November 8, 2010

Blanca (San Diego) – Seven Course Tasting Menu or Cooking Dangerously Creative

When we go out to eat we are very open in the choice of the restaurant. It can be an ethnic restaurant with a strong focus on authentic food, a bistro-style place with variations on classic dishes or an innovative high-end restaurant – in the end it is all about good or bad food which distinguishes a restaurant. But like everybody else we have our own preferred styles of restaurants which we are specifically seeking out. Restaurants which get us excited are often using creative and unique flavor combinations which go far beyond just some twists on conventional dishes. They tend to use unusual ingredients and techniques to accomplish it. These chefs have a very special way to express their thoughts on food and ingredients, and it is a stimulating process for us to try to understand what they want to express with their creation – it is “food for thoughts”. Bistro LQ in Los Angeles is a prime example of such a restaurant and has been one of our favorites since our first visit there briefly after they opened about a year ago.

Unfortunately we haven’t had many opportunities so far to experience such Chefs or restaurants of this specific style in San Diego. Only a few special tasting menus at Better Half Bistro and at Blanca under Chef Jason Neroni left us with lasting impressions as restaurants which go far beyond the usual mainstream. But going beyond the mainstream also often means that you take the risk of losing your customers, and this is not only true for San Diego but even for LA in some instances. When we had the chance to talk with Chef Neroni during our tasting menu at Blanca last December, he already sounded quite disillusioned and so it wasn’t a big surprise that he left Blanca after only a few months. His final comment that “The running joke other chefs told me was that all San Diegans want is fish tacos. It was funny for a moment, and then it got annoying because it was true.” might be too much of a generalization but it also contains some truth.

After this short stay from Jason Neroni and the underappreciation of such a creative cooking style in San Diego, we expected Blanca to become more conservative in their choice of the next Executive Chef. We were quite surprised when after a few weeks Blanca announced to appoint Gavin Schmidt. He has an impressive resume mainly focused around San Francisco. Besides Sous Chef positions at Aqua and Fifth Floor Chef Schmidt really made an impact as Executive Chef at Campton Place Restaurant and Chef de Cuisine at Coi. Both restaurants are known far beyond San Francisco as very creative and ambitious restaurants, and are much closer to the cooking style of Jason Neroni than we had anticipated. So we were really curious to check out Blanca and find out how much he might adapt his cooking style to “fit in”. The recent addition of the seven course Chef’s tasting menu at Blanca was a good opportunity for this.

Blanca is located in Solana Beach in one of the small shopping malls along the Pacific Highway. If you don’t really know where to look it is relatively easy to overlook the nondescript building.

Their distinctive “b” sign is found outside and even after you are seated.

The restaurant is separated into two parts – a bar/lounge area and the dining room. The dining room is surprisingly small with a number of cozy booths on two sides. The interior is an interesting mix of subdued elegance with some interesting lamps which reminded us of those used on older ships.

The bread was freshly baked at the restaurant and was one of the best bread services we had in San Diego. We liked the presentation of the butter on the block of steel which was slightly warm to give the butter the right consistency.

Amuse Bouche: Sea urchin, smoked avocado panna cotta, geoduck, apple, cucumber dashi vinaigrette. Over the last few years we have come to love sea urchin with its characteristic taste of the ocean. Its delicate flavor can easily get lost if not carefully paired. Chef Schmidt chose the right combination by focusing this dish on smoked avocado and sea urchin which complemented each other nicely without overpowering. The apple and geoduck gave the dish some textural variety. The vinaigrette helped to emphasize the “fresh sea” character of the amuse bouche. A very strong start of the tasting menu with more creativity than some other restaurants have on their whole menu.

1st Course: Local vegetable composition, encapsulated caramel yoghurt.
Every restaurant talks about the importance of farm fresh food but this dish might be one of the best representations of what it really means by focusing solely on the ingredients. An impressive combination of 14-15 different examples of local produce. Some from well-known local farms, some from the restaurants own garden, some of them collected by the Chef himself who is known for his interest in foraging. Each bite was an experience of a different variation of incredible produce. But this dish also showed the Chef’s ability to combine great ingredients with newer techniques such as spherification. The encapsulated caramel yoghurt was a nice palate cleanser between the different bites of fresh produce.

2nd Course: Fennel apple soup, spot prawn sashimi, long pepper marshmallow.
The fennel apple soup reminded us as a typical example of a fall soup. It had a nice balance between the apple and fennel in which one could clearly taste both with some basil in the background. The prawn sashimi gave some textural counterbalance. But what really set this soup apart was the marshmallow. Similar to the inclusion of fresh eggs that gives many dishes a characteristic taste/mouthfeel the marshmellow slowly started to melt and gave the soup a satisfying creaminess.

