437 S Highway 101 # 301
Solana Beach, CA 92075-2221
After having a superb dinner at The Restaurant at Rancho Valencia I resolved to make it down to San Diego more often. On my own, I probably would have dismissed Blanca out of hand, labeling it more of a trendy restaurant with a clubby atmosphere and live music designed to cater to tourists. However, during the aforementioned dinner all of the SD natives cited Blanca as the area's best restaurant and the fact that one of them works at Addision speaks volumes about the endorsement.
Reviews on Blanca are fairly mixed though I suspect turmoil in the kitchen between late 2009 and early 2010 had a lot to do with this. The restaurant's first CdC, Wade Hageman, left in fall 2009 and his replacement, Jason Neroni, only lasted five months. Since summer of 2010, the kitchen has been led by Gavin Schmidt who has emphasized a progressive farm-to-table approach to Californian cuisine. Prior to Blanca, Chef Schmidt's resume is centered almost entirely in San Francisco where he was sous chef at Aqua, exec chef at Campton Place, and most impressively CdC at COI, which remains my favorite restaurant in the city.
Amuse: Bacon Donut - maple whiskey sabayon
Wonderfully airy with a delicate crispness the dish reminded me of French toast with a savory note from the bacon coming into play on the finish.
01: Tasting of House Made Charcuterie
NV, Louis de Grenelle, brut rose
First up was a spontaneous sextet of charcuteries including: duck liver mousse, Pate de Campagne, Chicharon, Copa & Sopressata, lamb speck, and a foie gras torchon. The table favorite was the Chicharon, delightfully crunchy with a flavor reminiscent of Chinese roast pork skin, a kiss of honey gives the skin a very slight sweetness. The torchon was another high point; the artichoke and licorice balancing the rich velvety foie with a bitter vegetal temper.
02: Vegetable Composition - castelventrano olives, citrus vinaigrette, yogurt and chamomile spheres
NV, Louis de Grenelle, brut rose
Next up was a beautifully composed plate of fresh vegetables with a slight molecular touch in the form of two small spheres. Oddly rather than eating the spheres whole, we were told to rupture them and let the liquid mix with the citrus vinaigrette. The vegetables were crisp bright and varied, a playful melange of bitter, tangy, and sweet while the dressing added a lovely herbal tone to the mix.
03: Still Life of Local Waters - spot prawn, uni, oyster, seaweed, dashi, smoked avocado
2009, Perolla, vermentino
The still life is one of Chef Schmidt's signature dishes. In keeping with his emphasis on eating local, Chef Schmidt forages for the seaweed used in this course. Our server likened this dish to a tide pool and visually it reminded me of the Oysters Under Glass from COI. A wonderful course all around, the dashi and avocado gives the dish a palpable savory tang, but the absurdly fresh seafood remains the star of the show. It was a testament to the dish that the table was evenly split as to which shellfish was their favorite.
04: Cherry Tomato Salad - bay scallops, tomato, sorbet, almond, gazpacho
2009, Hans Wirsching, Silvaner
Though called a salad, this course was actually more of a deconstructed soup. The "dressing" is actually traditional gazpacho and the vegetables were variants of the soup's ingredients. The result is the expected freshness and levity married to a slate of disparate textures. The scallops added a meaty salinity, though the vegetables could have stood on their own.
05: Grilled Asparagus - burrata, lemon, fried hen egg, chocolate mint
2008, domaine Saint-Francoise, Bourgogne
This was another example of simplicity and freshness resulting in a beautiful vegetable course. The asparagus provided a robust vegetal smokiness to the milder burrata and egg while the gentle citrus twang kept the dish from being too one note. Fittingly the texture was equally complex ranging from the crisp breaded egg, to the tender asparagus and smooth creamy burrata.
06: Charred Yellowtail - abalone, young zuchini, ginger, kimchi, basil
2009, Ken Forrester, Chenin Blanc
The fish looked a bit pink for yellowtail but it was cooked beautifully nonetheless. Delightfully clean and fleshy the fish needed the accompaniments to give it some flavor. What impressed me the most was the sauce, a restrained vadouvan base mixed with spicy ginger and a distinct funk from the kimchi. The result was a curry that draws inspiration from both Indian and East Asian sources.
07: Grilled Octopus - brown rice, artichoke, plum, cinnamon
2007, Robert Weil, Riesling Kabinett
Overall this was one of the weaker courses of the evening. I would have liked a bit more firmness from the rice and a for there to be a bit more of the octopus. The brine of the mollusk is apparent in the ink and when paired with the plum resulted in a disjointed savory sweetness.
08: Olive Oil Poached Baja Halibut - corn, shiitake mushrooms, toasted wheat, tomato uni sauce
2009, Chateau Musar, Musar Jeaune
This was one of the best halibut presentations I've had in quite some time. The fish had a rare pinkish tinge and fittingly succulent texture deftly balanced by the coarse grainy sweetness from the amalgam of corn and wheat. The mixture of tomato and uni lends the fish a tang as well as a suitably weighty gravitas. One of my companions suggested adding a bit of salt which effectively heightened the other flavors on the plate.
09: A Day on the Farm - soil, seed, sprout, root, flower
2008, Carr Vineyards, Cabernet Franc
I was surprised to see another composed vegetable plate but quickly came to appreciate the chance to compare the differences between the raw and cooked preparations. The day on the farm was noticeably sweeter yet at the same time conveyed a satisfying savory weight with subdued residual herbaceousness.
10: Grilled Grass Fed Beef Brisket - corn puree, grilled apricot, roasted padron peppers
2007, Terra Valentine, Cabernet Sauvignon
Simply labeling this grilled belies the amount of work that went into the meat which was smoked for two hours and sous vided for 72 more prior to being finished on the grill giving the brisket a satisfying multifaceted texture. Unfortunately lady luck conspired against me on this course and my roasted padron pepper was intensely spicy and completely overshadowed the other flavors on the plate.
11: Lamb Roasted in Hay - roasted eggplant, potatoes, and wheatgrass emulsion
2008, Ispiri, Cabernet Sauvignon
Our final savory course was a single spar off a rack of lamb. The meat itself was typical of lamb, but instead of the green grassy flavors I was expecting I got an almost truffle like element out of the dish.
12: Goat Cheese Semifreddo - melon granite, pink peppercorn meringue, fizzy melons
NV, Valdo, Prosecco
Our first dessert came out on lovely frozen metal blocks, the flavors were varied and complex with the savory goat cheese rising to the fore, a bright interlude of sweet juicy melon, and finishing with the floral bite of the peppercorns.
13: Blueberries and Corn - polenta chiffon, corn panna cotta, blueberry sorbet, caramel corn
NV, Dog Fishead, Midas Touch, Ancient Ale
The second dessert was substantially heavier, sweet and cakey with flourishes of ripe berry and a savory undercurrent from the corn and polenta.
Macarons - Lemon Meringue, Strawberry
The airy sugary exterior dissolved quickly yielding a jammy sweet core. These were a gift from Stephanie, ironically enough it was her birthday, fortunately the restaurant came to our rescue.
The meal ended with a pair of chocolates: a white chocolate with kaffir and lemongrass and a dark chocolate with peach liquer and sea salt.
While I haven't been to enough restaurants in San Diego to dub Blanca the best, the restaurant certainly makes a strong case for itself. Chef Schmidt's focus on seasonal local ingredients pays huge dividends with the freshness and flavor evident in every course. Chef Schmidt puts his past training to good use, incorporating avant-garde flourishes that give provide a cerebral complex feel without compromising the food's integrity.
Sunday, July 31, 2011
437 S Highway 101 # 301