Saturday, July 30, 2011

Blanca (Solana Beach, CA)

Blanca Restaurant
437 S Hwy 101, Solana Beach, CA 92075
858.792.0072
www.dineblanca.com
Sat 07/30/2011, 07:30p-01:45a




The story of Blanca begins with Debbie Hugonin and her son Seth Baas, nephew of San Diego Padres owner John Moores. Hailing from Houston originally, the two started out owning and operating fast food restaurants (such as Sonic Drive-In) in the Southwest, and Baas later studied culinary arts in San Francisco. They eventually relocated to the San Diego area, and in May 2006, the mother-and-son team debuted Blanca in Solana Beach's Beachwalk Center, occupying a 4,400sqft space formerly held by a bicycle shop.

Michael Mina protégé Wade Hageman served as the first Executive Chef, but would leave in 2009 to open up Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizza in Encinitas with wife Kristi. He was summarily replaced by New York import Jason Neroni, who, interestingly enough, began his career at Disneyland's Club 33, and also worked at the legendary Chez Panisse. Despite positive reviews from critics, Neroni left Blanca in mid-2010, after just seven months, and is currently employed at LA Italian standby Osteria La Buca. That brings us to new toque Gavin Schmidt.

A Seattle native, Schmidt cut his teeth at some of San Francisco's most well-known establishments. He worked at Restaurant Elisabeth Daniel, the failed joint venture between Elisabeth Ramsey and Daniel Patterson, in the early 2000's. Schmidt then moved to Aqua, and later Fifth Floor, serving as a Sous Chef at both eateries. In 2006, the Chef secured a post at the famed Campton Place, where Bradley Ogden first made a name for himself prior to branching out on his own. The following year, he was named Executive Chef there, replacing Peter Rudolph. In 2008, Schmidt rejoined Dan Patterson at his Michelin two-star Coi, taking a slight demotion to Chef de Cuisine. He would stay at Coi until 2009, when he was tapped to head up the kitchens at both the Burlingame (now shuttered) and SF locations of Nectar Wine Lounge. Schmidt subsequently left Nectar in 2010 to take over the kitchens at Blanca.

Blanca Interior
Blanca means "white" in Spanish, and the decor tries to live up to that moniker with its subtle, soothing, monochromatic palette. In addition to the main dining room, there's also a separate bar/lounge area with a standalone menu, as well as a private dining room accommodating 22 diners.

Blanca Tasting Menu
Blanca's menu is more reasonably priced these days, and can be described as French-inflected farm-to-table Californian fare. Chef Schmidt is a big proponent of local, sustainable cooking, baking his own breads and curing his own meat, and even going as far as to forage for his own nasturtium and harvest his own seaweed from nearby beaches. There are a number of enticing à la carte selections here, as well as a lovely seven-course tasting menu at $80, but local San Diego blogger Bobby of Gourmands Review set up a special extended degustation for us: 13 courses at $100, plus $60 for wine pairing. Click for a larger version.

Bacon-Flavored Doughnut
Our meal got off to a sweet start with a miniature bacon-flavored doughnut with maple-whisky sabayon. The rich, sugary smack of the doughnut was front and center here, with the slight saltiness of the bacon coming in late on the palate. I wouldn't have minded a half-dozen more!

Poppyseed and Sourdough Breads
Bread, baked in-house, came in poppy seed and sourdough varieties.

Tasting of House Made Charcuterie
1: Tasting of House Made Charcuterie
NV, Louis de Grenelle, brut rose
Chef Schmidt loves making his own charcuterie, and we were treated to a sextet of such. Going from right to left:
  • Duck Liver Mousse with Balsamic: Decadent, yet restrained at the same time, with a superb countervailing piquancy from the balsamic and a long, lingering, liver-y finish.
  • Pâté de Campagne with Fig Mostarda: A gritty, rustic country pâté with a lovely, lip-smacking savor, beautifully balanced by the sweetness from the mostarda.
  • Chicharrón with Honey and Espelette: Here, the honey and espelette played perfectly off of the pork-y goodness of the rinds. I could've eaten an entire bag.
  • Coppa & Soppressata with Pickled Carrot: A classic presentation of Italian salumi, salty and spicy in essence, with a wonderful offsetting tanginess and crunch from the carrot.
  • Lamb Speck with Lamb Powder and Strawberry: The speck deftly showed off its prototypical juniper notes, while the ovine sapor of the meat was heightened by the application of lamb powder. At the same time, the strawberry actually worked surprisingly well in balancing out the bite.
  • Foie Gras Torchon with Artichoke, Licorice, and Cherry: A tasty, textbook preparation of foie, with a lovely kick of sweet spice from the cherry and licorice combination.
Vegetable Composition
2: Vegetable Composition | castelvetrano olives, citrus vinaigrette, yogurt and chamomile spheres
NV, Louis de Grenelle, brut rose
A bevy of veggies--Mexican gherkin cucumber, Japanese eggplant, turnip and breakfast radish from Blanca's own garden, peas, and carrot, among other items--greeted us here. It was an appealing-looking plate, and I appreciated how each of the components were unique and distinct, with their own particular tastes and textures. At the same time though, the yogurt-chamomile provided floral overtones to the dish that just bound everything together.

