The Mission District in San Francisco is easily becoming the new hot spot for restaurants. Some of the city’s favorite restaurants are located there such as Foreign Cinema, Lazy Bear, Delfina, and Bar Tartine, just to name a few. So when I heard about a newly opened innovative Californian/Mexican inspired restaurant, I was more than intrigued.
Californios just opened three months ago and already it’s difficult to get a reservation. The restaurant itself is very small creating an intimate warm atmosphere. You can even watch chef Val M. Cantu and his kitchen brigade work behind the chef’s counter. Chef Val M. Cantu offers only one prix fixe nightly menu ($75/person) with multiple courses including amuse bouches, breads, and petite fours. His food reflects Californian cuisine with some Mexican and Asian touches using the freshest and most seasonal ingredients found within the area.
First of all, service was great at Californios. All the servers were extremely personable and friendly and since the restaurant is quite small, even the chefs would sometimes bring us our courses and explain the dishes in depth which I loved.
The food at Californios was extremely inventive and unique with combinations of flavors I had never tasted or expected. First, all the amuse bouches were delicious and the perfect way to start the meal. I especially loved the first of the season asparagus because it reflected simplicity and the importance of seasonality. My favorite dishes of the dinner were the hamachi, potato three ways, halibut, duck, and the salted caramel foie gras ice cream. The hamachi (yellowtail fish) was buttery with nuances of smoke served with sweet yet tart mandarinquat (a hybrid of mandarin and kumquat) and a touch of heat from the serrano chili. The potato three ways was a comforting vegetarian dish with meaty potato, crispy chip, and creamy purée with smoky spicy chipotle adobo sauce. The poached halibut was cooked to moist perfection with a scrumptious green garlic and shishito pepper mole sauce, charred brussel sprouts, and the perfect acidic and textural component from the finger lime caviar. Now you might be thinking, “what the hell is finger lime caviar?” Don’t worry, I thought the same thing. I asked one of the servers what it was and she happily brought me an actual finger lime.
If you push the outside of the fruit, tiny balls that look like caviar come out and actually taste like a less acidic version of lime! Very cool. The last savory course, the duck, was scrumptious served with crazy delicious jus and crunchy refreshing fennel “pico de gallo” with slices of sweet pickles and an herb that reminded me of Japanese shiso leaves. Both of the desserts were outstanding but the salted caramel foie gras ice cream, which might sound terrifying, was actually amazing! Although the foie gras flavor didn’t come out in the ice cream, it added a marvelous richness and creaminess to the ice cream which paired well with the brûléed banana. Even the petit fours served at the end of the meal were the perfect sweet bites to end a fantastic meal.
I found that chef Val M. Cantu’s food was not only beautifully presented but was truly creative. I couldn’t exactly say that the food was modern Mexican cuisine in the way I had imagined the meal would be like but I was more than pleasantly surprised with the dishes that were offered. Overall, I’d rate Californios at an 8.5/10.