Snout-to-Tail dinner at Blanca - Solana Beach, CA

Dinner - Monday, January 10, 2011

It started on Chowhound - a casual aside about the new chef at Blanca, murmurs of good meals there, mutterings about cooking whole hogs. The discussion gained momentum, and the result: a snout-to-tail dinner for 12 in Blanca's private-dining room, featuring some very memorable dishes.

Chef Gavin Schmidt (seen at right) is the top toque at Blanca, replacing Jason Neroni who departed in mid-2010. As a testament to his skill, the chef's resume includes stints at San Francisco establishments Aqua (sous chef) and Campton Place (executive chef). Notably, he also served as chef de cuisine at Coi (Daniel Patterson's two-star temple of gastronomy). It didn't take much convincing to get Chef Schmidt on board with the plan, and the 2 months in between conception and execution quickly ticked away until the night finally arrived.

I'll note that we dined at Blanca under Gavin Schmidt once (September 2010) before tonight's meal, and completely enjoyed that experience as well. On this occasion, we had the added bonus of some convivial and highly knowledgeable dining companions. A few caveats to this report: (1) work issues caused us to be ten minutes late for dinner, and we missed a family-style house-made charcuterie board featuring various parts of pig and a reportedly excellent blood sausage; (2) we also missed the first two canapes served during the pre-dinner, including a pork belly kimchi taco; (3) due to the size of the party and the ongoing conversations, we took minimal notes, so allow for some slightly distorted memories.

Canapé 1 - House-made garlic pork sausage, grain mustard
Canapé 2 - Pork crackling lettuce cups

The standout here was the plate of lettuce cups filled with pork crackling. Crisp and salty (I find liberal salting an absolute necessity when it comes to rich, fatty pork products - these did not disappoint in that regard), each bite was satisfyingly crunchy, a warm-up for our tastebuds in anticipation of the delectable treats to come.
Amuse - Pork kidney, house-cured prosciutto, caviar, smoked potato, watercress 
I really enjoyed the texture of the creamy potato puree, and how it served as a perfect canvas for the other components. The briny caviar played off the surprisingly sweet flesh of the house-cured prosciutto, balancing each other nicely. In turn, both were offset by the peppery quality of the watercress. In fact, the only thing that didn't work for me was the pork kidney, which had the characteristic minerality I find quite overpowering.

Chicharrones salad
 Baby vegetables, yogurt-chamomile spheres, oro blanco
The chicharrones were perfectly fried - light, crispy and, devoid of greasiness. As much as I liked eating them, they were almost superfluous to the dish. I loved the vegetables on the plate - in particular, what I believe was a ribbon of daikon with the yogurt-chamomile sphere (made using the sodium alginate/calcium chloride technique). Some vegetables were lightly pickled, and the texture and tang of each component sung in my mouth, both alone and in concert with each other. Additionally, the light sweetness/tartness of the oro blanco supremé played along with everything else on the plate. On a conceptual level, I was also delighted because this dish and "A day on the farm" (see below) have finally shown me a San Diego version of Michel Bras' famed gargouillou. While not as complicated as the original dish (or Manresa's "Into the vegetable garden"), it was a very clean representation of the potential of Southern California plant products.

"Dichotomy of the pig head"
Sous-vide torchon, fried pickled pig ears, smoked and roasted tongue, braised cheek

I was surprised by the lightness of the pig ears here - I had expected a solid crunch based on how cartilaginous other preparations of pig ears can get. In retrospect, I believe that preserving that quality would have been beneficial, but I'm also glad I was able to sample a different aspect of pig ears. Everything else was very well-prepared. I was particularly taken with the amount of delicious gelatin in the torchon, as well as the light smokiness of the roasted tongue. The cheek (braised in red wine) was delicious, but suffers in comparison to veal/beef cheeks, which develop a deeper flavour.

"Blood and flowers" - Fried pork trotter
Cocoa-blood sauce, nasturtium, maitake
The pork trotter was braised and then deep-fried, yielding an unctuous, gelatinous bite. It paired extremely well with the earthiness of the roasted maitake mushrooms. I believe the cocoa-blood contained a reduction of pork juices, which prevented it from tasting too heavy. It didn't have a strong flavour of iron, which was great in the context of its supporting role. Nasturtium is in the same family as watercress, so it again provided the much-needed peppery (and slightly vegetal) component, both in the sauce and in the flowers. These worked well to offset the fat and gelatin in the pork.

