La Calenda is Just What Yountville OrderedSep 01, 2019 11:40AM ● By Fran Miller
BY FRAN ENDICOTT MILLER
La Calenda may be best known as a Thomas Keller restaurant, but Chef Kaelin Ulrich Trilling is quickly making this casual Yountville eatery his own. At a mere 27 years old, Trilling’s already extensive background proved to be exactly what Keller was seeking when recruiting the kitchen staff at his newest restaurant located in the heart of Napa Valley’s Yountville in what was formerly Hurley’s. And by all accounts, it’s a match made in culinary heaven.
Trilling’s rise to La Calenda’s Chef de Cuisine is the stuff of which dreams are made. When Keller sought the counsel of Trilling’s esteemed mother Susanna, a celebrated cookbook author and Oaxaca-based cooking school proprietor, she recommended her son for the position. Brought up in his mother’s kitchen where from a tender age he witnessed countless cooking lessons and learned to appreciate the soul-satisfying impact of traditional cuisine, the Oaxaca raised Trilling was a natural to lead Keller’s newest venture, serving traditional Mexican cuisine from a range of regions, including the Baja Peninsula, the Nayarit coast, and Veracruz.
Trilling sealed his vocational fate at age 18 when he moved to San Antonio, Texas to serve as line cook for Chef John Brand at Hotel Omni La Mansión del Rio. Over the next nine years, Trilling packed his resume with stints at eateries in Tennessee, Mexico, London, and New York, perfecting his own style of Mexican cuisine. But it’s his mother’s cuisine which continues to influence him the most.
“Growing up in a food-oriented household was a beautiful and unique experience,” said Trilling, who admits that his much younger self had no idea that the kitchen would become a career. He acknowledges a steep learning curve, one he navigated expertly thanks to his cadre of mentors, most notably his mother. He utilizes many of her recipes in his La Calenda menu, such as her rich, layered, and complex mole negro made of 30 ingredients and five varieties of chiles, and he makes everything from scratch just as she does – no matter how laborious. La Calenda tortillas, for instance, are made with corn imported from Mexico. After a 24-hour process of drying, soaking, rinsing, grinding, and hydrating, the corn is hand pressed into fresh tortillas – of which the restaurant serves up to 1200 per day.
The process for toasting, grinding, and braising the wide variety of chiles used in his salsas and sauces is equally exacting and a testament to the menu’s authenticity, as is the growing in the Keller Yountville gardens of many of the menu’s unique ingredients and herbs, and the use of imported serving pieces and handblown glass. The Guamúchil wooden plates are made by Salvador Cabañas Avilés in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. The mezcal cups, made from the traditional Oaxacan pottery, Barro Negro, are made by Rocío de Nieto, an artisan in Oaxaca. Also from Oaxaca are La Calenda’s clay pitchers by Bibiana Castra Sandoval and the red clay bowls by Gloria and Reyna Mateo Sánchez. The restaurant sources hand-blown recycled glassware from the Oaxacan studio Xaquixe. Every element serves to create the casual and convivial vibe suggestive of the restaurant’s moniker: La Calenda is the name for a traditional Oaxacan celebratory festival.
While the restaurant is now clearly Trilling’s baby (he can be viewed front and center in the large, open kitchen that serves as the heart of the space) the Keller influence manifests here and there in menu items such as the succulent Camarones al Mojo de Ajo, Quelites (garlic sautéed shrimp) and the Arrachera con Lechugas de Temporada, Aguacate y Salsa a las Brasas (grilled adobo-marinated skirt steak) which are served with greens from the Keller French Laundry gardens just down the road, as proudly announced by the wait staff.
Six different taco offerings showcase Trilling’s expertise with a variety of preparations; don’t miss his slow roasted pork featured in either the Tacos de Carnitas or the Tacos al Pastor. Every item on the menu, including salads, enchiladas, tamales, and sides (the Elote – grilled sweet corn with cotija cheese and chile guajillo is a must) is reasonably priced and one of many reasons – aside from the delicious food – that the restaurant is often packed with locals, tourists, vintners, winemakers, and families. The delicious Aguachile de Atún (yellowfin tuna, avocado, sesame & chile costeño salsa macha, and citrus) pairs perfectly with a classic margarita, or one of the other creative cocktails on a menu featuring more than 30 tequilas and mezcals, and served from the full service bar fronting the large outdoor patio. And this being Napa, an extensive wine list (natch) is one of the most comprehensive seen within any Mexican restaurant.
La Calenda, 6518 Washington Street, Yountville
Photos by David Escalante