Thank you ckshen for creating this new site. Frankly, I’m torn about which site to to post on. Since there aren’t any posts on Calavera yet, I figured I should give it a go here.
Calavera is a relatively new restaurant in Uptown Oakland, just a stone’s throw from Pican and Ozumo. The space is cavernous with high ceilings, beautiful, and loud. Even though it hasn’t been open long, the bar area was full and most tables were occupied by 7pm.
I will start with the strengths - salt air margarita and chiles en nogada (special of the week). Instead of salting the rim of the glass, the salt air margarita incorporates the salt into a foam layer on top of the margarita. Gimmick or brilliant? I came out thinking this idea was brilliant. I find the coarse margarita salt really jarring, and thought that the foam smoothly incorporates the salt into each sip. Definitely a must try for people who don’t like salt on the rims of their margarita glasses. People seemed to really enjoy their cocktails at other tables, so my guess is they have a great cocktail program.
Chiles en nogada - I don’t come across this dish often and the time I had it at a dinner party, I saw just how labor intensive this dish was to make. This is a roasted poblano stuffed with a sweet-savory pork picadillo, and smothered with a white colored walnut based sauce, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Red, white and green are the colors of the Mexican flag, and a Mexican holiday earlier week provided the inspiration to put this on the menu. This dish was perfect, with a rich walnut sauce and not too sweet filling. With a little bit of each component in each bite, each component complemented the others beautifully.
The unifying weakness in most of the other dishes we ordered (birria, octopus ceviche, cactus) is that they were too intense. I enjoyed the first two bites, and then didn’t want to eat more of it until my taste buds could recover. In most cases I thought the technique and seasoning were fine, but the dish composition just didn’t work for me. This is especially true of the octopus ceviche and the cactus, both of which were smokier than Memphis Minnie’s beef brisket. With both, we had to eat them with tortillas to tone down the intensity. The ceviche was paired with melon (poor pairing) and did not come with chips or tortillas, so we had to order tortillas separately later in order to finish the remaining 60% of the dish.
Cochinita pibil tacos would have been better if they weren’t so acidic. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional, but the filling (pork plus marinated red onion) was about half as acidic as an average ceviche. I didn’t look closer to figure out if it was the pork or the onion marinade.
My least favorite dish of the night was the rice pudding, which was on the dry side. Too much arroz and not enough leche. The scoop of rice pudding was surrounded by a liquidy “stone fruit mole” that was fruity and acidic enough to counteract the flavor of what little leche there was. Whoever created this dish does not understand the essence of rice pudding, or cared more about their own creativity than anything else.
I left the restaurant thinking that we ordered nearly all the wrong dishes. Tables around us were loving the melted cheese appetizer, and were noshing away at their chips and salsa or chips and guacamole. We were debating between the churros and the rice pudding, and when we saw the churros go by, I knew we made a big mistake.
At $120 for food plus one cocktail, tax, and tip, I’m not sure I would return for dinner. But I do think their drinks probably are a big strength, and I would return for drinks, cheese, and chips. I might also consider returning with a big group and eating family style, where you only end up eating two bites of everything.