Californios' upscale Mexican fare exquisite, delicious and coy 

click to enlarge Chef Val Cantu’s changing tasting menu at Californios boasts six to eight scrumptious, yet sparse, courses. - GABRIELLE LURIE, SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • GABRIELLE LURIE, SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Chef Val Cantu’s changing tasting menu at Californios boasts six to eight scrumptious, yet sparse, courses.
In concept, Californios is a clear, attractive restaurant. There is no menu to speak of, just a nightly dinner of six to eight courses – modernized dishes stemming from chef Val Cantu's time spent cooking in Mexico. Cantu's polished pedigree (Sons and Daughters) shows, and at $57, Californios' tasting menu is a steal.

In the end though, things feel disjointed. Although tufted leather booths, weeping chandeliers and copies of books about Wes Anderson and Robert Mapplethorpe prominently displayed are precious, the space is otherwise austere, with low lighting and dark gray walls. Hip-hop and rap come from speakers, and an inexplicable neon sign in the bathroom says "True." It reminds me of what happened when I was 6 and used to wear all of my favorite clothes at once.

Still, the food drives Californios.

Cantu is playful but pious in his approach. The menu changes, but for the first taste, you might expect a riff on chips and salsa that includes one (1) chip and one (1) dollop of fermented pepper. It's a beautiful bite, sharpened by nixtamalized corn.

Next, you might find yourself in front of lemony ice shards over a huckleberry mixture that explodes in your mouth like pop rocks. After that, smoked kanpachi so soft, it's nearly spoonable. It's pure, simple, dressed up with a radish that seems little more than decoration.

The menu is rarely substantial, but when it is, it works. The best thing I ate was a soup of sous vide chicken and broth – small, uncomplicated and unendingly satisfying. The broth was gorgeous and robust, the chicken tender and silken in that sous vide way.

Braised and smoky beef tongue was dressed up with the sweet lightness of avocado and a cipollini.

Desserts – of which there were two – were polite little things. Blood orange frozen yogurt pairs with a rich chocolate mousse, and foie gras makes its way into ice cream for the final taste.

Californios is a bit wrapped up in its own aspirations, to the point of feeling slightly myopic and confused. The chef's mission is clear: to deconstruct and reinvent a genre that has been ghettoized and defined as a cheap, greasy late-night fare. Or, more particularly, to elevate flavors rooted in the Spanish colonies of Alta California. Cantu succeeds, but the food doesn't jell very smoothly with the environment.

There were a few moments, like when I was lost in the kanpachi, when I felt distracted by the synth throbbing in the speakers. The clash is strange, pitting food ceremony against a desire to be cool and casual.

At the outset, the secrecy (and the lack of menu), worked in favor or Cantu's food, appealingly eliminating expectations. But the menu delivered at the meal's end in an envelope, with one-word descriptors for each dish, seemed too coy for its own good.

I left pleased, but not satisfied. Cantu's cooking is tremendously good, and nowhere does technique outshine heart. Yet I felt as though I still needed dinner, like I just tried to get a full meal off the hors d'oeuvres table at an art opening.

Even though Californios' tasting menu is decidedly more affordable than most San Francisco tasting menus, it still didn't keep me from hitting the nearest best taqueria on the way home.

Californios

Location: 3115 22nd St. (near S. Van Ness Avenue), S.F.

Contact: (415) 757-0994, www.californiossf.com

Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 5:30 to 10:30 Saturdays

Price range: $57

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Recommended

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Molly Gore

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