The stellar al pastor tacos at La Calenda. (tablehopper.com)
Take a look at the new Mexican restaurant, La Calenda, from Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, The Saratoga is hosting a weekly ramen special on Wednesdays, and three Valentine’s Day dinners worth the expense and hassle of going out on a very busy night of hearts and flowers.
Thomas Keller’s Mexican Restaurant, La Calenda, Is Unsurprisingly Quite Delicious
In an unexpected move from the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, they opened a casual Mexican restaurant in Yountville, in the former Hurley’s, where you’ll now find destination-worthy tacos and more. La Calenda's chef de cuisine is Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, who was raised in Oaxaca — he worked on his father’s tomato farm, and his mother, Susana Trilling, is a known culinary personality, with a PBS series and cooking school (Seasons of My Heart), and many cookbooks.
At La Calenda, he was able to introduce purveyors and artisans from his home region to Yountville. Dried chiles — including chilhuacle negro, costeño rojo, and chile mixe — are from Oaxaca, and they use Tamoa to source heirloom corn from various regions of Central and Southern Mexico, including multigenerational corn growers and tortilleros. But then there’s a focus on our fantastic local products as well, like beans from Rancho Gordo, mushrooms from Connie Green of Wineforest Wild Foods, and goat milk from Sonoma County. The French Laundry Culinary Garden supplies traditional herbs, including pápalo, pipicha, and cilantro criollo, and will increase its production of squash year-round, and the kitchen will use its blossoms, fruit, and seeds.
The totopos are so good here, it looks like TKRG will need to figure out how to sell them separately in stores (please do that), and the accompanying salsa verde and the brick red salsa mixe are stellar, plus a perfectly seasoned guacamole that will become your new gold standard ($13 for all). Add in an order of the queso fundido ($11)—made with queso Chihuahua — and prepare to get a crush on the smoky salsa a las brasas. It’s also your first encounter with the housemade tortillas here — on our visit, they were tortillas rojas, so fragrant and earthy.
The tamal de calabaza ($6) has a delicate, creamy texture, with vegetal notes from the hoja santa and comes with a puree of butternut squash, and spicy black bean salsa with aji amarillo.
Meats really shine here, from the juicy tacos al pastor (shaved off a trompo/vertical spit) with roasted pineapple, shaved onion, and an outstanding salsa morita ($11 for two), to the rich and deeply savory tacos de barbacoa, with braised short rib topped with a verdant blanket of salsa avocado, plus cilantro and an unexpected spicy sprig of watercress ($13 for two). We were happy to have more of the roja tortillas.
And then there’s the plato fuerte of puerco en mole verde ($22), thick slices of the most tender and pork jowl (prepared sous vide for eight hours and then finished on the wood-fired grill), so you get a satisfyingly seared exterior on the fat-laced meat, served with creamy Rancho Gordo white beans in green mole, all hiding under a few baby Swiss chard leaves.
There’s a children’s menu, and quite the cocktail list for adults (most of the drinks are pre-batched to keep up with volume, the bar gets absolutely slammed). Try their spin on a Paper Plane (Avión de Papel) made with tequila, a great cocktail to start your meal with, and the Negroni with mezcal and porcini-infused Campari is savory and a good match with the tacos de barbacoa. The bar team is talented and fun, so hang out in the bar area if you can for a drink. In selecting local wines, the La Calenda team worked with the Mexican-American Vintner’s Association (MAVA), a nonprofit association in Napa Valley that partners with Latinix vintners and winemakers.
The lively restaurant is now open nightly until 11pm, and doesn’t take reservations (unless you have a group of 10 or more), so expect a wait — unless you’re like me and come in midweek at 9:15pm and find all the room you need; you can also order food to go. It has a casual hacienda style, with wood tables and high-backed chairs, and all the dishware and glasses are made by various artisans in Oaxaca. It’s approachable, welcoming, and family-friendly, with extremely attentive service, and is also pretty high-volume, a far cry from the hushed atmosphere at The French Laundry.
Rainy, chilly nights are built for ramen, and The Saratoga is offering a weekly ramen special every Wednesday through February 13th. The first two weeks were a pop-up of sorts with chef Dennis Lee of Namu Gaji, serving his garlic-sesame-miso ramen with crispy delicata squash, roast tomato, bean sprouts, shiitake, mizuna, sesame mayu, nori, and onsen egg ($16). For the coming weeks, The Saratoga’s chef Francisco Baca will be offering his own bowl, and you can take your pick of some Japanese whiskey pairings (The Saratoga is known for their shimmering wall and selection of whiskey). A perfect Wednesday winter’s night: whiskey and ramen. Follow @thesaratogasf for menu updates.
Three Options for Valentine’s Day That Are Worth Going Out For
If you’re looking for something that’s the right balance of romance and camp, Nightbird is offering a "Fairytale Love" menu for $200, which will feature food moments in movie scenes about love. Chef Alter and her partner Ron Boyd are celebrating their lucky 13 anniversary and they’re both February babies, so they’re excited to celebrate with guests!
Another birthday is at A16, which is turning 15 on February 14! Chef Nicolette Manescalchi has created a classic Southern Italian menu, a Lover's Feast, and Wine Director Shelley Lindgren is pouring wines that have become a part of the A16 family along with some rare gems. The family-style dinner ($98 per person) includes Kumamoto oysters with Meyer lemon, ogo seaweed, olio nuovo; beet tonnarelli with sour orange, garlic, goat milk ricotta salata; and acqua pazza lobster.
For a completely artsy dinner, one of The Midway Gallery's resident artists, Isis Hockenos, returns with another one of her surreal dining events, Night Fishing: Ostara. Descend into a magical, mythical realm of enchanted revelers, bewitching nymphs, and playful satyrs, and feel whispers of the approaching days of Spring. There will be music and muses and merry-makers, and a seasonal, multi-course dinner with wine pairings.