January 30, 2011

Blanca (San Diego) – Snout-to-Tail Dinner or Meeting San Diego Chows

There were a few reasons for us why we decided to start our own food blog. Over the years we have visited many fascinating and interesting restaurants covering high-end to hole-in-the-wall places and many different cuisines from around the world. We often talk about particular interesting dishes and visits but also realized that more and more we had problems to remember when we had which dish or how it compared to a similar dish. Starting a food blog helped us to continuously take some notes of our restaurant visits and also take photos of all dishes. It’s similar with our cooking. We have many cookbooks at home and love to cook from them. Even when we make similar dishes we hardly ever repeat a recipe but always try some new variations. Our food blog “forces” us now to capture our cooking work with photos. Besides capturing all our culinary adventures the food blog is a helpful creative outlet for us. Working as scientists is definitely interesting and also includes creativity in research, but often a more confined and targeted one. Writing and photographing is a much more free-flowing form of creativity which creates a nice counterbalance for us.

In addition to giving us the possibility of looking back to previous restaurant visits and cooked dishes, a food blog is also a nice way to share some of our experiences with our family and friends far away. Even when we lived in Germany we already had quite an interest in restaurants and cooking but it really got more and more serious since we moved to San Diego about ten years ago. It was always a bit unsatisfactory to talk in detail about the latest dish we cooked or had in a restaurant when we only could describe it roughly – the blog helped to change this. Interestingly, since we started our blog we now also get photos from restaurant visits from our family from time to time. But beyond our family we also hoped that the food blog would give us a possibility to meet other people who are interested in food, might it be virtually or even better in person. After we posted about our recent visit at Blanca in Solana Beach on Chowhound rather quickly an interesting discussion evolved which centered around the interest of many posters to have some kind of get-together. After we moved the discussion to the San Diego Chow Group and Chef Gavin Schmidt from Blanca joined the discussion all those thoughts substantiated rapidly, and we decided to have a special Snout-to-Tail Dinner at Blanca.

The snout-to tail dinner took place in the private dining room of Blanca which provided a quiet and intimate ambience for all twelve participating foodies. After a few introductory words from Chef Gavin and proprietor Seth Baas the night started with an array of canapés: plate of a variety of excellent charcuterie covering pork and lamb, profiteroles filled with pork and goat cheese, lettuce cups with crispy pork, garlic pork sausage with cabbage and mustard, chicharrone taco with bbq pork and house made kimchi. The canapé selection showed a nice variety from different ethnic influences and was a good play on different street foods. It was hard to agree on a highlight since all of them were excellent, but it was especially nice to have some excellent blood sausage which unfortunately isn’t often seen on restaurant menus. Chef Gavin’s take on the current trend on combining Korean with Mexican influenced street food was also memorable.

Amuse Bouche: smoked potato foam, pork kidney, house made prosciutto, caviar.
Good combination of the mild prosciutto and the very good kidney which didn’t have a too strong uric acid aftertaste like other preparations we had before. The caviar gave the dish some slight saltiness whereas the potato foam wasn’t just an often seen gimmick but added some base to the dish.

Skin Salad: fried pork skin with baby vegetables in various forms.
This was a smaller version of a related dish we also had at the last tasting menu at Blanca and was a nice showcase of the broad spectrum of cooking styles Chef Gavin is using – on one side the focus on unadulterated local produce where the taste of each vegetable is important and on the other side modern techniques as spherification to encapsulate a yogurt-chamomile mixture as part of the dish. A very strong dish for us by itself, and even though this dinner was pork themed we felt that although the fried pork skin was a nice idea which added some textural variety, it distracted too much from the rest of the dish.

Dichotomy of the Pig Head: plan vs. impulse, conform vs. deviate, tradition vs. unknown….and sassafrass.
The description of this dish on the menu was intriguing but left many possibilities on what to expect. The dish turned out to be a mélange of different preparations of parts of pig head. Sous-vide cooked torchon of head meat which was reminiscent of good headcheese. In red wine braised cheek which was very tender and had a mild flavor. Excellent smoked tongue and, as a highlight between many good preparations, pickled and fried pig ear which was much more tender and flavorful than any pig ear preparation we had before.

