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Betting on a reservation at Callie

Are San Diegans so flaky?

Grilled octopus, served at Callie
Grilled octopus, served at Callie

Callie truly doesn’t want you to miss your seating time. To begin with, the East Village restaurant charges a ten-dollar-a-person deposit when you make a reservation. And you’ll need a reservation, because the swanky eatery was in high demand even before it earned a bib gourmand nod from the Michelin Guide last year, its first in business. Now it’s arguably downtown’s hottest ticket.

Place

Callie

1195 Island Ave., San Diego

I made my deposit two weeks out. A couple days before the date arrived, the reminders started showing up, text and email. The day before, someone from the restaurant actually called to remind me, and to confirm I still planned to show up. Of course I did. Are San Diegan diners so flaky? I wondered, then proceeded to almost miss my reservation, arriving fifteen minutes late. I suppose if more San Diego restaurants start charging us to reserve a seating, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

An architectural highlight of the spacious venue has to be the bar, which takes cover under arches of painstakingly curved wood, but the entire, large dining room exudes the sort of relaxed elegance that goes so well with contemporary California cuisine. Here it’s more like a Cali-tinged spin on pan-Mediterranean food coming out of an open kitchen, entirely within view of the dining room. Seated close by, I could watch the cooking staff, including executive chef Travis Swikard, wearing baseball caps flipped backwards as they prepared a menu of refined dishes featuring upscale ingredients.

The dining room at Callie

Perhaps what impressed me most about the kitchen operation is how laid back all the cooks appeared, despite the high volume of orders going out. Everyone touching the food seemed calm and self-assured, a vibe that fit the room — once our seats were secured, diners were given plenty of time to relax and linger over drinks. Like there was no other place we'd rather be.

Ideally, each table orders and shares from the discrete sections of the menu: Spreads & Bread, Raw & Cured, Salads & Veggies, Pasta, and Land & Sea. There's even the option to touch upon every section with a $70 per person prix fixe dinner, plus $40 extra for wine pairings.

The bar at Callie

You could spend more at such a restaurant. Two diners could easily top $200 here without blinking. Bear in mind that the ten bucks apiece from your reservation deposit gets applied to your final bill, but then so does an automatic 20 percent gratuity, and a 4 percent fee nominally applied to employee benefits. So it's worth considering that, including tax, you should expect to spend roughly 33 percent more than any price you see on the menu.

On the bright side, these guys know you're paying a premium for excellent food and service, and they aim to deliver on both counts. Our server was so friendly and food-knowledgable, I almost wanted him to sit and chat a bit about every dish. When he learned we were disappointed with the first couple bites of a seafood pasta, he insisted on replacing it with a different pasta option. I told him that was kind but unnecessary. "In a place like this," he explained, "we want you to leave here thinking everything was pretty perfect." A few minutes later, we were enjoying a more impressive pasta: pappardelle with a kurobata sausage ragu ($28).

Chefs cook within an open kitchen

To be fair, it would have been tough for any pasta to compare favorably to our uni toast appetizers ($26). Not only are the two small pieces of tomato bread toast topped by uni (sea urchin), they feature shavings of iberico ham.

Those are two of the best tasting ingredients in the world in one bite; it should have been enough. However, on this evening, shaved black truffles could be added to any appetizer for an extra 20 bucks. Three ingredients of that caliber in one bite: glad I tried it, but probably would have left happy with a single bite of the regular uni toast and called it satisfying.

Uni toast, with Iberico ham and shaved truffles

And yet, the kitchen pressed on. From the land and sea menu, I ordered something I wasn't sure about: octopus. Years ago, I tried a Spanish-style grilled octopus during a trip to Barcelona, and it became my benchmark for all seafood. I'd never tasted better since, and gave up trying after I learned what smart sea creatures they are.

Callie's version may be as close as I get to chasing down that memory. Poached and grilled, and served over shaved fennel, the tentacled dish may have left me feeling morally ambivalent, but my nostalgia could not have been happier.

A special occasion kind of restaurant for most of us, I’m not sure Callie truly meets the supposed guidelines of a Michelin bib gourmand — two courses and glass of wine for $40. But where it fails to be a bargain, it succeeds in delivering a fine dining experience worth the ante.