Still Life of Local Waters
3: Still Life of Local Waters | spot prawn, uni, oyster, seaweed, dashi, smoked avocado
2009, Perolla, vermentino
The so-called "Still Life" is oft considered Schmidt's signature dish, and I can definitely see why. I found it reminiscent of David Kinch's "Autumn Tidal Pool" and Dan Patterson's "Oysters Under Glass." The seafood--Santa Barbara sea urchin, Santa Barbara spot prawn poached in olive oil, Carlsbad Aqua Farms oyster--was just so forcefully and faithfully presented here, conveying the essence of the sea perfectly. The whole amalgam was well integrated, yet distinct, and was perfectly tempered by the dish's base of smoked avocado panna cotta, yet linked together by its dashi veil, while the apple, ice plant, and cucumber added a refreshing textural variation. The course was a table favorite, and to quote one of my dining companions, was "retarded good."

Cherry Tomato Salad
4: Cherry Tomato Salad | bay scallops, tomato sorbet, almond, gazpacho
2009, Hans Wirsching, Silvaner
After the intense brine and umami-laced goodness of the previous course, this next dish was a refreshing change of pace. The essence of a traditional gazpacho was nicely conveyed here. I especially appreciated the addition of the almond, as well as the tangy sweetness of the melon and tomato, while the scallops, perfectly cooked, added a well-placed heft to things.

Grilled Asparagus
5: Grilled Asparagus | burrata, lemon, fried hen egg, chocolate mint
2008, domaine Saint-Francoise, Bourgogne
Asparagus and runny egg--hard to go too wrong with those two ingredients, and indeed, this course did not disappoint. I appreciated the smoky, astringent flavor of grilled asparagus, and well as the lighter, purer taste from the sliced raw asparagus. The lemon provided a counterpoising sourness to things, but the real star of the show was that egg, boiled then deep fried to perfection. It added a certain lusciousness to the dish that tied all the elements together beautifully.

Charred Yellowtail
6: Charred Yellowtail | abalone, young zucchini, ginger, kimchi, basil
2009, Ken Forrester, Chenin Blanc
When our server announced that vadouvan was in this dish, I was a tad concerned that the spice blend would overwhelm the fish. There was nothing to fret about really though, as the yellowtail was still clearly the hero. The belly, seared rare, actually worked flawlessly in concert with the combination of vadouvan and kimchi, and I liked the textural contrast from the tempura'd squash blossom. One of the best vadouvan-centric dishes that I've ever had.

Grilled Octopus
7: Grilled Octopus | brown rice, artichoke, plum, cinnamon
2007, Robert Weil, Reisling Kabinett
Octopus was prepared sous vide, then grilled, resulting in a pleasant consistency and a satisfying sapor tinged with a touch of spicy sweetness from the use of cassis and cinnamon. The plum and watercress, meanwhile, served to balance out the heady flavors of the cephalopod. My concern here was that the rice (which is milled in-house) was rather soft; it got a bit lost, and I would've liked something with more chew.

Olive Oil Poached Baja Halibut
8: Olive Oil Poached Baja Halibut | corn, shiitake mushrooms, toasted wheat, tomato uni sauce
2009, Chateau Musar, Musar Jeaune
Halibut was poached in olive oil, making for a soft, supple, delicate-tasting fish. It may have been too mild for some, however, as one of my dining companions felt that more salt was needed. Nevertheless, the corn added a restrained sweetness into the fray, while the shiitakes contributed a touch of earthiness. The tomato-uni sauce, though, was the key here, serving as a deft complement to the halibut that adroitly accented the fish's flavor.

A Day on the Farm
9: A Day on the Farm | soil, seed, sprout, root, flower
2008, Carr Vineyards, Cabernet Franc
This high-concept course brought together cauliflower-sunchoke purée, kale, puffed farro, watercress, nasturtium, argan oil, carrot, cauliflower, spring onion, Brussels sprout, and cherry tomato, among other ingredients. The result of all this, I must say, was quite appealing. I enjoyed the individual contributions of the various veggies, and loved how their distinct characteristics melded together in a panoply of flavors, all linked together by the earthy astringency of the "soil."

