by Jess Lander
Chef Thomas Keller trades escargot and frites for fresh-pressed tortillas and mole at his new Mexican joint La Calenda.
Opened in the space once home to Hurley's restaurant, La Calenda shares the same couple blocks as Keller's French Laundry, Bouchon Bistro, Bouchon Bakery, and Ad Hoc—but that's about all it has in common with its Yountville comrades.
Focused on authentic Mexican cuisine, La Calenda radiates the joyful spirit of the traditional Oaxacan festivities for which it's named. This isn't buttoned-up fine dining; casual and family-friendly, the servers wear T-shirts and the staff is so nice it's as if they spike the air with tequila. Loud Mexican music emanates from the speakers, but even that gets drowned out by lively conversations between diners. A dinner bell that hangs from the open kitchen is rung periodically and frivolously, simply because it's fun.
The pink-walled restaurant has the look of a traditional taqueria, but this is Napa Valley, so it's rustic-chic, not a dive. Much of the decor was handpicked from Mexico, down to the hand-blown glassware and mismatched wooden chairs. A hand-painted mural brightens the bar area that seats 14; the bar top has a unique copper penny tiling. A large outdoor patio is set to flourish post-winter but for now, 86 seats fill the dining room and there's been a line out the door each night since the place opened at the start of the new year.
At the heart of the restaurant is a large open kitchen. Diners can watch the culinary team hand-press tortillas—they press between 700 and 900 each day—and slice al pastor from a spinning rotisserie.
Chef de Cuisine Kaelin Ulrich Trilling didn't come up the ranks of Keller's world. The idea of working for the decorated chef, let alone heading up one of his restaurants, was a mere pipe dream for the 26-year-old, who grew up in Oaxaca. His mother Susana Trilling, a celebrity chef in her own right, founded the renowned Seasons of My Heart Cooking School in Oaxaca and Trilling draws inspiration from several of her recipes, like the much talked about mole negro, an arduous, three-day process that utilizes roughly 30 ingredients and five types of chiles. "When I make mole here and taste it, I close my eyes and it brings me back to my childhood every time," he says.