Thomas Keller's new Mexican restaurant is a welcome addition to the Yountville food scene

Last year when Chef Thomas Keller purchased the building that previously housed Yountville’s Hurley’s restaurant a lot of rumors were flying around.

Was he going to create some new variant of his famous haute-cuisine mecca, The French Laundry? Was he going to shake up the culinary world by creating some type of cutting-edge vegetable-centric homage toward his growing leadership within the plant-based food movement?

Or was this going to provide Yountville with an affordable alternative to the plethora of choices centering on European-based cuisines?

We have the answer.

La Calenda, which serves simply presented Oaxacan-focused Mexican food at reasonable prices, opened for dinner service on Jan. 3. From that first day, this restaurant has hit the ground running, with results that are largely what one might expect from one of the world’s finest culinarians.

Those who frequented Hurley’s will find the space familiar in its layout and its upbeat energy. The entrance still features the patio and brick columns covered in lush-green ivy. The front doors open directly into the bar area, which now has a dizzying four-quadrant TV, each screen tuned to a different sporting event, each in its own high-definition glory. The curved bar remains but is now topped with rows of patinaed copper coins covered with a layer of smooth transparent resin. The large, comfortable leather-backed bar stools are welcoming at both the bar and its few small-tall tables.

This is a no-reservation restaurant, so guests looking for a more traditional dining experience are either added to the waitlist or brought directly to an open table in the main dining room or to one of the patios (one in the front and the other almost hidden in the back). The floor is cement, and the walls have been painted with a festive adobe color that contrasts nicely with the hand-carved and painted art that dots the walls.

To enter the dining room requires walking by the open kitchen. This important design element helps create an atmosphere like that of walking into a friend’s home. Just witnessing the energy of the chef and cooks as they hand-make tortillas and carve slow-marinated pork from the al pastor grill (a vertical spit-grill, called a shawarma in Middle Eastern cuisine) — with all the savory smells and the clanking of pots and pans — helps foster a familiar, casual tone.

Kaelin Ulrich Trilling — a Oaxacan chef

In an interview with the New York Times, Thomas Keller reported that he had purchased the property from Hurley in March 2018, but he wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the space. He already owned four restaurants in Yountville (five if you count Addendum at the back of Ad Hoc) and the options in the small town for French, Italian and American cuisines were already being sufficiently covered. So he decided on Mexican, but he had never explored the cuisine professionally, other than enjoying it himself. He contacted an expert on the subject, Susana Trilling, a Texas native who had traveled the world before settling in Oaxaca nearly three decades ago. She is now an author and owner of a cooking school and inn, and through her Keller eventually came into contact her son, Kaelin.

Prior to becoming the executive chef at La Calenda, Chef Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, a 26-year-old Oaxacan, had already made his way to the United States. First he’d moved to Texas and then he was quickly recruited by Chef Jonathan Waxman at the age of 22 to run the kitchen at Bajo Sexto in Nashville, Tennessee. The restaurant included exotic Oaxacan foods such as roasted grasshoppers, duck carnitas and authentic mole sauce.

Oaxaca is a southern state in the country of Mexico of about 36,200 square miles, making it roughly the size of Indiana. Known as the “land of seven moles” (there are actually hundreds of different kinds of this complex sauce), Oaxaca is considered to have one of the finest food cultures in Mexico. The cuisine of Oaxaca is different from its northern counterparts in that it’s closer to the jungles of Guatemala and El Salvador than it is to the deserts of Baja California. The result is a blending of flavors and techniques that can vary in nuances compared with other Mexican cuisines much like the differences between southern and northern Italian cuisines.

Mexican food, Yountville style

Although most of the food at La Calenda has a Oaxacan bent to it, the menu is eclectic, including what seem like odd additions, such as the American crowd favorites, Caesar and beet salads.

Antojitos range from chips and salsa ($7.50 plus an additional $5.50 for spicy guacamole — yes, please) to the tostada de pescado ($17), which is the most artfully crafted item on the menu and seems to reflect Keller’s influence more than some of the other dishes. They’re tasty, but they often lack the visual artistry the world has come to expect from Keller’s food. At La Calenda, it seems, the whole idea is not to make a culinary statement about how the food looks but instead how the food tastes and if it’s satisfying.

