Travis Swikard moved back to San Diego in early 2019 with the goal of having his first solo restaurant launched by the end of that year. Two years, countless delays, and one pandemic later, and the chef is finally preparing to open his much-anticipated Callie in the East Village on Friday, June 4. The restaurant is a homecoming for the native San Diegan, who got his start in the industry as a teenager working for the Cohn Restaurant Group and returns after spending the last decade working with legendary chef Daniel Boulud.
Swikard has been anything but idle over these many months, establishing connections with regional chefs and searching out the best area resources, from local olive oil to spices from El Cajon’s international markets, for a California-Mediterranean menu that travels through the cuisines of Greece, Spain, Italy, Morocco, and the Middle East.
Though he’s worked at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, Swikard says that Callie is built for the San Diego community, not to seek the approval or attention of national critics. But, by applying his considerable training to local ingredients and creating food that can only be found here, he hopes to play some small part in changing the way people regard San Diego’s culinary scene.
James Beard Award-winning chef Gavin Kaysen, who recruited Swikard onto the Boulud team, accomplished something similar when he returned to his native Minnesota and says that Swikard is primed to do just that with Callie. “I understand the idea of going back home and bringing your talents with you to not only show people what you have learned, but to teach others to help lead the way for the future of your city,” Kaysen says, noting that he’s already planning a trip to San Diego to check out several new restaurants including Callie this summer. “Travis will do that and San Diego will become richer as a result.”
A Padres fan through thick and thin, Swikard also wants to help reenergize the dining scene in East Village by becoming a destination restaurant for the stadium district. Callie is aiming to be a welcoming and relaxed neighborhood hangout, but the building also has ample free parking to draw diners from throughout San Diego.
Here are some of Callie’s foundational dishes:
Pita Bread, Hummus, and Baba Ghanoush: Blistered in an 800-degree oven and made with house-milled kamut flour, the pitas accompany hummus topped with an herby, spicy zhoug sauce that uses preserved limes grown in Swikard’s backyard and an Israeli-style baba ghanoush that gets a SoCal kick from roasted poblano peppers. Callie’s dishes are designed to be shared, with that aspect driven home by each table getting its own communal tray of flatware instead of individual place settings.
Bigeye Tuna: Among the raw and cured seafood dishes is this kaiseki-inspired dish that Swikard, who trained in Japan, says is also a take on Italian acqua pazza, or fire water. The local tuna is served with a tomato water gelee seasoned with Fresno chile vinegar.
Octopus: Nearly every dish on Callie’s menu has something locally grown or sourced. Here its the greens in the fennel salad that accompanies charred Mediterranean octopus paired with skordalia, a garlicky Greek dip.
Burrata Agnolini: Callie’s kitchen has a dedicated pasta station where Swikard hand-makes each variety with the same Italian flour as Modena’s famed Osteria Francescana. Dressed with Temecula olive oil and lemon, these cheese-stuffed agnolini are topped with summer squash, black pepper, and marjoram.
Aleppo Chicken: Sourced from a farm in Pomona, the chicken is marinated overnight in garlic, yogurt, and spices before being cooked over charcoal, glazed with coriander honey, and served with sumac pickles.
Meyer Lemon: Swikard is a rare savory chef who actually likes making desserts. He pairs Meyer lemon curd with honey-whipped labneh, rose meringue, and a candy floss made from sesame halva.
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