Blood and Flowers: pork trotter, blood, cocoa, nasturtium.
The pork trotter as a deep-fried gelantinous preparation reminded us of a similar presentation at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. The two different sauces alone had very different characteristics – the nasturtium sauce had some spiciness whereas the cocoa-pork blood sauce presented some minerality and depth. Both sauces alone didn’t really work with the pork trotter but once you mixed them they were a perfect match for the richness of the trotters.

Chowder: Pancetta and potato broth, various clams, jowl and razor clam “ravioli”.
Another nice example of using modern techniques to enhance a dish – Chef Gavin created the ravioli by encapsulating a razor clam between two pieces of pork jowl using transglutaminase, also known as meat glue. This dish had as a foundation an outstanding pancetta and potato broth where one clearly could taste both main ingredients. The different clams, ravioli and potatoes added some additional layers of flavors without overpowering each other – a very strong dish.

Surf and Turf: seared rock cod, pork cider jus, pork belly, apple
Perfectly seared rock cod with moist flesh and very crispy skin was paired with sous-vide cooked tender pork belly. The cider jus added some slight sweetness to balance the richness of the pork belly.

Grilled Pork Chop: Brassicas, parmesan, picholine vinaigrette
Very flavorful pork chop which was tender and had the right amount of fat to make it flavorful. This dish showed once more Chef Gavin’s ability to work with vegetables and make them an integral part of a dish. The smoked cauliflower with parmesan puree and the different brassicas stole the show of this dish and were good just by themselves.

Dumpling: braised hock, foie gras, truffle dashi
It’s always a good sign if in restaurant a dish is presented in a covered bowl. Normally one can expect a strongly fragrant dish and this time was no exception. Once the lids were removed a wonderful smell of truffles pervaded the dining room at Blanca. The shaved black truffle and truffled dashi were perfectly accompanied by foie gras and a braised hock dumpling - another highlight in an astonishing tasting menu.

A Day on the Farm: soil, seed, sprout, root, flower
This dish is most likely the most written about creation from Blanca and kind of the signature dish of Chef Gavin. For this dish the chef came into the room presenting a whole roasted pork shoulder. It was than carved tableside and laid atop the other components of the dish – a wide array of vegetables and flowers as well as some “soil” made out of among other things ground cocoa nibs. The roasted pork shoulder and the vegetables were excellent and we liked the conceptional idea of the soil but thought that the dish contained too much of it and that its flavor distracted from those of the meat and the vegetables.

Pumpkin Pie 2011: Tahitian squash frozen meringue, bacon brittle, spiced chichacones, maple ice cream.
A fall/winter inspired dessert with a very light squash based meringue as the foundation of the “pumpkin pie”. The five-spiced chicharrones and the bacon brittle added some salti- and spiciness to the dish as well as textural variety. The maple ice cream completed the pie with some sweetness.

Mignardises: Blood Orange Truffles
In a pig centered tasting menu even the mignardises have to include parts of the pig. Here the truffles not only contained orange, cocoa and chocolate but also some pork blood which added a hint of minerality to this fitting end of the night.

After our excellent first tasting menu we came with high expectations to Blanca and were hoping for a continuation of this experience. But already the first plates of the canapés ensured us that we would be part of a memorable night. This tasting menu enforced our impression of Gavin as a chef who has the confidence and experience to develop his own style but at the same time adapt it to his surroundings. His dishes combine all kinds of modern and classic techniques but also involve ingredients special to this area. It was also very nice and helpful that he took the time to explain all of his dishes before they were served. Something, which is of course impossible under normal circumstances, but would be a great addition to any tasting menu. The great experience didn’t end at the kitchen but everybody made sure that we had a smooth dinner – Seth provided us with a good and balanced wine pairing, explaining each wine and his thoughts for the choices. The service was flawless and we never felt rushed.
At least as important as the food for us was the opportunity to meet some of the people we knew from discussion boards. It’s nice to meet others in the virtual world but in the end it only allows for very limited interaction and so it was interesting to see the people behind names like SDGourmand, Dining Diva, stevuchan, Shouzen and karaethon. Everybody at this dinner felt that this shouldn’t be just a one-time event. As part of this initiative a new San Diego / South California message board (“The Communal Table”) was created which not only should help to facilitate such dinners but also initiate a more open discussion between all parts of the dining experience, e.g. chefs, guests, and waiters.

