Review: Callie soars with Michelin-quality food and a sublime San Diego vibe
Approachable and affordable Cali-Mediterranean cuisine at Travis Swikard’s new restaurant is earning raves from locals and top chefs
If you want to know the secret of success for Callie — chef-owner Travis Swikard’s new East Village restaurant that has earned “best meal ever” reviews on social media from many local chefs and restaurant-goers since it opened in June — just try the Aleppo chicken.
The deceptively simple and incredibly succulent dish takes more than 24 hours for Swikard’s team to prepare. It requires an overnight yogurt marinade to tenderize the meat, a dry salt brine to preserve its juiciness, imported Aleppo pepper from Syria, freshly picked coriander and fennel and a honey-sherry vinegar gastrique glaze that, when charred, gives the skin a crunchy caramelized crust without drying out the flesh underneath.
Advertised on the menu with just four ingredients and delivered to the table without a lengthy explanation, Swikard’s top-selling Aleppo chicken is achieving exactly what Swikard dreamed of for Callie — to “under-promise and overdeliver” by serving Michelin-quality food in an affordable, approachable and laid-back San Diego way.
Before the San Diego native opened the 188-seat restaurant and bar, he spent a decade in New York working as a culinary team leader for Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud. Swikard could have stayed in Manhattan to open his first restaurant. Instead he came home with his wife and sons to build a restaurant with partners David Cohn and chef Deborah Scott that combines his expertise in Mediterranean cooking and classic French training with San Diego’s laid-back vibe and its unparalleled produce, proteins and seafood.
Michelin inspector comments: “Chef Travis Swikard comes back to his hometown wreathed in glory, having earned his wings helming restaurants for culinary icon Daniel Boulud in New York City. Hip locals can now reap the benefits of the years he spent honing his craft in fine dining kitchens at this sharply designed and boisterous spot.
The cuisine takes advantage of the best ingredients SoCal has to offer in highly shareable dishes featuring the bold, sunny flavors of the Mediterranean. Vegetables and seafood steal the show, with spice as a key supporting character. Behold the kampachi crudo with an herb-y Israeli hot sauce and black lime, or carrots with crunchy cashew dukkah and burnt orange habanero dressing. Save room for sweets like the warm chocolate chip tahini cookie.”
At Callie, there is no pretension, no white tablecloths in the dining room and no chef’s coats in the kitchen. When guests arrive, they’re greeted with what Swikard calls the “Callie hospitality hug,” which isn’t an actual physical embrace but a warm and friendly welcome to his culinary home.
The décor is part Mediterranean blue tile and part sunset-gold memories of the Santee-raised Swikard’s twin childhood passions of surfing and skateboarding. The bar — which serves a tangy surfing-inspired cocktail called the Kook Juice — has a barrel ceiling inspired by a crashing wave, and the dining room banquettes resemble the curves and ramps of a skate park.
While many of the dishes have San Diego accents, like a hint of jalapeño here and creamy Hass avocado there, the Callie menu is unabashedly Mediterranean with dishes inspired by the cuisines of Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco and more.
Swikard understands the intimidation factor of dishes and ingredients like “fattoush,” “labneh,” “zhoug” and “dukkah,” so he takes the guesswork out of the menu by offering a five-course menu called the Mediterranean Feast for parties of two and above. More than 60 percent of nightly guests, including me, choose the $65 option.
The Feast is no tiny-food tasting. The generously portioned shared plates begin with a mezze course of hummus and other Med dips with house-baked pita, a crudo course, a fresh pasta, a land-and-sea course with vegetable side and a dessert. If patrons return and order the feast again, the kitchen will happily change the dishes up to share more of the menu.
The mezze course of smoky baba ganoush, spicy hummus and pistachio-sprinkled avocado labneh (strained yogurt) are served with warm pita and a platter of organic raw, blanched and pickled artisanal veggies like lemon cucumber, pickled radishes and orange bell peppers. It’s enough to fill you up, but save your appetite if you can.
My crudo course was fresh-caught local bluefin tuna topped with compressed basil leaves and cherry bell peppers on a bed of spicy tomato water gelée. The dish burst with fresh tomato flavor and pleasing acidity, though a touch of salt would give the tuna more distinction in the dish.
My pasta course was the lemon saffron spaghetti, a nightly special featuring bluefin confit, fennel sofrito and toasted breadcrumbs enhanced with bottarga (cured fish roe) seasoning. It delivered the whole umami package with its brine, sweet, tart and savory qualities, and its house-made noodles were cooked perfectly al dente.
The aforementioned Aleppo chicken was served with a side of crunchy Moroccan carrots, a fun dish of chilled carrot ribbons piled high like fettuccine pasta and served with a tangy burnt orange-habanero dressing and crunchy cashew dukkah (a Middle Eastern nut, herb and spice mix). It was bright, sweet, surprising and a wonderful complement to the rich and spicy chicken dish. At the suggestion of the server, we also ordered the side dish of the chilled broccolini, which is the serving staff’s favorite dish. The tender-crisp broccolini spears are served with a light and refreshing tahini sauce made with Meyer lemons from the backyard of Swikard’s dad.
Another dish we added from the nightly specials menu was the spot prawns al ajillo. Kept live in a kitchen tank for the peak of freshness, the buttery, melt-in-your-mouth shrimp are served with just a touch of garlic, chili and parsley and a side of warm bread, which is made from wheat that’s ground and baked in-house.
The feast concludes with desserts that were also created by Swikard. They’re on the smaller side and are mostly light, citrusy and fruit-focused. While the delicate Turkish rice pudding with summer figs from Swikard’s garden and a twist of fairy floss (fiber-like cotton candy) is memorable, my favorite was the pleasingly sour Eureka lemon pavlova, made with rose meringue, honey yogurt and kumquats.
Prices at Callie are reasonable for the amount of food and service offered, with most dishes priced from $12 to $26, wines starting at $13 a glass and $14 cocktails. Parking in the restaurant’s underground lot is free for the first three hours with validation, which has been a big selling point with diners I know who’ve traveled from Escondido, La Mesa and Carlsbad for meals they’ve described as the best they’ve ever had.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays
Where: 1195 Island Ave., San Diego (parking garage entrance on 11th Avenue, garage entrance marked 1155 Island)
Phone: (619) 255-9596
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