Grilled Grass Fed Beef Brisket
10: Grilled Grass Fed Beef Brisket | corn puree, grilled apricot, roasted padron peppers
2007, Terra Valentine, Cabernet Sauvignon
Beef brisket arrived smoked with mesquite, cooked sous vide for 72 hours, then charred on the grill. As such, the meat showed off a fantastic smokiness, along with a lovely fattiness and a thoroughly satisfying bovine relish. I liked the countering heat from the peppers, but I was a bit thrown off by the corn purée, which bordered on overly saccharine for me.

Lamb Roasted in Hay
11: Lamb Roasted in Hay | roasted eggplant, potatoes, and wheatgrass emulsion
2008, Ispiri, Cabernet Sauvignon (graciously provided by James of Gastro Bits)
Our final savory course of the evening brought us lamb, roasted rare in hay. The meat showed off a profound depth of flavor that I just deemed irresistible, and I certainly found myself gnawing on the bone near the end there. There was a touch of counteracting zestiness from the wheatgrass-olive oil emulsion, but the potatoes really did a great job in subduing the dish.

Goat Cheese Semifreddo
12: Goat Cheese Semifreddo | melon granite, pink peppercorn meringue, fizzy melons
NV, Valdo, Prosecco
Functioning as a sort of pre-dessert palate cleanser was a disc of goat cheese semifreddo, served with a melon granita. This was a cool, refreshing intermezzo that paired the richness of the semifreddo with the lightness of the melon ice, while the avocado spheres and melons served to moderate the dish.

Blueberries and Corn
13: Blueberries and Corn | polenta chiffon, corn panna cotta, blueberry sorbet, caramel corn
NV, Dog Fishhead, Midas Touch, Ancient Ale
Dessert came courtesy of Blanca's new Pastry Chef, Laguna Beach native Jasana Singer. I appreciated the subtly savory base of the corn panna cotta, as well as the polenta chiffon cake, while the blueberry-tequila sorbet and blueberry fluid gel added touches of neutralizing saccharine goodness. The caramel corn, meanwhile, provided lovely accents of sugary sweetness to the tumult while also mixing things up texturally.

Petit Fours
To close out the meal: Maldon white chocolates with kaffir lime and lemongrass, plus dark chocolates with peach liqueur and sea salt.

Andrea Ruhl Stephanie Savchuk, Andrea Ruhl
As a special treat, Stephanie of Gourmands Review brought along some of her homemade macarons for us to enjoy. Done up in lemon and strawberry flavors, they were some of the best I've had, with suitably sugary, jammy centers between melt-in-your-mouth layers of cookie.

Among local food cognoscenti, Blanca is often regarded as the best restaurant in the San Diego area. After this meal, I can understand why. The Chef's devotion to top notch, sustainable, local produce is key here to be sure. However, Schmidt goes one step above your typical farm-to-table fare and is not afraid to imbue his food with an avant garde touch here and there. The end result is cuisine that's a bit more adventurous compared to the modern American cooking that's typically available in the vicinity, but which doesn't offend the sensibilities of the restaurant's clientele base either. It's a happy medium that seems to be serving the Blanca well.

Blanca Interior

26 Comments:

Blogger Bobby @ Gourmands Review said...

Great review Kevin. I still don't know how you get your pictures to come out so well. Happy that you enjoyed Blanca, it's definitely my favorite in SD.

Monday, August 01, 2011 7:55:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

It was great finally getting to meet you Kevin! Great review and I hope you guys will return again for some of the other restaurants.

And yeah, your pictures did come out way better than mine also.

Monday, August 01, 2011 8:43:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Awesome Kevin! You are finally making the great divide to Northern San Diego. I am proud of you.

Marian says that the four of us need to hit up Stone World Bistro and Gardens in San Marcos. You have been dodging it long enough. It's time to man up. ;)

Monday, August 01, 2011 1:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Marian the Foodie said...

I want a bag of those bacon donuts!!


Michael: "Marian says..." say what?! I didn't say anything! lol! It was Michael's idea Kevin but still a great idea. Stone is a cool place. I wasn't able to do the brewery tour last time I was there. Let's get something on the calendar. Maybe after I get back from my biz trip? Sept?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011 7:26:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Bobby: Thanks again for making this happen. Regarding the photos, what settings were you shooting with at the dinner?

