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Eat: Cove of Wonders 

Wednesday, Oct 21 2015
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When we spent a week in Mexico City this spring, my boyfriend and I mostly gorged on street tacos and the cheap things we bought at the booths that surround major metro stops. Our sole splurge was lunch at Gabriela Cámara's Contramar, a high-end spot in the posh Condesa neighborhood where — even factoring in the Latin American preference for a hearty lunch over a big dinner — the atmosphere of indulgence surprised us. Beyond excellent pulpos a la gallega and some really good bread, it struck me as a conservative, almost starchy place, more Fillmore-and-Pacific than Valencia-and-22nd. (I hate clubs with visible security minders, but seeing their unsmiling faces at lunch is an even bigger buzzkill.)

So I was a little apprehensive about Cala (Spanish for "cove"), Camara's San Francisco debut. Although the chef has made clear her distaste for slavishly adhering to ideas of authenticity, I thought it might feel out of step with casual San Francisco. Was I ever wrong. Everything deviates slightly from what's expected — and not just because I expected to see octopus all over the menu and there wasn't any — but the stridently un-conservative Cala is clearly Cámara's playspace. (Note: Prices include the service charge, so keep your sticker shock in check.)

Replacing the usual mignonette with a beef tendon escabeche, the Miyagi oysters ($4 each) were surprisingly spicy without being over-seasoned, and with a nice crunch. The clam aguachile ($19 for a serving of three) was basically avocado-chile ceviche on the half shell, with the clam juice like a cold, filtered broth. (It's the diametric opposite of the Old Clam House's shot of hot clam juice, which I also love dearly.) Artfully overstuffed though these clams were, it was the only time I winced at Cala's portion-to-price ratio; they'd make a better amuse-bouche. By contrast, the squid-and-halibut frito mixto ($15), essentially a fancy version of fried calamari, was nice and light, with a slowburner of an habanero salsa that should replace marinaras everywhere.

However seafood-heavy the menu might be, nopales popped up twice. The first appearance was a salad ($17) that was not my cup of tea. As someone who is strongly biased against nutrition and toward things that are terrible for you, a cold, gooey, Green Goddess-like parsley salsa with a bit of heat is not something I would order again — although the tomatoes were very good (and goat cheese is never unwelcome). The second was a nopal with eggplant ($17). Earthy and smoky, it was much more to my taste, although as a messy-looking, brown-black puree inside a charred corn husk, it's not the prettiest thing you'll ever see.

The tamal de mejillones ($16) had a depth of flavor that yawned straight away to infinity, although we were confused by the mussels, as it's a little off-putting to lick masa off a shell. It barely mattered, though, because they were so good. Granted, it was more than three times the price of what the Tamale Lady unwraps from her treasure chest on wheels, but it's probably the first tamal I've ever had that could arm-wrestle any of hers to the ground. (Sorry, Tamale Lady. I'm comin' for ya next time I'm really drunk at the Eagle beer bust.)

One thing I find myself saying now and again is, "That was the best version of [insert banal side dish] I've ever had!" and for Cala, it was the black beans ($4). Oddly, they're the only side dish on the menu, which I took to mean they must be something special — and they were, whipped and airy, almost like a mousse.

A supple mixiote of black cod ($36) with a red chile adobo was the granddaddy of the menu, the fish steamed until it flaked apart just by gazing softly at it. We were encouraged to eat the envelope of collard greens, for which I am grateful, as many mixiotes come sheathed in inedible things. After the prior plates' husks, I was reflexively seeing right past these, and they're an integral part of the dish, adding bitterness to the adobo.

Dessert was simpler, with a chocolate ice cream ($9) and a prickly pear meringue granita ($9) that I was very skeptical of and which had way more flavor than I thought it could.

I was warned that the Martini Oaxaqueño ($15) would be olive-y, and it was. To cut it, Cala adds fennel, of all things, which may not appease people who like their aperitifs bone-dry. The A La Antigüita ($14) was a gorgeous take on an Old Fashioned, and its combination of reposado tequila, chocolate bitters, orange, and a brandied cherry must have taken more than a few tries to get right. Wordplay notwithstanding, the "A-Peru Spritz" (Pisco, Cardamaro bitters, Aperol, Verjus, and Cava, $15) is great but will definitely drop out of season as soon as El Niño hits. Perfumed with star anise, the elderflower-and-cucumber Tonica Classica ($13) was lovely — and strikingly similar to the standout cocktail at Calavera, another high-end Mexican restaurant with a similar name. This might be overthinking it, but I like a crisp, light-tasting drink that's heavy in the hand from the weight of all the ice, and the Tonica Classica was exactly that.

It all got me thinking about the function of Contramar, which is considerably less playful than its Hayes Valley descendent. Is the mothership a dependable moneymaker that can fund more experimental projects? If Cala's opening menu is Gabriela Cámara dipping her toe in the water to test the temperature, it will be very exciting to see what happens when she plunges right in.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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