La Calenda Proves Naysayers Wrong

Pork jowl in mole verde at La Calenda.

Pork jowl in mole verde at La Calenda.

 

When Thomas Keller first let wind that he was going to open a Mexican restaurant in Yountville, the response was immediate: lots of eye rolling and sarcastic remarks.

But like Rick Bayless in Chicago, Keller soon proved this gringo knew exactly what he was doing. Keller may not have made exhaustive trips to Mexico to immerse himself in the intricacies of the cuisine. But he did the next best thing; he hired a chef de cuisine with impeccable credentials and know-how, Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, who was raised in Oaxaca by his mother, Susana Trilling, the noted culinary teacher who owns the cooking school, Seasons of My Heart in Mexico.

As a result, Keller’s La Calenda, which opened in January, is a triumph.

I finally had a chance to check it out a month ago, when I dined at lunch, paying my own tab at the end.

Housed in the former Hurley's.

Housed in the former Hurley’s.

La Calenda is mere steps away on Washington Street from Keller’s other establishments: The French Laundry, Bouchon Bistro, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc, Ad Hoc Addendum, and the group’s lush culinary garden.

The former Hurley’s has been transformed into an airy, colorful space reminiscent of a Mexican hacienda.

Now that the restaurant has been open awhile, the lines have died down a bit, thankfully. Even on a weekday, we were glad we arrived for an early lunch before the dining room filled up quickly.

The kitchen. Note the vertical rotisserie in back with the pork and pineapple cooking on it.

The kitchen. Note the vertical rotisserie in back with the pork and pineapple cooking on it.

Although I had read some early reviews bashing the tortilla chips, I decided to give them a shot. I think the restaurant must have heeded the criticisms and changed their chips because the ones I had were faultless — crisp, fresh, thin yet substantial enough to dunk liberally in chunky guacamole ($13). Two salsas accompanied it — a fruity red salsa mixe with a lick of heat; and a salsa verde that was much spicier and had a lovely smokiness.

Chips, salsas and guacamole definitely worth ordering.

Chips, salsas and guacamole definitely worth ordering.

Jamaica or hibiscus drink.

Jamaica or hibiscus drink.

Aqua de Jamaica, hibiscus tea tinged a vivid deep magenta color, was the perfect afternoon sip with its bright, tangy cranberry-like flavor.

After seeing the vertical spit in the back of the kitchen that held slow roasted pork along with an entire pineapple, we could not resist getting the Tacos Al Pastor ($11). The tacos come two to an order on stone-ground blue corn tortillas. The pork did not disappoint, not with its incredible juiciness and chunks of pineapple that were at once sweet, tangy, and caramelized.

Al pastor tacos.

Al pastor tacos.

I’d heard raves about the Puerco en Mole Verde ($22), so it was a must-try. The pork jowl is hidden underneath saucy mole verde and big whole chard leaves. The meat is as tender as it gets, nearly spoonable. If you love pork, you will go crazy for this. It was served with a stack of those same rustic tortillas so redolent of corn.

Deepest, darkest mole chicken.

Deepest, darkest mole chicken.

Hand-made tortillas to sop up all that sauce.

Hand-made tortillas to sop up all that sauce.

Pollo en Mole Negro ($22) is a tender, half chicken blanketed in deep, dark wonderful mole negro that was deeply earthy, smoky, peppery and cocoa-y. This is a sauce with so much depth that you discover something new in it every time you dip a torn tortilla in it to enjoy.

The most amazing refried beans.

The most amazing refried beans.

The side of arroz blanco ($5), white rice, was fluffy with each grain distinct. It was fine for enjoying with all the mole sauce. But what really was truly special was the side of Frijoles Refritos ($5). I don’t usually get that excited about refried beans at a Mexican restaurant. But these were astounding — so creamy and velvety in texture, rich in earthy flavor, and incredibly satisfying in every way. My husband and I were nearly fighting over the last spoonfuls.

I’d go back to La Calenda just for those beans again. And when I do, I will definitely save room to try much more of this exciting food done right.

AdHocFriedChicken

More: Good Eats at Ad Hoc

FriedChicken2

And: A Visit to Ad Hoc Addendum

FrenchLaundryHolidayParty

And: A Look Back at The French Laundry Holiday Party

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5 comments

  • Wow. This looks like a terrific place. Great photos, really good review. Thanks.

  • Robert Leighton

    As a local it was such a pleasure to see something entirely new on the culinary map in Yountville and I was lucky to be there on opening night when Tomas himself made an appearance.

    Many locals have affectionately annointed La Calenda with the name Mexican Laundry, but the prices are fortunately at the opposite end of the spectrum….reasonable!

    The Chicken Enchiladas Mole Negro is my favorite and by far the best Mole I have had the pleasure of passing over my palette.

    The drinks are strong and the service is Thomas Keller-level perfect. I have to say a certain chef across the street could take some lessons from Chef Keller on service, value and humility.

  • Robert: Mexican Laundry — I love that! I’m so glad locals love it, too. I can’t wait to go back to try MORE, including those enchiladas. 😉

  • Yay! You finally made it. Glad you ordered the pork jowl! Now I’m dreaming about it again. I have to plan another visit. But I bet the weekends are packed, so I have to steal away on a weekday like you.

  • Cannot wait to try this new restaurant. Thanks for giving us so many dishes to look forward to!

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