James: Nice to finally put a face to a name as well! I remember you were at ISO 1600, but what was your aperture/shutter?

Michael: You have to thank Bobby for providing most of the impetus for getting me down there.

Marian: September sounds good, but were did that whole Stone thing come from then?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011 7:23:00 PM  
Blogger Bobby @ Gourmands Review said...

I think I was shooting iso3200 f2.8. I feel that it's my color balance that is off. Your photos come out with more warm colors mine look a little sterile, if that makes sense.

It was my pleasure setting this up. I really wanted you to try it. Gavin is an amazing chef. Looking forward to our next dinner where ever that may be.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011 7:55:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

@Kevin - I was shooting at 1/10, f2.8 iso 1600. I think the real problem was that my borrowed lens had about a 3 foot minimum shooting distance and didn't have IS, so that causes a lot of blur in my photos.

If you're really interested in visiting Stone, I can probably try to get something arranged. Last time I talked with them they were saying something about a tour of their farm before the dinner. There were a few caveats that pretty much made me back off from the whole idea though.

For Addison, I mentioned the idea to E and she was all for it, but wanted us to wait until after she returned from France for the Burgundy wine harvest...

Tuesday, August 02, 2011 11:36:00 PM  
Blogger morrel masturbation said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011 12:38:00 AM  
Blogger elizabeth harcourt. said...

Great review, Kevin! I think your dining companion nailed it on the head with the phrase "retarded good;" from the photos it seems as though it would apply to your entire experience at Blanca, and not simply the genius Still Life. I'm glad. I think Gavin is top notch, and his dishes are entirely memorable, intelligent and yet still flavorful and delicious. I wish I could have been with you guys, but hope to see you again soon. Maybe Addison??? I'd love to be there, but I'm headed to work harvest in Burgundy...returning end of September. Can you wait that long (six weeks)?? Hope you are well! :) E.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011 12:44:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Bobby: Thanks Bobby!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011 9:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Marian the Foodie said...

The Stone thing is from Michael

Wednesday, August 03, 2011 9:44:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Bobby: I'd like to see your photos. Do you have them posted anywhere? What did you set your white balance to?

James: Your settings seem in line with the conditions, and I didn't see all that much blur in most of your photos. But I guess that's why I love my in-body stabilization--stabilized fast primes! ;)

Elizabeth: I think you can guess who that dining companion was. ;) Addison is definitely on my list to try in the San Diego area; Will Costello actually emailed me last year inviting me to come. Also, morrel mastrubation? Really? =)

Michael: Huh?

Marian: Yes I know, but why is it attributed to you?

Thursday, August 04, 2011 1:11:00 AM  
Blogger Bobby @ Gourmands Review said...

Here's a link to the pics on my facebook http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=209783172404998&set=a.184910558225593.44541.100001199499362&type=1&theater

I was using a custom white balance

Thursday, August 04, 2011 7:32:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

The mistaken attribution was my fault. However, Marian has a renewed interest in the aforementioned Stone culinary rendezvous.

Your thoughts?

Friday, August 05, 2011 3:47:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

A miscommunication.

Friday, August 05, 2011 3:48:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Bobby: Your photos actually look fine to me, especially considering the circumstances!

Michael: Given what I've heard from James(gastro bits) about Stone, I'm not that keen on it.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011 4:23:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Do tell.

Sunday, August 21, 2011 11:01:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Never mind. It's inconsequential.

Monday, August 22, 2011 9:11:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

No worries, it's not inconsequential. Stone basically had a stringent set of requirements in terms of non-refundable tickets, Mon-Thu only, and price.

Thursday, August 25, 2011 12:33:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I am sorry, Kevin; I don't understand. Drink tickets? Price?

Friday, August 26, 2011 8:14:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Yeah, you're talking about having dinner at the Stone brewery right? James from Gastrobits looked into doing a tasting menu there and touring Stone Farms.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 1:25:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

As I understand it, Stone World Bistro and Gardens is a la carte. I am sure for large parties they would make you do a prix fixe of some kind. Stone doesn't hit me as a menu degustation type of restaurant.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

True, true. I still wouldn't mind Stone, but there are other places that are higher on my list, so I guess it sort of falls by the wayside.

Thursday, September 08, 2011 4:09:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Well, then we are going to have to you an offer you cannot refuse. (Cue Godfather Theme.)

Monday, September 12, 2011 9:11:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Yeah, I'm not sure if that's possible!

Thursday, September 22, 2011 4:09:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

It's possible.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012 2:06:00 PM  

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