Chef Thomas Keller trades escargot and frites for fresh-pressed tortillas and mole at his new Mexican joint La Calenda.
Opened in the space once home to Hurley's restaurant, La Calenda shares the same couple blocks as Keller's French Laundry, Bouchon Bistro, Bouchon Bakery, and Ad Hoc—but that's about all it has in common with its Yountville comrades.
Copper penny tiling on the bar top. (David Escalante)
Focused on authentic Mexican cuisine, La Calenda radiates the joyful spirit of the traditional Oaxacan festivities for which it's named. This isn't buttoned-up fine dining; casual and family-friendly, the servers wear T-shirts and the staff is so nice it's as if they spike the air with tequila. Loud Mexican music emanates from the speakers, but even that gets drowned out by lively conversations between diners. A dinner bell that hangs from the open kitchen is rung periodically and frivolously, simply because it's fun.
The pink-walled restaurant has the look of a traditional taqueria, but this is Napa Valley, so it's rustic-chic, not a dive. Much of the decor was handpicked from Mexico, down to the hand-blown glassware and mismatched wooden chairs. A hand-painted mural brightens the bar area that seats 14; the bar top has a unique copper penny tiling. A large outdoor patio is set to flourish post-winter but for now, 86 seats fill the dining room and there's been a line out the door each night since the place opened at the start of the new year.
At the heart of the restaurant is a large open kitchen. Diners can watch the culinary team hand-press tortillas—they press between 700 and 900 each day—and slice al pastor from a spinning rotisserie.
Chef de Cuisine Kaelin Ulrich Trilling didn't come up the ranks of Keller's world. The idea of working for the decorated chef, let alone heading up one of his restaurants, was a mere pipe dream for the 26-year-old, who grew up in Oaxaca. His mother Susana Trilling, a celebrity chef in her own right, founded the renowned Seasons of My Heart Cooking School in Oaxaca and Trilling draws inspiration from several of her recipes, like the much talked about mole negro, an arduous, three-day process that utilizes roughly 30 ingredients and five types of chiles. "When I make mole here and taste it, I close my eyes and it brings me back to my childhood every time," he says.
The most challenging part of the gig has been adapting Mexican cooking techniques to America's health department standards. Back home, Trilling makes mole with a bamboo stick and barbacoa is ceremoniously cooked all day in giant pits in the ground. At La Calenda he attempts to recreate the pit in the oven, wrapping the meat in avocado leaves and cooking it at 500 degrees for hours.
Four different types of heirloom corn brought in from Mexico. (David Escalante)
Like the decor, a majority of ingredients come directly from Mexico, including many types of heirloom corn—from blue to red to pink—sourced from varying regions. The team will also pluck herbs and produce from The French Laundry Culinary Garden.
Trilling has a story for every ingredient and every dish. Even the Caesar Salad, which seems out of place, has ties to Mexico: Legend has it that an Italian immigrant invented the recipe in Tijuana. Ironically, chips and salsa are actually an American tradition, but since stateside diners expect it, Trilling says he wants his to be the best. La Calenda serves six salsas total, my favorites being the habanero, which was well balanced and not as hot as one might expect, and avocado.
Starting off strong, the cachete de res en mole chichilo ($13)—braised beef cheek and another one of Trilling's mother's recipes—and the quesadilla al pastor ($9), a taqueria staple in Mexico made here with pineapple and Chihuahua cheese, were both standouts of the meal.
I tried all six tacos ($11-13 for two). The barbacoa and carnitas top my list; both meats were melt-in-your-mouth tender. With the exception of the Caesar salad croutons and desserts, the entire menu is gluten-free and there are plenty of vegetarian options as well, including a butternut squash tamale wrapped in an avocado leaf ($6) and mushroom tacos.
For dessert ($9), you can't go wrong with the churros or the tres leches cake, which for once, isn't too dry. The rice pudding has a nice surprise in the form of a mango sauce at the bottom. Mix it all up before you eat.
La Calenda has collected more than 30 mezcals and tequilas used throughout a large cocktail menu ($12-$14) and curated a Mexican-heavy wine list—it is likely the most comprehensive wine list you've ever seen at a Mexican restaurant.
Admittedly, the La Calenda margarita wasn't my favorite. A little too sweet for my taste, it features pineapple agave syrup that really dominates the drink, but it does come in an Instagrammable piña cup. There is, of course, a classic margarita, which you can order by the pitcher for $50.
The spicy Fenix (Reposado tequila, jalapeño-infused syrup, mango, lime, and tamarind soda) and the Tahona Sol left lasting impressions. The latter was touted as a play on a Tequila Sunrise, but I think that actually does this cocktail a disservice. Switching out OJ for tangerine juice and hibiscus, it's a great reinvention of the overrated (IMO) concoction that gained popularity in the '70s.
La Calenda is open daily, 5-11pm and does not take reservations. At some point in February, they will open for lunch as well from 11am to 5pm.
// La Calenda, 6518 Washington Street (Yountville), lacalendamex.com