Californios: Beans and Caviar, Forever

On the cusp of turning four, Val Cantu's Benu-for-Mexican-food kitchen remains like no other restaurant in San Francisco.

Flan with wild vanilla pompona | Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

When Californios opened just shy of four years ago, co-owner and sommelier Charlotte Randolph says they received several nasty voicemails. She and chef Val Cantu, also an owner, weren’t sure they’d make it. (With two turns a night, Randolph says she sometimes had a private emotional moment between seatings.) But if genius is 99 percent perspiration, they sweated through it, and gradually the tasting menu expanded from $75 for eight courses (with $45 optional beverage pairing) to $197 for 17 courses, some of which include multiple bites.

In the context of the Bay Area’s seemingly insatiable hunger for top-tier dining experiences, it’s difficult to see how Californios’ Benu-for-Mexican-food conceit could do anything but flourish — although that’s hindsight for you. As with the finest examples of this format, service here is not only smooth and agreeable, but the staff emerge to gush about this and that, clearly hoping diners will nerd out with them for 60 seconds on their favorite topic, which is whatever thing they’ve just presented to you. (Notably, Birdsong is also very good at this.) The secondary purpose of keeping you as engaged as possible is to throw you an intellectual lifeline as you gradually sink into the stupor of satiation in this all-black room. Seventeen courses are way less overwhelming with the right narration.

Cantu’s cooking has polarized past critics a bit. It’s polished and cerebral, without a surplus of warmth that people associate — possibly including a trace of condescension — with Mexican cuisine. Far less rustic than Cala, Californios is simply unlike any other restaurant in the city, and the only place I’ve ever tasted sikil p’ak (or “xikilpak,” the Mayan version of hummus, made with pepitas) is at Comal in Berkeley. Here, it’s presented in a quesadilla, with butternut squash, candied pepitas and the aromatic leaf known as hoja santa. Highbrow? Yes. Approachable? Also yes. Cantu emphasizes precision and aesthetic harmony over a stronger emotional connection to its origins. Maybe you want to relax with Calibri or Verdana, but he’s going to give you everything in Futura. Shrewdly, the pairing for the xikilpak is a Listan Prieto, a Mexican wine whose name — “Bichi” — means “naked” in an indigenous language. It’s distilled from Mission grapes, which is to say, it harkens back to pre-Cabernet California. The mind appreciates that first and the solar plexus catches up.

In 2015 as now, the most emblematic dish is the “tres frijoles,” a combination of cranberry beans, moro beans, and white royal corona beans from Rancho Gordo, topped with completely unnecessary yet wholly compatible reserve caviar, and paired with a brioche-y 2009 Schramsberg “J. Schram” Brut. Binding the exalted to the humble is well and good, but it’s also the best bite, hands down.

There are many others, though. The smoked cypress tea in the agua fresca that tees things off is more elegant than any soda, yet never escapes the apple base. The ostiones divorciados, or “divorced oysters” — a riff on divorced eggs — were uneven. Both are Shigoku from Washington State, but while the fresh oyster with its kiss of passion fruit in the liquor was sublime, the fried version disappeared into its batter. Ditto for the later Monterey abalone, overtaken by shiso and persimmon. But you can’t escape the engorged caterpillar of Hokkaido uni with avocado and a yuca shell, elevated with a 2014 Muscadet from the Loire Valley, probably Californios’ favorite viticultural region. (I had to eat it in one bite. No regrets.)

That yuca paled beside the sourdough tortilla that sat beneath a piece of marinated pork and its complementary Asian pear. It’s doughy and exquisite, a revelation not unlike what Sorrel does with its sourdough focaccia, and the team has lovingly cared for the mother since the restaurant’s inception.

It’s in the wine selection that all of Californios’ rusticity spills out, as with Statti’s 2017 “El Greco,” a Calabrian gem that arrived with a mild yellowtail ceviche made with celtuce, which will hopefully start populating our dinner plates now that romaine is officially deadly and kale is still over. Another bite of caviar, this time atop a layer of masa on an upside-down glass vessel, looked like an opulent headpiece for the Temple of the Moon, and the saffron-inflected caldo de oro (chicken broth, essentially) with purslane was also a concentrated marvel, the gooseberries at the bottom hitting like a tart sort of natural ravioli. The broth came with a restrained Belgian-style ale that colored within the lines, although the Manatsuru 1751 “True Vision” sake that followed was the most unusual beverage of the night. Randolph chose it so as not to overwhelm the flaky sea bream with three types of citrus, and even though it was pretty funky on the nose, her instincts were right.

While some tasting menus flirt with meat only to end on some weird vegetable preparation, Californios ratchets up in a clear, sensible way: fish, duck breast, ribeye, dessert. The staff practically apologized for the Liberty Farms duck breast with pineapple, but classics are classics for a reason and no one should really expect startling formal innovation every single moment. With its rich, smoky mole, the duck is like the best hot dog with ketchup you’ll ever taste — only with a Peay 2014 Ama Estate Pinot Noir that couldn’t come from any closer to the coast of Sonoma. Even smokier dates and some heavenly chanterelles accompanied a ribeye carne asada to which virtually nothing had been added except salt and pepper — plus some jus lovingly ladled out of a small copper pot.

If you’re still taking good notes by the time the foraged huckleberry “buñuelos” arrive — more like crackers than the usual fried dough balls — you have my respect. They’re preserved, granted, but where do you even get huckleberries this time of year? Oregon, it turns out. Flan, served on the most George O’Keeffe of plates, is simply comforting, and never more so than with a touch of vanilla and pecan caramel. And the refreshing pomegranate digestivo that ended it all comes Argentine-style, with a yerba mate straw — plus two bits of lime skewered on a pick with a skull for a head. It’s a big exclamation point at the end of a long meal that was otherwise confident to use its indoor voice, confident that everything spoke for itself. I doubt the voicemails have been negative lately.

Californios, 3115 22nd St., 415-757-0994 or californiossf.com

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