437 S Highway 101 # 301
Solana Beach, CA 92075-2221
(858) 792-0072

January 15, 2011

One Market (San Francisco) – Thanksgiving Dinner 2010

There are many different holidays in the Western world which are celebrated in all countries like Christmas or Easter but there are certain holidays which are very specific for each country. Often these holidays are related to the founding of a country like Independence Day in the US, Bastille Day in France or the Day of German Unity. The day which represents for us from a foodie perspective the most specific American celebration of gathering and food was always Thanksgiving. There are remotely related holidays in Europe like Erntedankfest in Germany but those celebrations are much more based on a religious background and are often only celebrated in scattered areas.

When we moved to the US Thanksgiving was for the first few years always an international potluck we celebrated with many coworkers from all over the world at the research institute we worked at that time. In the last few years we often used the Thanksgiving break for a short foodie trip to Las Vegas but this year Thanksgiving was for us the starting day of a longer trip to the Bay Area and the wine country. We never really had problems to find a good restaurant in Las Vegas on Thanksgiving but it turned out to be surprisingly challenging to find something suitable in San Francisco. Either many restaurants we were interested in weren’t open for Thanksgiving or they were open but had very boring and vastly overpriced special menus. After many phone calls and emails with different restaurants we finally settled on One Market for our Thanksgiving Dinner.

One Market is the best known restaurant of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group. The Lark Creek Restaurant Group was founded by Chef Bradley Ogden and business partner Michael Dellar in 1989. Bradley Ogden has over the years established himself as a well respected chef in the culinary world and was critical in setting up all twelve restaurant of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group throughout California and Las Vegas with several more planned in the near future. Even though Bradley Ogden was the founding chef of One Market in 1993 since then a number of executive chefs have followed him with Mark Dommen at the helm for the last six years. Chef Dommen started his culinary education at the California Culinary Academy before honing his skills and moving up the ranks by working for many exceptional chefs like Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys), Gary Kunz (Lespinasse) and Jean-Louis Palladin (Palladin). He was also opening chef of Julia’s Kitchen in Napa before joining One Market.

One Market restaurant is located across the Ferry Building in one of the large buildings which house banks and investment firms. The restaurant is on the first floor and has windows all-around which gives the place an open feeling.

When we arrived at One Market the place was extremely crowded in the entrance and it soon became clear that they were about 20-30 minutes behind their schedule. They have a small bar area to the right where most people waited for their table.

The dining area has two levels. We were seated on the lower level and even though the tables are relatively close to each other the restaurant didn’t feel too overcrowded.

We started the night with two cocktails. No Partridge – Hangar One spiced pear vodka, Orchard pear liqueur, Domaine de canton ginger liqueur. Pleasantly fruity cocktail with nice pear flavor which got a nice kick from the ginger liqueur. The drink had a nice balance between alcohol and fruitiness. Hot Apple Pie – Tuaca, mulled apple cider, cinnamon whipped cream. The warm cocktail was perfect for this cold night and was indeed reminiscent of an apple pie. The vanilla liqueur paired nicely with the apple cider.

The bread was an epi-style bread which reminded us on the bread you get at the different Bouchon restaurants. A simple but very fresh bread.

Amuse Bouche: Duck liver mousse, quinoa tabbouleh, pickled cauliflowers and carrots.
The menu just mentioned an amuse bouche to start the dinner but our waiter brought a rather large plate of a few different appetizers – a light version of tabbouleh with quinoa instead of the normal bulgur which gave it a more nutty flavor, pickled cauliflowers and carrots which weren’t overly sour like many pickled vegetables often tend to be and, as the highlight of the plate, a very creamy and smooth duck liver mousse. One often sees chicken liver mousse on restaurant menus but duck liver mousse seems to be much less popular which is surprising as this example shows a wonderfully rich and creamy version which has a nuanced livery taste and is perfectly accompanied by toasted bread.