Orders of tacos ($11 to $13) come in pairs served on a tin plate with little fanfare. Not that they need it — the tortillas are handmade in-house, and then items such as al pastor roast pork with grilled pineapple and de pollo pibil made with achiote-rubbed chicken and served with sour orange pickled onions and habanero salsa are added.

Each of the tacos I tasted was satisfying and tasty. However — and you might not believe me until you try them — the vegetarian tacos de hongos are from another realm. These include a mix of wild mushrooms (the enoki, with their chewy, slightly stringy texture make the dish stunning) sautéed with mojo de ajo and poblano peppers, served with salsa a las brasas, epazote and queso fresco wrapped in one of the stone-ground tortillas.

The tamales — unlike those found in northern Mexico, which can be smaller and dense — are delicate, airy and about the size of a large hand (from fingertip to wrist). They come wrapped in either the traditional cornhusk (chicken tamale, $7 each) or in a more Oaxacan-influenced banana leaf (vegan butternut squash tamale, $6 each). The chicken version includes tender meat layers with tamale dough and the aromatic hoja santa leaf that infuses a complex combination of aromas akin to a blend of black pepper, anise, clove and mild eucalyptus.

Main dishes center on the puerco en mole verde (pork jowl with green mole made with pumpkin seeds and green chilies) and the pollo en mole negro (both $22), each of which comes with a side of tortillas. The mole negro is what most people imagine when conjuring up the famously mysterious sauce from Mexico.

With hundreds of different versions, moles often consist of 20 or 30 different ingredients that are cooked for days. Made from recipes that are often tightly guarded by a family, town or community, this sauce has been called the “molten core of Oaxaca” by The New York Times. In the case of La Calenda, the mole negro is thick and rich with flavors that hint at roasted chilies, chocolate, anise, raisins and a plethora of unknown seeds, nuts and spices that have combined to produce something ethereal.

My chicken was tender and the sauce delicious, but there were moments of confusion when I bit into hunks of fatty skin or remnant bones. I wasn’t sure whether this was an oversight or more of a nod to the rustic nature of the dish’s origins.

Desserts run from $5 to $9 and include Oaxacan chocolate and horchata ice creams, flans, churros with goat-milk caramel and rice pudding.

The families who either live in or visit Yountville can rejoice. There’s a kids’ menu with cheese quesadillas, fried fish tacos, chicken tostada and carnitas tacos ($10 each, served with rice and beans).

The libations

Is La Calenda a bar-focused restaurant or a restaurant with an excellent bar? I can’t tell exactly, but I’m leaning toward the former. The full bar specializes in tequilas, mezcals, beer and local and New World wines. Six of the “half-bottles” of wine come in cans, and of the few dozen wines on the list, nearly one-quarter of them are made by local vintners with Mexican heritage. Many are active members of the Mexican-American Vintner’s Association.

Yes, you can have wine or beer with dinner, but it’s likely the tequila and mezcal will cross your lips at some point during your meal. Keller, who is known for his appreciation of the spirits fermented from the nectar of the blue agave plant, offers dozens of kinds. Some real eye-catchers on the list are the Bran Patron Burdeos ($325 a glass) or selections from Del Maguey, the company that arguably put mezcal on the U.S. map (ranging from $12 to $48). The cocktails center on tequila with the smoky, ginger-infused Paloma ($12) and the La Calenda Margarita ($14) with a splash of pineapple syrup to balance out the spicy rim of salt being the two standouts.

A welcome addition to the Yountville food scene

It’s tempting to layer in Keller’s legacy onto this new venture. However, it actually seems he’s stepping away from the limelight and instead putting the new chef front and center. And with his departure from the French-centric theme of his numerous restaurants, he’s created an affordable place to grab a drink with friends while enjoying a delicious — albeit not mind-bending — food experience. It’s as if Keller is saying that food can be many things and serve many moments of life, and at La Calenda it’s time to let the guard down. With that he and his team have created a welcome addition to Yountville’s food scene.

For now, La Calenda is open for dinner. In February, it will also open for lunch, and given the format I could see these popping up in other cities around the country. For now, though, Napa Valley has its own excellent new food option from a culinary visionary.

Originally published in the Napa Register, January, 2019