Yountville’s La Calenda does famed chef Thomas Keller proud
My goodness, the national restaurant groupie mob sure got in a tizzy last fall when celebrity chef Thomas Keller announced he was opening a Oaxacan eatery in Yountville’s former Hurley’s space.
As some media’s view of food seems to be turning radical recently, quite a few writers and even other chefs pounced on Keller for what they considered another case of a white American male chef stealing ethnic culture by creating restaurants “masquerading” (in the words of celeb chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmer) as “rip-off” Asian and such. Or, as Keller promised back then, “authentic Oaxaca cuisine,” with his upcoming La Calenda.
In a nutshell – or perhaps a steamed corn husk – the message was that instead of planning to serve the dining public delicious chicken tamales draped in mole amarillo ($7), Keller was plotting to insult realities of racial inequity while making money off another culture’s cuisines.
Sigh. And all I was hoping to discover after the January opening was if I would enjoy his carnitas tacos in stone-ground Bolita Negro black corn tortillas ($12 for two) and roasted garlic shrimp sautéed with greens ($23).
Because come on, the Oceanside-born Keller ain’t French, yet he seems to have done OK with his French Laundry and Boucher in Yountville. Really, he was the first American-born chef to hold multiple three-star ratings from the prestigious Michelin Guide (consecutive at the Laundry since 2006), and was the first American male chef to be designated a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, the highest decoration in France. His Laundry also is lauded as a member of the prestigious French-based Relais & Chateaux, Relais Gourmands and Traditions & Qualité. Sacré bleu, quel imposteur!
Let’s note, too, that Keller hired a real, Oaxacan native as La Calenda’s chef de cuisine — Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, who promised traditional Oaxacan fare while, in the words of the Keller marketing team, “casting a glance across a range of Mexican regional cuisines.”
Well, I ain’t Oaxacan myself, so perhaps I’m not even qualified to write this review, but I’ve done culinary and wine tours in Oaxaca many times, as well as across many other parts of expansive, glorious Mexico. My family also owned a Sonoran beach house for some 50 years. So — ha — please humor me. I like La Calenda.
And why not? It boasts plenty of authentic touches, but as it should, it also gives us Keller flair. Flavors are big and bold, and no one can question the quality of ingredients that include the French Laundry culinary garden’s own Mexican herbs like pipicha and pápalo, imported Oaxacan chiles of all kinds, and hoja santa, the licorice-mint hued “sacred leaf” that’s a key ingredient for that chicken tamale’s fragrant mole amarillo.
Wines are respectful, too, including wines from Mexico, including Northern California and Spanish labels, but also hard-to-find bottlings from the Valley of Guadalupe and the Santo Tomás Valley in the respected Baja viticultural region.
I’m certainly not alone with my favor, either. Reservations are accepted only for parties of 10-plus, and there’s usually an hour-plus wait. Millennials, baby boomers, families with kids – everyone comes here to soak up the hip hacienda party atmosphere of rose pink walls, Mexican estate furniture and wall art, and pretty tile work around a tequila-mescal vault stocked with 30-plus varieties. Of course it’s loud here, because the La Calenda name refers to Oaxacan parades that traditionally honor weddings and other community celebrations.