Blanca (San Diego)
Posted 08 November 2010 - 11:52 PM
Blanca – 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 sign “b” 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 joghurt.
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 joghurt 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.
Posted 30 January 2011 - 11:33 PM
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.