Jowl and razor clam "raviolo"
Pancetta and potato broth, various clams
This dish involved some nice manipulation - the raviolo skin was made from pork jowl that had been braised, pressed and then shaved into thin slices. These were glued together with transglutaminase, enclosing a razor clam. The raviolo was then steamed and presented in the bowl with littleneck, manila and geoduck clams, as well as some potatoes. While I delightfully slurped up the clams and the broth, I found the potatoes too cumbersome. In the same vein, I enjoyed the texture of the pork jowl immensely, but the razor clam was slightly overcooked during the steaming of the raviolo, and ended up being rather chewy.

"Surf and turf" - Seared rock cod and sous-vide pork belly
Apple, collard greens, pork cider jus
An exceptional dish - the relatively few components allowed everything to truly shine, which is only possible because everything was cooked perfectly. The meaty cod had some of the best crispy skin I've ever eaten. Salt and fat came from the pork belly, which had been cured and cooked sous-vide for three days, until it was meltingly tender (though it made me wonder whether pork belly actually benefits from being cooked any longer than a day). The apple cider in the jus successfully cut through the richness, shocking my tastebuds as they started flagging.

Grilled pork chop, brassicas, parmesan, picholine vinaigrette
Continuing the night's theme of brassicaceae (i.e the watercress and nasturtium in previous dishes), this dish featured some smoked cauliflower (mixed with a parmesan puree, if I recall correctly), brussel sprouts, bok choy and tatsoi sandwiching a parmesan crisp. After the last dish, this one was a relative disappointment. My pork was slightly overcooked and I also found the vegetables too salty and rather one-note. The dish was saved by the picholine olive vinaigrette - it's sharpness tied the protein and greens together, and added a different dimension to the otherwise flat components.

Pork and truffle dumpling
Braised hock, foie gras, truffle dashi

My second-favourite dish was not much more than a bite, but you don't need more when dealing with ingredients like this. Everything worked together - the heady combination of shaved truffles and truffle dashi, the creamy foie gras, the delicate dumpling. It was delicious, and needs no further description.

"A day on the farm" - Roasted pork shoulder
Soil, seed, sprout, root, flower
The savory courses ended on a high note for me - this was my favourite dish tonight. The pork shoulder had been whole-roasted (see picture of Chef Schmidt with the roast at the top of this post) and carved table-side. It was laid atop a collection of perfectly-prepared vegetables, including some burnt leek, carrots, more members of the cabbage family, pistachios and ground cocoa nibs. The pork was tender, most and very juicy. It was seasoned just right and I could have continued eating it forever, were it not for the equally flawless vegetables calling out for my attention. Everything just tasted right. I did enjoy an earlier rendition of this dish during my first meal at Blanca, but significant tweaks must have been made because it didn't make nearly as strong an impression then as it did tonight.

"Pumpkin pie 2011" - Tahitian squash frozen meringue
Bacon brittle, spiced chicharrones, maple ice cream
We were presented with a lighter interpretation of pumpkin pie - a clever choice given the previous dishes. The squash was pureed and folded into a meringue, making it light and airy while preserving its characteristic natural sweetness. This was topped with some five-spiced chicharrones that provided the requisite spice notes reminiscent of traditional pumpkin pie. The bacon brittle was nicely salty, adding some contrast. Finally, the maple ice cream was smooth and sweet, lending its unique flavour with caramel and toffee undertones. For me, a great dish that made a connection on an emotional level.

Mignardises - "Blood orange" truffles
In keeping with the night's theme, the truffles were filled with pig's blood and orange. I couldn't detect any hint of the blood, so I suppose the mental suggestion will have to do. Nonetheless, the cocoa powder, chocolate shell and filling were well-balanced flavour-wise, and the textures were smooth and rich - a good end to a decadent evening.

In conclusion, an excellent meal prepared by a chef who cares deeply about his craft and his ingredients - the event was a beautiful way to kick off another year of (hopefully) good eating. Cheers to Gavin Schmidt and the Blanca staff!

437 S. Coast Highway 101, Suite 301
Solana Beach, CA 92075
Phone: (858) 792-7460