunchy textures. To note: shrimp skewer in a delicious leche de tigre with pomegranate and jicama that served as a palette cleansing shot. Housemade crudites of Tokyo turnip, cucumber, and okra from the chef’s personal garden felt like a cross between a tsukemono of sorts and a spicy giarnideria. I also liked the chicharron with trout roe and yogurt, and a pineapple espuma integrated the dish’s salinity with an effervescent sweetness. Then a fried shrimp head in a shrimp innards and cactus aioli, followed by a brilliant palette cleanser of prickly pear sorbet in a clear coulis of nopales (cactus).
Standouts from the main courses:
- Crudo of hagatsuo (pacific striped bonito), sanma (pike mackerel), and yariika (triangle squid) ribbons in yuzu. What really made the dish though was the savory palette cleanser salad bound by an aguachile gel. The fresh wasabi, green apple essence, and 1-2 punch of aguachile with mitsuba leaves were perfect foils to the hikarimono. Most impressive was the way the mitsuba’s peppery herbal note was reminiscent of cilantro, rendering the dish quite like a ceviche. Such a smart way of using non-Mexican ingredients to evoke distinctly Mexican flavors. Smart pairing of a saline and minerally Muscadet.
- “Arroz con pollo.” Brilliant concept here, with the chicken present in liquid forms only - as the base of a mole sauce and as an egg encased in the cylinder of rice. Deeply comforting and savory flavors here conjured by charred avocado (a blowtorch was the finishing touch of the dish), okoge-style crisped rice at the exterior, mole of chicken reduction and carrots, and raw jidori egg inside. Lots of textures here again, and the very fruit forward new style rioja had near zero tannin, so as not to clash with the luscious mouthfeel of the avocado and egg. I didn’t care for the texture of the rice inside as much, but I’m nitpicking.
- Mouthfeel of the “frijoles potage,” with beans in 3 textures, paired with a lacy saison ale. Fine carbonation here was key in cutting the weight of the bean porridge. Also liked the mignonette-like shallots at the bottom.
- Perfectly cooked sea bass with crisped skin in a “salsa verde” of sorrel, charred grapes, and chayote. Wow, what a smart combination of ingredients, set just to the perfect pitch of sourness, vegetal flavors, and sweetness to complement the rich fish. Especially nice alongside the complex wine blend of gewurtztraminer, riesling, kerner, etc.
- Wagyu barbacoa with aged black garlic mole - awesome spice and pineapple flavors here and fantastic texture on the beef. Didn’t like the potato as much, though.
Desserts were excellent. Pineapple in various forms with Mexican pine. Overripened banana and foie-gras ice cream with caramel and cocoa nibs. Overripe banana was reminiscent of the botrytis in the accompanying Tokaji, which also did double duty in cutting the foie’s richness. I appreciated how the flavors of desserts flowed - from pineapple and pine to banana, foie, then chocolate. I could’ve sworn there was fig leaf ice cream somewhere, but I can’t remember. I thought so because I remember thinking that it’s such a smart thing to do by using the lingering note of fig leaf to work with the foie in the next course (or maybe I was dreaming…had a real late and long night). Bread was griddled housemade cilantro sourdough (alongside housemade Straus butter). The cooking here is quite polished, the plating is beautiful, and the food is quite smart with regards to not just flavor combinations but also texture and mouthfeel. Some smart riffs on Mexican comfort food dishes - frijoles, fideo, arroz con pollo, etc. with clever execution. I think at times some of the details may go over the head of some diners, but there’s a lot going on here. If I had to choose the best bites of the night, they’d be: 1) the use of mitsuba and aguachile with the crudo; 2) salsa verde of sorrel, charred grapes, and chayote - these two let me know the menu is high-level.
The dining room is an intimate 26-seat space, featuring a chef’s counter and cool decor that walks the line well, never delving into kitsch. Service was pleasant, professional, easygoing. With the menu at $97 (+ $65 for alcohol pairing), I’ll definitely be back to see how this place continues to evolve. It’s off to a great start and imo is one of the most exciting tasting menus in California at the moment, especially considering the price.