Tuesday, April 21, 2009
855 El Camino Real
Calafia opened earlier this year, heralded by full-page ads in the local newspaper. Chef Charlie Ayers is known for being the original chef at Google and, before that, personal chef to the Grateful Dead.
The spare interior is inviting. A communal table at the front of the room is made of reclaimed redwood; overhead is a long chandelier composed of 66 amber glass milk bottles.
A first visit for brunch, about a week after the opening, revealed a few rough edges. French toast had a lovely orange-cinnamon aroma; inside, however, it lacked the proper egg/bread fusion. Sourdough pancakes were fluffy and generously sized, but one was frankly burnt and should not have reached the table.
The best dish was chicken fideo, a spicy noodle entree. A cumin-scented tofu scramble looked a little messy but tasted great, and came with a good-sized portion of crispy-velvety hash browns.
I returned for a mid-week lunch and was greeted in the parking lot by a lovely smoky scent from the woodburning oven. My affable server confirmed that my choice of small plates would not be an overwhelming amount of food for a solo diner. He also made wine recommendations confidently and offered a second choice if I wasn't pleased by my first selection.
If all vegetables were as delicious as my bowl of braised greens with almond butter, no one would have trouble getting their recommended daily allowance. The chard was cooked with onions and turmeric, lightly sweetened with dried cranberries and topped with toasted walnuts.
Lamb meatballs looked like party food, skewered with cubes of toasted bread and Manchego cheese, then dipped in a sweet and savory tomato sauce. I was glad I didn't try to resist the crispy fries; I ate more than I intended, trying to decipher their spice mix. Garlic, definitely; cumin, maybe; sweet paprika?
Calafia's pyramid of "death by chocolate" is worth the caloric binge. Real whipped cream, intense chocolate flavor, super-strong (not burned) coffee... sip, repeat.
I've been back since then for an evening meal, and every dish has been a winner. Thoughtful touches abound. Nearly half of the seats in the house are barstools facing the shiny open kitchen, but there are purse hooks and a thick wooden beam at the ideal height for a footrest. The hostess who seated us saw me shrugging off my jacket and returned to hang up my coat.
Servers take your order on hand-held devices that allow you to settle your bill at the table. Coffee is brewed a cup at a time using a Clover machine, an $11,000 built-to-order device revered by coffee fanatics.
Even the servers' uniforms are designed with the customer in mind: The T-shirts helpfully provide a phonetic spelling on the back, "kal-uh-fee-ya."