At first glance, everything about Californios suggests its intention is to clone Saison and unleash it upon a pocket of the Mission where so far, gentrification’s high tide line has been a putt-putt golf course in a former funeral parlor.
They’re half-right. Chef Val M. Cantu, formerly of Sons and Daughters and Mexico City’s Pujol, wants to recreate the cuisine of Spanish-era California in a 28-seat establishment with aggressively beautiful art. Considering the sheer breadth of the experience and the fact that elsewhere, stand-alone entrees are creeping north of $40, the $57 tasting menu ($92 with wine) is practically a value meal.
[jump] The tasting menu rotates nightly and it’s actually the only thing you can order. Keeping the mission statement in mind, the more I ate, the more joyfully confused I got — especially when a given course veered from Mexican cuisine and into self-parody (a granita palate cleanser included Pop Rocks made me LOL). I can’t validate whether the painstakingly composed Yerba Buena salad, made with various beets, miner’s lettuce and bee pollen, mimicked the offerings in a Mexican farmers market, but I’m pretty sure the abuelas who shop there aren’t ingeniously pairing faux-pozole chicken soup with Inedit Beer from El Bulli.
But overall it was a hit parade, from the chips and salsa (nixtamalized in lime, with trout roe and a spicy dollop of cream) to the braised beef tongue, apportioned in a hearty cut, to the smoked buri (yellowtail) steeped in rice vinegar, like ceviche’s second cousin, once removed.
Dessert I was a little etude of textures, from blood orange sorbet, a slice of cara cara, chocolate pot de crème, and coffee meringue. It came on a fabulous china plate emblazoned with a crowned skull. I’d played it cool until that moment, but I had to Instagram that one, because really, I wanted to steal it. Dessert II was foie gras ice cream, as rich and nutty as it gets.
And speaking of social media, Cantu’s Twitter feed is full of artfully composed food pics (as you’d probably expect) along with cryptic statements like “I have become unstuck in time” and “You can call me, Cheffrey Dahmer.” This sort of thing comes up again when you look at the menu, which is just a pic of a religious candle with some of the courses superimposed at a slant: chips, hielo, lengua, dulce, etc. (Although the staff are no doubt trained for it, toying with patrons that way must be infuriating to people with food sensitivities. At least the wine pairings are listed in full.)
Like a secret sealed by an index finger held up to pursed lips, the entire exercise is one big concealed smile. It’s on a need-to-know basis, and Cantu’s right; we don’t need to know. I’m sure some people will hate these affectations, but Californios is much more playful than cerebral. It’s like nothing else, in fact.
Californios, 3115 22nd St., 757-0994.