Course 1a: Golden lentil soup, vadouvan, yogurt cloud.
This soup was made of pureed lentils so that it had a smooth and creamy consistency without the use of cream which made the soup very light and enjoyable. Vadouvan seems to be one of the current trendy spice mixes often used now by chefs and is a French version of an Indian curry by adding onions, shallots and garlic to classic Indian curry mixes. Since lentils are frequently used in French and Indian cooking the use of vadouvan was a clever way to bring these two worlds together. The addition of spinach and croutons gave the soup some color and textural variety.

Course 1b: Red wine risotto, duck confit, gizzard, chicories
Risotto cooked al dente can be some of the simplest but most satisfying dishes and this red wine risotto was no exception. The carnaroli rice had the right balance between creaminess and some toothiness from the firmer center. The red wine not only gave the dish an impressive bright color but together with some duck stock gave the dish a solid foundation. The duck confit, but even more importantly the duck gizzard, pronounced the duck flavor of the dish. The chicory completed the dish by adding some slight bitterness.

Course 2a: Spit-roasted Berkshire pork loin, fennel, apple, potato puree, cider
Pork often tends to be overly dry but Chef Dommen used spit-roasting to ensure a juicy cooked pork loin on the bone which also had fortunately not all fat trimmed of. The spit-roasting also gave the pork loin a flavorful crust. The creamy potato puree and sautéed apple-fennel mixture accompanied the meat fittingly to give a simple but expertly prepared dish.

Course 2b: Roasted Willy Bird turkey, cornbread & applewood-smoked bacon stuffing, creamed spinach, shallot-thyme gravy
What is Thanksgiving without turkey ? One Market presented a rather classical but very tasty version. Large pieces of moist, tender turkey meat, not overly dry cornbread stuffing with a strong bacon flavor, good gravy and some cranberry jam. The unexpected star of this good Thanksgiving dish was the creamed spinach – a perfect preparation with a pronounced garlic flavor.

Course 3a: Valrhona chocolate soufflé cake, chocolate-banana ice cream, chocolate malt cream
The souffle cake was light, well prepared and had a good balance between the sweetness and some bitterness from the chocolate. Even though the ice cream and the cream on top of the soufflé also had chocolate incorporated the dessert didn’t feel like chocolate overkill and overly sweet but was balanced.

Course 3b: Triple layer pumpkin cheesecake, maple sugar pecans, egg nog ice cream
Nice presentation of this fall dessert with rather subdued pumpkin flavor in the cheesecake. We normally are not big fans of egg nog but here the flavor wasn’t too dominant and went well together with the cheesecake.

Surprisingly good espresso ended the night at One Market

We came to One Market with low expectations - We had so much problems to find any interesting restaurant for Thanksgiving in San Francisco. Reviews were mixed and pointed more towards a meeting place for bankers and politicians. Thanksgiving, together with Valentine’s Day, is normally a day when you should avoid restaurants like the plague and when we arrived the restaurant was clearly overwhelmed by the rush of the customers. So we were quite worried when we waited for our table that the evening would become a disaster but it turned out to be quite an enjoyable dinner. The cooking style from Chef Dommen at One Market might not be the most innovative but it produces very solid dishes which had some surprising twists. It was refreshing to see that he used even at such a dinner where you would expect that he cooks for the lowest denominator some unusual ingredients as duck liver or gizzards. A special mention deserves the service at One Market. We normally prefer a very slow pacing but were expecting to be rushed at such circumstances but instead our server made sure from the very beginning that we had a relaxing night and ensured a slow progression of the dishes throughout the night. Even though he was responsible for many tables our server always recognized when we needed bread, water etc.
One Market might not be a destination restaurant in San Francisco especially if you just come for a visit to the city. But if we would be living in San Francisco we would be interested to try more dishes at One Market. Especially the “Weekly Beast” from Chef Dommen where he offers whole animal menus with a strong emphasis on local ingredients sounds very interesting.

1 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 777-5577