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Grilled octopus, served at Callie
Grilled octopus, served at Callie

Callie truly doesn’t want you to miss your seating time. To begin with, the East Village restaurant charges a ten-dollar-a-person deposit when you make a reservation. And you’ll need a reservation, because the swanky eatery was in high demand even before it earned a bib gourmand nod from the Michelin Guide last year, its first in business. Now it’s arguably downtown’s hottest ticket.

Place

Callie

1195 Island Ave., San Diego

I made my deposit two weeks out. A couple days before the date arrived, the reminders started showing up, text and email. The day before, someone from the restaurant actually called to remind me, and to confirm I still planned to show up. Of course I did. Are San Diegan diners so flaky? I wondered, then proceeded to almost miss my reservation, arriving fifteen minutes late. I suppose if more San Diego restaurants start charging us to reserve a seating, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

An architectural highlight of the spacious venue has to be the bar, which takes cover under arches of painstakingly curved wood, but the entire, large dining room exudes the sort of relaxed elegance that goes so well with contemporary California cuisine. Here it’s more like a Cali-tinged spin on pan-Mediterranean food coming out of an open kitchen, entirely within view of the dining room. Seated close by, I could watch the cooking staff, including executive chef Travis Swikard, wearing baseball caps flipped backwards as they prepared a menu of refined dishes featuring upscale ingredients.

The dining room at Callie

Perhaps what impressed me most about the kitchen operation is how laid back all the cooks appeared, despite the high volume of orders going out. Everyone touching the food seemed calm and self-assured, a vibe that fit the room — once our seats were secured, diners were given plenty of time to relax and linger over drinks. Like there was no other place we'd rather be.

Ideally, each table orders and shares from the discrete sections of the menu: Spreads & Bread, Raw & Cured, Salads & Veggies, Pasta, and Land & Sea. There's even the option to touch upon every section with a $70 per person prix fixe dinner, plus $40 extra for wine pairings.

The bar at Callie

You could spend more at such a restaurant. Two diners could easily top $200 here without blinking. Bear in mind that the ten bucks apiece from your reservation deposit gets applied to your final bill, but then so does an automatic 20 percent gratuity, and a 4 percent fee nominally applied to employee benefits. So it's worth considering that, including tax, you should expect to spend roughly 33 percent more than any price you see on the menu.

On the bright side, these guys know you're paying a premium for excellent food and service, and they aim to deliver on both counts. Our server was so friendly and food-knowledgable, I almost wanted him to sit and chat a bit about every dish. When he learned we were disappointed with the first couple bites of a seafood pasta, he insisted on replacing it with a different pasta option. I told him that was kind but unnecessary. "In a place like this," he explained, "we want you to leave here thinking everything was pretty perfect." A few minutes later, we were enjoying a more impressive pasta: pappardelle with a kurobata sausage ragu ($28).

Chefs cook within an open kitchen

To be fair, it would have been tough for any pasta to compare favorably to our uni toast appetizers ($26). Not only are the two small pieces of tomato bread toast topped by uni (sea urchin), they feature shavings of iberico ham.

Those are two of the best tasting ingredients in the world in one bite; it should have been enough. However, on this evening, shaved black truffles could be added to any appetizer for an extra 20 bucks. Three ingredients of that caliber in one bite: glad I tried it, but probably would have left happy with a single bite of the regular uni toast and called it satisfying.

Uni toast, with Iberico ham and shaved truffles

And yet, the kitchen pressed on. From the land and sea menu, I ordered something I wasn't sure about: octopus. Years ago, I tried a Spanish-style grilled octopus during a trip to Barcelona, and it became my benchmark for all seafood. I'd never tasted better since, and gave up trying after I learned what smart sea creatures they are.

Callie's version may be as close as I get to chasing down that memory. Poached and grilled, and served over shaved fennel, the tentacled dish may have left me feeling morally ambivalent, but my nostalgia could not have been happier.

A special occasion kind of restaurant for most of us, I’m not sure Callie truly meets the supposed guidelines of a Michelin bib gourmand — two courses and glass of wine for $40. But where it fails to be a bargain, it succeeds in delivering a fine dining experience worth the ante.

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