3rd Course: Dungeness crab, brown rice porridge, crab tempura, Vietnamese ram tempura, carrot lemongrass emulsion. The porridge reminded us with its creaminess of a risotto. The dish had a good amount of Dungeness crab and we liked the crunchiness of the tempura. Foams and emulsions often don’t add much to a dish and can end up as some kind of gimmick. Here the carrot lemongrass brought some freshness and slight sourness to the dish. It would have been nice to get a second portion of the dish…

4th Course: Black cod, Matsutake, pears, wild flowers.
Perfectly seared black cod which was very moist. We liked the inclusion of pears which gave the dish some fruitiness. The wild flowers were another example of the Chef’s interest in foraging.

5th Course: Fried chicken and octopus, frying peppers, sesame, sassafras.
Our waiter pronounced this dish as a fun dish and we were at first not sure if fried chicken and octopus would work together but even though both kinds of meat had their distinct flavors they weren’t so different and even the consistency was quite similar. This dish was also a good example of the Chef’s use of different sauces and foams, here based on sassafras and peppers, not just as a gimmick but to really bring a dish together and at the same time adding some uniqueness to it.

6th Course: Lamb loin roasted in hay, carrot, potato, wheatgrass.
Another dish which reminded us somehow of fall. The lamb was cooked sous-vide and had a surprisingly distinct taste of hay. The meat was very tender and had despite the hay flavor still some slight gaminess left as you expect from lamb. The spiral of aerated wheatgrass sauce was not only a nice presentation but supported the hay aroma of the dish. Another very creative dish which we felt showed the Chef’s ability to bring some unexpected dimensions to a seemingly “familiar” dish.

Intermezzo: Goat cheese semifreddo, melon granite, pink peppercorn meringue, fizzy melon, pineapple. We like goat cheese and we like ice cream and here we have a great combination of both together – goat cheese semifreddo. The goat cheese semifreddo had the typical slight sourness of goat cheese and was nicely accompanied by the fruitiness of the different variations of melon granite, fizzy melon and pineapple. We also liked the presentation using the same block of steel as for the butter but now frozen.

7th Course: Chocolate truffle cake, bourbon caramel, ginger ice cream.
The chocolate truffle cake had a very strong chocolate flavor but wasn’t overly dense. We really liked the ginger ice cream with its spiciness which helped to cut through the sweetness of the cake and the caramel sauce.

Mignardise: Coconut and coffee pralines.
Nice way to end the tasting menu and like all dishes before it was of high quality and very tasty.

We went to Blanca without really knowing what to expect. Somehow we were expecting that based on the low acceptance of the cooking style from Jason Neroni in San Diego, Blanca would push Gavin Schmidt towards a more mainstream approach covering just well established classic dishes. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Even though the cooking style of Chef Schmidt is different and more playful than the one from Jason Neroni, who prefers bolder flavors, both seem to try to push boundaries of creative and ambitious cooking in San Diego. Starting from the professional service which made it possible to have a relaxing, slow paced night to the outstanding kitchen Blanca presented for us where we would like to see restaurants in San Diego develop – creative cooking which is not afraid to explore unusual ingredients and flavor combination, utilizing all types of techniques but at the same time having a San Diego edge by using what this city (and California) stands for – some of the best and freshest produce and ingredients one can find anywhere. We really would like to see that more chefs in San Diego would be willing to take some more risks and not just cook for the lowest denominator. The restaurant business is of course very risky and nobody expects that chefs would suddenly completely change their menus but it would be very encouraging to see if organizations such as Cooks Confab, Chef Celebration or Slow Food would use their (media) influence to try to educate the customers more hat good food can be so much more than the next variation on short ribs, roasted chicken, steak or burgers. But at the same time it was not very encouraging to see that Blanca was never more than half occupied during a Saturday night, and it very much reminded us of our tasting menu with Jason Neroni. Hopefully we will have the chance to follow Chef Schmidt vision of cooking in San Diego, and this first visit was just a first glimpse of what we can expect in the future.

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


kirbie said...

I'm glad to hear that Blanca didn't choose to go a more conservative route. The dishes you tasted look great.


kirbie - You should try it. It might be one of the best restaurant currently in San Diego especially for their prices

Tim said...

What is the cost of the chef's tasting menu? I don't see it listed on their website. Looks like a great meal.


Tim - The chef's tasting menu was $75 with optional wine pairing for $45.

Jonathan said...

I went to Blanca recently for the first time and although I was impressed with the presentation and the unique dishes I was not as blown away as you were by the flavors. I had some of the same dishes you did and they were good but nothing to make me want to rush back. I hope they do well and I would be willing to give it another try.


Jonathan - Tastes of food are always subjective and so it's normally that perhaps Blanca's approach to flavors isn't your favorite approach. There are many popular restaurants with great reviews where we never understood the hype. But perhaps you should give them anonther try in the future and see if just the selection of dishes on that night wasn't perfect.

Beate said...

thanks for this great review. It caused us to pack our bags and drive down to San Diego. Had an amazing meal at Blanca with the same dishes except for the amuse bouche and the predessert. Really loved the meal and the friendly service.


Beate - Great to hear that you enjoyed Blanca.

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