Calafia spreads itself too thin

Feb. 18, 2011, 12:51 a.m.
Calafia spreads itself too thin
t Calafia Cafe, Executive Chef and Owner Charlie Ayers specializes in local, organic, and affordable food (CELESTE NOCHE/The Stanford Daily).

The average American has eaten some 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before he or she graduates high school; that is almost one sandwich every four days since birth. The secret to such an addicting recipe is to not spread the ingredients too thin — a couple heaping globs of the magic at the top of the food pyramid. Calafia Café does not seem to have that part down though. By trying to please everyone and going too wide, they spread themselves too thin and don’t shine on any dimension.

The cafe (as distinct from the Market A-Go-Go side) is a cute restaurant for a relaxed lunch or a relatively upscale dinner for those in a bit of a rush. The décor is well done and provides an inviting atmosphere, despite the commotion in the kitchen.
After sitting down, it’s easy to notice that the menu has no clear direction and is overly eclectic. Amid mainly American cuisine, there are large Asian and Latin influences that tend to come out fairly mediocre. For example, the duck dumplings are easily forgotten. They are almost deep fried, lending a particularly heavy feeling to the duck. The Enchilada Special is well plated, but, similar to the dumplings, the dish takes on a heavier feel than necessary with the sour cream and does not provide commensurate flavor. The Really Angry Pork Tacos are simply unbalanced. The “anger” is derived from a pinch of minced, pickled habanero peppers that still overwhelms the otherwise boring tacos with their spice. By not pairing the peppers with other strong flavors and ingredients, the tacos just fade away.

Calafia also offers a wide range of vegetarian options, but these, in general, are a disaster. For example, the Spinach Dragon Noodle Bowl does not seem to bother with trying to look appetizing. The only divergence from what appears like a yellow mess of curry is a few sprigs of parsley that also stand out too much in flavor. The dish is relatively bland and has a terrible texture. The Tofu Lentil Loaf is a complete miss as well. The loaf itself is intensely dry, and the texture isn’t saved by the miso mushroom gravy. Only an acute peppery flavor comes through from the loaf or the accompanying mashed potatoes.

The vegetarian sides fare only slightly better. The Carrot Almond Salad has no flavor to it except that of plain carrots and carries with it an almost fetid smell from the rice vinegar. The same vinegar also causes the toasted almonds to become soggy and gives the whole dish a displeasing mouthfeel. The Butternut Chilijack is surprisingly under-seasoned. While not a bad option, it is a far cry from providing the feelings normally associated with a warm bowl of chili on a cold day. The Ginger Mashed Yams have a nice ginger kick to their creamy texture and are certainly among the best vegetarian options; unfortunately they’re only a side.
The generic American options are generally the strongest on the menu. The Fiery Bottom BBQ Pork Bowl was well balanced and delicious. The BBQ sauce has a mild but sufficient spiciness to it and never comes off as overwhelming. The bed of brown rice, yams and spinach round off the bowl nicely with a bit of sweetness and a fluffier texture that doesn’t leave you lethargic like BBQ often does. Wolfgang’s Pizza is certainly tasty but not exactly culinary mastery; it’s difficult to miss when presenting a bed of pesto, cheese and fatty red meat (duck), but there was nothing particularly interesting or subtle about the flavor profile.
After wading through the real misfires, there are a handful of good plates at Calafia that could satisfy you. In the end though, nothing stands out, and you would not be remiss to pass this over in your time at Stanford. In general, it’s in the “middle of the road.”

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