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New Chron Critic Did Not Hate Thomas Keller’s Mexican Restaurant

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Chez Panisse, however, was not so lucky

La Calenda

They’re here: San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho’s first round of reviews, delivered as a five-pack. The starless reviews are a first taste of what the critic has planned for Bay Area diners — so far, they’ve been well-received across social media platforms ahead of Sunday’s paper.

The critic chose a smart sample size of the region’s restaurants, tackling institutions like Chez Panisse (extremely underwhelmed) and La Folie (found a fun experience in the lounge), newcomers like Oakland’s Cambodian darling (and Eater Award winner) Nyum Bai (is it normal to cry while reading restaurant reviews?), and the next generation of Chinese-American restaurateurs (a strong group). There were also, as Ho described them, “snack-sized” essays laying the foundation for her new role, including an explanation of her choice to do away with stars, and a list of rightfully banned words (bye, “ethnic”).

One of the most anticipated (and requested) reviews by readers, as Ho notes, was that of La Calenda, Thomas Keller’s new Mexican restaurant in Yountville. If internet chatter is any indication, those readers may have been hoping for a takedown of Keller for opening a restaurant serving a cuisine to which he has no cultural ties. Instead, it was less of a burn, and more of a smart examination of the nature of cultural appropriation, who gets to do it, and when.

“Thomas Keller’s Mexican restaurant, La Calenda, is cultural appropriation done right,” reads the headline, followed by the first paragraph: “Though this may shock some of you, I really like La Calenda, the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group’s new Mexican restaurant in Yountville. I think it is certainly an example of culinary appropriation. And I think that’s fine.”

By her estimation, the work is being done to respect the cuisine. The chef de cuisine, Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, parlays his experience growing up in Mexico with his parents (a culinary educator and tomato farmer, respectively) into powerful details, including ceramics and other wares created by Oaxacan artisans. Food was thoughtful as well, with dishes like puerco en mole verde ($22), white beans in green mole, and a pollo en mole negro ($22) standing out from the menu.

The most notable failure: chips that were purchased elsewhere and refried in the restaurant. “I don’t know what they were trying to do with this,” says Ho. “I hope they stop doing that, because most everything else is so finely tuned.”

It’s a refreshing, thoughtful review of a restaurant that’s nuanced in many ways, while managing to direct the reader’s attention to the food at the same time. Ultimately, says Ho, “the real thing people with power should be asking is, how do I actively dismantle systems of oppression or, at a bare minimum, redistribute my own privilege to benefit those who have historically had less of it?”

In this case, Ho says, “Are the right people receiving credit for what we’ve experienced in this restaurant? From what I’ve seen so far, I believe the answer is yes.”