(Warning…this is long because, well, brevity has never been my long suit)
After nearly 2 years of Covid delays and 1 cancelled reservation due to Covid, we finally made it to Callie last night. Was the wait worth it? Is the hype real? Mostly…yes!
For those who have been around San Diego for a while, Callie is located in what was originally Bottega Americano, an ambitious, high-profile Italian food hall concept that was well executed but in the wrong location at the wrong time. The interior has been sleekly reconfigured, but there are a lot of hard surfaces and not a lot of sound barriers. It’s noisy, don’t expect intimate converation.
Since we’d already had cocktails at home before our 7:30 pm reservation, we jumped right into the menu which had so many tempting choices it was hard to decide where to start. We took the easy way out and opted for the 5-course Mediterranean Feast. The entire table must opt in to the Feast and the waiters can tell you which items are included. It proved to be a great choice. It allowed us to sample more dishes than if we ordered everything a la carte, plus it was less expensive. As our waiter explained, Callie is about the shared dining experience and the Mediterrean Feast really highlights the concept.
The first part of the menu is titled “Breads & Spreads”. 3 of the 4 items in that section turned up on our table along with house made pitas hot out of the oven and the rather ubiquitous crudite.
Front and center is the hummus. Impossibly creamy. Topped with a spicy zhoug. Oddly, tho’, it was on the bland side. Some heat yes, but flavor, not so much. I, personally, would have preferred a bit more texture to the creaminess. Next to it was Babaghanoush which, in comparison to the lackluster hummus, was pretty spectacular. I am not overly fond of eggplant and I’ve never been a huge fan of babaghanoush, but this version may make a convert out of me. And finally, the pale green spread was avocado lebnah topped with nigella seeds, pistachios and what tasted suspiciously like dukkah. I didn’t think we’d eat the crudite, but every last bit of disappeared. The portion was more than enough for 3 people to share and we liked all 3 of these spreads. The pitas were outstanding.
The next course up was from the “Raw & Cured” section of the menu and we were served something cured.
Kampachi, cured with lime and served over an herby green sauce. There were impossibly small slivers of avocado between each slice of fish and equally impossibly thin slices of hot (pickled?) serrano chiles on top. Even though the fish was cured in lime juice it was not allowed to reach the same cure stage as ceviche which was nice because it left the texture of the fish firm and buttery.
Our 3rd course came from the “Pasta” section of the menu
It seems everyone serves pumpkin ravioli during Fall and Winter, and often times it goes over the edge into being too sweet. Thankfully, these did not. They were a delicious combination of complementary flavors with the fried sage and sheeps milk cheese providing nice contrast. For me, this was the dish of the night because of how well balanced it was, not to mention the delicatness of the pasta itself.
Pappardelle with sausage and fennel ragu. Tasty but a little boring in light of some of the other dishes we already had. If and when it ever gets cold in San Diego, this would make a splendid entree choice if ordering a la carte from the menu.
The pasta course was followed up with selections from the “Salads & Veggie” and “Land & Sea” sections of the menu.
The vaunted aleppo chicken. It is remarkably tender and shot through with middle eastern flavors. I love chicken and thought I’d adore this dish. I didn’t, altho’ both my dining companions liked it better than I did. It was amazingly tender and juicy, the pickled onions really made the dish.
Broccolini and carrots (2 of my favorite vegetables) were served with the mains. The broccolini is served cold atop a meyer lemon tahini sauce with sesame seeds and jalapeños and the ribbons of carrots came on a creamy cashew sauce and topped with cashew dukkah. Both were delicious, I preferred the carrots.
I know this looks like a steak, and it is sort of, a (locally caught) swordfish steak. It is cooked first on a grill to mark it but finished in a skillet. This probably tied with the pumpking ravioli as my favorite dish of the night. The fish was perfectly tender, well cooked and held up well to the strong flavors with which it was accented, not really surprising with swordfish.
And finally, it was time for dessert, which brought 3 choices to our table.
Turkish rice pudding topped with bruleed figs. Not overly sweet, but also not really all that interesting. My least favorite of the desserts. There was passionfruit pavlova, altho’ I think calling this a pavlova is a bit of a stretch, even a deconstructed pav. The passionfruit curd was marvelously tart and sweet, but there was too little of the light and crunchy meringue and I’m not sure what that cheese was doing on top. It didn’t add much, nor did it detract, it was just sort of “there”.
The final dessert was a warm tahini chocolate chip cookie with a scoop of what tasted like coconut ice cream. The cookie was a bit too soft for me, which between the soft cookie and soft ice cream made the whole thing a bit too soft, but the flavors were quite nice.
The bottom line is that Callie was worth the wait and is more or less living up to it’s hype. No, not everything worked, althought most of the dishes did. I liked that the menu was different than the typical San Diego menu, creative in scope, sophisticated and focused on flavors that have not been common in San Diego. There was clearly thought put into each dish as well as attention to detail and execution.
We were there in the middle of Friday night service. The house was full and the kitchen and front of the house was in sync and clicking together. At no point did we feel rushed or compeled to move our meal along. Staffing appeared to be sufficient and was well organizd and trained. Our table was cleared and reset several times but we were mostly left ot our own devices for most of the meal. I would have liked a little more attention from our waiter as the meal progressed but given how busy they were that might not have been a realistic expectation on my part. Service was adequate but could be better.
The part of the meal that did not click for us at all was the wine pairing. They didn’t seem to have much relationship to what was served. The Spanish cava was a decent match with the spreads, but then sparkling wines usually pair well with almost anything. The rosé with the Kampachi was a miss. It was an unremarkable Stolpman rosé that did nothing for the cured fish. It was too sweet and too floral for the sharpness of the green sauce and strong pepper component. A Portugese white was served with the ravioli and pappardelle. My first question is who in the h*ll serves a fruity white with pork ragu pappardelle? I don’t care how structured that white is, it was a clear miss with the pappardelle, though a nice companion to the pumpkin ravioli. An entirely forgetable red was served with the chicken and fish, it may have been Scilican, but really, at this point the wines were such a disappointment we stopped paying attention. As one of my dining companions speculated…“are they using wines that aren’t moving for the wine pairings as a way to move them and get them out of inventory?” And I should stress, that was speculation on our part and only because, for us, the wines did not enhance or do justice to the qulaity of the food we were served
The Mediterrean Feast is $65, which for 5 courses of very good food is a bargain. The wine pairing was another $40, which for 4 glasses of mediocre wine was not a particularly good deal. $105 for a very good meal in San Diego may be a bit of a splurge, but a worthwhile splurge it is.
There is parking underneath the building in a secured parking garage, enter on 11th and Callie will validate your parking receipt.
I will go back. not only because I did like it, but because there are things on the menu I still want try. Next time, however, I may just grab a seat at the bar, enjoy a cocktail, order a couple dishes from the menu and call it dinner.