It’s only fitting that before my Mexico vacation I had an early birthday celebration with my childhood friend Minée at Californios, a modern Mexican inspired restaurant in San Francisco.
I dined at Californios back in 2015 when they first opened (read my review here) and absolutely loved the experience from the cuisine and the intimate atmosphere. Now that Tommy is working there, I thought it was finally time to see how the restaurant has evolved over the past few years especially since they now have a Michelin star.
The tasting menu started off with several amuse bouches back to back to get your palate excited.
Extremely refreshing and light, this agua fresca was made from an oolong tea infused with yellow watermelon juice that almost had notes of cucumber on the nose.
Summer happens to be one of my favorite seasons due to the bountiful selection of magnificent fruits and vegetables. This perfect piece of watermelon was the epitome of summer with its juicy sweetness paired with finely minced pieces of padron peppers which added heat. The surrounding clear broth was a honey lime liquid that only complimented the other flavors.
This was basically a modern take on enchiladas with a shell made from bloody butcher masa stuffed with shrimp ceviche and topped with airy black bean mousse. I felt like the black bean flavor was slightly prominent where I couldn’t taste much of the shrimp.
Sope is a traditional dish from central or southern Mexico consisting of a thick tortilla topped with meat or vegetables and various sauces. Their sope was made from blue corn masa topped with a little bit of morel mushroom mole and a perfectly cooked quail egg. If you know me, mushrooms and eggs are by far my least favorite foods, probably the only two ingredients I don’t care for, so this wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea. Even though I don’t like those ingredients, I appreciated the dish and it was rather tasty.
This was one of my favorite small bites. The chicharrón was airy and crisp topped with cured wagyu that reminded me of prosciutto and had a real depth of flavor. The candied pumpkin seeds added sweetness and crunch and the hoja santa (an aromatic herb with flavors of anise, pepper, nutmeg) sauce added complexity.
This was a green masa quesadilla stuffed with grilled cactus and a creamy cow cheese. I loved the tartness of the gooseberry and tomatillo salsa that helped cut through the richness and greasiness of the quesadilla.
This was actually a dish that the kitchen is currently working on and not on the menu yet so it was really awesome that they sent it out for us to try. The soft shell crab was fried, super crunchy and delicious, with a rich garlic aioli. I especially loved the seaweed pieces on top that added a layer of umami.
The papaya sorbet, smooth and silky, acted as a palate cleanser. A nice transition to the second half of the savory courses.
Madai, also known as sea bream, is coming from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. The fish has a lean clean flavor that really paired nicely with the meaty pieces of coconut flesh, slightly sweet coconut water, and the lemony lime fruitiness of lemon verbena.
The idea of eating insects is terrifying to me, I would much rather eat offal, but this was an approachable way to try crickets and turned out to be one of my favorite dishes of the night. The crickets themselves are made into a powder with various spices that just added seasoning to the charred corn kernels, velvety smoked potato purée, and potato chips.
Hands down the cutest mini taco ever! It was stuffed with poached succulent pieces of lobster with pickled fennel that added necessary acidity and a creamy chilhuacle amarillo chili sauce. I would have liked a little more lobster meat inside the taco since I felt like the other components were competing with the delicateness of the seafood.
Octopus is one of my favorite types of seafood so naturally I really enjoyed this dish but I wanted more pieces of octopus (that’s just me being greedy 😛 ). The super tender tentacles were grilled and served with luscious sun gold tomatoes and a vibrant green tomato broth.
This was a fun bean dish with three types of beans prepared three ways. Morrow beans were made into a bean liquor with chicken jus which coats the bottom of the plate then topped with whole cranberry beans and a corona bean foam. There was also a shallot relish and pickled pearl onion petals underneath the foam. Lastly, there was a nice dollop of delicious briny Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, a really amazing local producer up in Wilton near Sacramento.
This succulent cured salmon was grilled and smoked and served with a jocoque sauce, slightly similar to a homemade sour cream with its tanginess. Underneath the sauce were fermented turnips and an agastache (a type of hyssop) and tarragon oil.
You can’t really go wrong with beautifully marbled wagyu beef coming from Miyazaki, Japan. The meat is so unctuous and rich with an indescribable complex flavor and literally just melts in your mouth. It really doesn’t even need garnishes because the star of the show should be the beef itself. So freakin’ good.
The braised lamb shoulder was extremely tender and soft and I loved the smooth nepitella guacamole with the richness of the meat. The cucumber was slightly cured with salt and sugar and then grilled and the ramp added a nice oniony garlic flavor. I especially loved the warm sourdough tortillas where you made your own mini tacos with the meat and garnishes.
How cute are pink lemonade blueberries?! I had never seen them before and these were just adorable. The buttery sablé had a milky rich goat cheese on top and the pops of pink lemonade blueberries were a fun addition.
This white guava sorbet was bomb. It was super refreshing and went well with the velvety pistachio butter and the frothiness of the chamomile foam. Definitely a favorite out of the dessert courses.
The last dessert of the night was a silky smooth peanut milk ice cream with candied crunchy pieces of peanuts and a chocolate sauce poured table side. Simple but satisfying.
The meal ended with a digestif of Carpano Antica vermouth with white peach which was very light and easy to drink.
Over the last two years, Californios has without a doubt evolved as a restaurant. While the heart of the restaurant remains the same with showcasing modern takes on Mexican cuisine, the menu itself has become more expansive. Compared to my first visit, this time we had about 20 small dishes which is significantly more courses than before. What makes Californios unique and special is that you don’t see elevated Mexican cuisine very often and they combine Mexican ingredients with remarkable California produce or local products to make something outstanding. As someone who absolutely loves to learn about food, Mexican cuisine and ingredients is definitely outside my comfort zone (I’m much more knowledgeable about Italian/French and Japanese ingredients), it’s always exciting when I can gain knowledge about other cuisines. If you’re looking for a fine dining experience but perhaps different from European cuisine, I would recommend trying Californios.