Yountville’s La Calenda does famed chef Thomas Keller proud

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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.

Yes, we pay upscale Napa Valley prices for some dishes, including an ordinary starter of tortilla chips with bowls of cojita-sprinkled chunky guacamole, salsa verde tangy with tomatillos, and a fiery, rust red salsa mixe ($13). Shrimp cocktail seems expensive for the small bowl ($16) but it’s good stuff, the seafood chunks tossed prettily with diced tomato, avocado and peppers, then sprinkled with fresh herbs and tiny flowers.

And while there isn’t much meat in the petite quesadilla al pastor ($9), I appreciate seeing a cook carving juicy curls of the slow roasted pork off the rotisserie in the open kitchen. The two folded slabs offer plenty of flavor, stuffed with pineapple chunks, Chihuahua cheese, tomatillo avocado salsa, onion and cilantro; a few drops of accompanying salsa verde add welcome heat.

The beet salad, meanwhile, is a delight, and not just because I like to say the name on the menu: Ensalad de Betabeles ($12). Chunks and translucent thin coins of multi color root vegetable mingle like piñata trim against orange segments, pepitas, snowy white Sonoma goat cheese and watercress in a dash of red salsa macha. I sip an equally colorful Calaca punch cocktail alongside, the fuschia drink served in a clear, skull-shaped glass brimming with blanco tequila, Lillet Blanc, prickly pear puree, soda, mint and a spritz of agave syrup ($12).

The carnitas tacos ($12 for two) end up being not much superior to my favorite $1.50 Mexican roadstop versions. Yet I really enjoy the fish tacos ($13), which almost look like gringo sushi rolls atop the tortillas. The moist pescado is formed into an eggroll shape, tempura-fried Baja style, drizzled in stripes of chipotle mayo and scattered with radish, shredded cilantro and cabbage. Add in some salsa macha, made with red hot chile piquin peppers, and wow. This dish with a cold can of Día de Muertos label-emblazoned El Chefe brings a fine time ($7.50); the Mexican lager is brewed with California-grown corn by Berryessa Brewing Co.

Frankly, if I’d stopped at small plates, I’d have been happier. There’s nothing wrong with entrées, but they’re not as interesting, and, mostly served without sides, seem skimpy. Two plump chicken enchiladas ($15) in stone-ground mole negro sport a complex, inky black sauce made with some 30 ingredients including sweet, smoky chile ancho. But white rice is $5 more, to soak up the ample sauce.

I’m not impressed with grilled skirt steak, either ($29). I taste more salt than any adobo marinade, the slices are soft and chewy, and a dainty pile of charred chambray onions, greens and nopales is bland. The wood platter, like another entrée of puerco en mole verde comes with tortillas, and the starch saves the meals, adding needed texture and flavor.

The mild-sauced puerco ($22) is mouthwatering, certainly, but as sous vide pork jowl, it’s so rich and fatty that my palate is quickly overwhelmed. I’d like more of the tooth-tender wood-grilled meat amid the silky-flabby marbling, and the handful of white beans from Rancho Gordo, a Napa-based boutique owned by Steve Sando, alongside are so savory, but soft, too.

The kitchen wins me back with a daily fresh catch. The whole, butterflied branzino ($28) is dressed in hoja santa marinade so the flaky flesh turns Grinch green, then it’s grilled, topped in delicate greens and served with salsa verde. That makes for a very, very green tableau atop the wood plate, which, by the way, my cheerful server notes without a hint of pretension, was handmade by artist Salvador Cabañas Avilés in Guerrero, Mexico. The dish tastes green, too, in the brightest, best way.

Keller could have gone more stylish with desserts, but I appreciate that he keeps things clean with bites like crisp, feather light churros dunked in dulce de leche ($9), and rice pudding ($9). My favorite is the ethereal tres leche cake, an appropriately slightly soggy cake kissed with Mexican canela cinnamon ($9). I like to add a side of earthy Oaxacan chocolate ice cream, too, enjoying its slight bitterness and light sugar ($5).

Now, before anyone sends me hate mail for my insensitivity about what some other food folks lately have been calling “culinary appropriation,” please note that I am not belittling true world issues and cultural challenges. They exist, and deserve to be addressed and hopefully fixed. But professionals like Keller are actually doing the right thing, by supporting heirloom products gathered from the source.

Keller isn’t commenting on the uproar. Yet as Sando notes, “By consuming these products, we’re creating a market that actually encourages (Mexican) people to preserve their local traditions. We’re working together to help small farmers continue to grow their indigenous crops in Mexico, despite international trade policies that seem to discourage genetic diversity and local food traditions.”

I can happily swallow that.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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