Blanca - Solana Beach, CA

Dinner - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We came away from our Snout-to-Tail dinner at Blanca quite impressed, and had resolved to make a return reasonably soon. Our anniversary turned out to be the perfect excuse. In advance of our visit, we arranged an extended tasting menu with Chef Gavin Schmidt - given the profusion of pork at our previous meal, we requested a lighter degustation this time around, with emphasis on vegetables and seafood. I'm pleased to say that the chef succeeded with flying colours.

It bears mentioning that we noticed a significant improvement in the service on this visit. Servers were very attentive and well-informed about the dishes (I believe our main server was only stumped twice, despite the barrage of questions we unleashed). Bread service was also good, featuring 5 breads (in descending order of preference): olive, Pugliese, poppyseed, multi-grain, and rye. The house butter was surprisingly sweet, a particularly nice pairing with the olive bread.

Chef Schmidt chatted with us for a bit after we were seated, and dinner began promptly after he returned to the kitchen.

Amuse - Champagne mango, ciccioli, osetra caviar, wood sorrel
The ciccioli was brazenly porcine, it's semi-soft fat a great base for the firm, salty caviar and the sweetness of the mango. The locally foraged wood sorrel was slightly tart, betraying the oxalic acid within.

"Vegetable composition"
Castelvetrano olives, citrus vinaigrette, yogurt/chamomile spheres
We identifed a collection of radishes (watermelon, icicle and breakfast), turnips, carrots, grapefruit, fennel and snap peas - and I'm sure we missed some vegetables. The olives were sweet and only mildly briny, with a meaty texture. Individually and collectively, everything was bright and fresh-tasting, accentuated by the citrus vinaigrette. The sole yogurt-chamomile sphere on my plate was rather overwhelmed by the other components.

"Still life of local waters"
Spot prawn, uni, oyster, seaweed, dashi, smoked avocado
Absolutely delicious - one of my favourite dishes of the night. The avocado puree at the base of the shallow bowl was remarkably smoky and intensely flavoured. This smokiness was a perfect combination with the dashi, and pieces of foraged seaweed added even more umami. Some refreshing cucumber kept the dish in balance. Eating each piece of seafood was a textural pleasure, and each one presented a different inflection of sweetness.

Roasted baby beets and smoked bone marrow
Fourme d'Ambert mousse, rose geranium, nasturtium
I have an aversion to beets, but these were not unpleasant. In fact, they had a very mild beet flavour, which made me wonder if true beet aficionados would scorn them. I felt sorry for the bone marrow, because the breading masked so much of its true richness. The blue cheese mousse (essentially pure cheese with a touch of cream, charged in an iSi canister) was impressive in its consistency and depth of flavour - I enjoyed spreading it on some of the Pugliese bread. However, I found the rose geranium and nasturtium too vegetal here, and for me this was the least successful dish of the night.

English pea custard
Abalone, pickled radish, kimchi, slow-cooked quail egg, keffir lime
Served in an abalone shell sitting atop a bed of stones, the presentation of this dish was striking. The flavours were equally bold. The aerated pea custard was absolutely perfect with every other component, from the sweet shaved abalone to the lightly pickled radish and house-made kimchi. The keffir lime foam was strongly astringent, which added a nice uplifting freshness. My only complaint was that our egg yolks were slightly overcooked, and were not runny when cut into.

Dungeness crab
Brown rice porridge, rau răm, carrot-lemongrass emulsion
The porridge, made with crème fraiche and crab stock, was nicely balanced by the pea sprouts and rau răm (Vietnamese cilantro). A citrus vinaigrette lightened each bite further. The emulsion had a strong lemongrass note that assertively accentuated the dish's Southeast Asian bent. The tempura crab was a perfectly fried morsel, bursting with flavour.

"A day on the farm"
Soil, seed, sprout, root, flower
I continue to enjoy this dish in all its iterations, even though this is the third time in a row I've eaten it. This occasion was a more vegetarian affair, with the only visible animal product being the chicharrones. The pistachio/cocoa/leek ash and celery root puree were terrific with the myriad vegetables.

Roasted guinea hen
Legumes, nasturtium, sassafras
The fowl was carved and rolled, such that the piece on our plates incorporated skin, white and dark meat in one slab. The meat was perfectly cooked - the breast was smooth and moist, although it was overshadowed by the even-more-supple thigh flesh (a risque description indeed). I wished the skin would've been more crispy, although its flavour was undeniably good. The sassafras foam was delightful, bringing in that characteristic root beer note. I found the snap pea puree too salty with the other components, and was only able to indulge in it with the help of some bread.

Eucalyptus-roasted goat
Pistachio, lacinato kale, puffed farro
The star of the dish was undoubtedly the goat - its gamey flesh was a real treat. A eucalyptus jus was drizzled over it tableside. Logistically, it was actually a nightmare to eat, because the lean and rare nature of the meat made it difficult to cut with our knives. Tossing courtesy aside, we indulged with our hands and were duly rewarded. The lacinato kale (i.e. dinosaur kale) was slightly bitter and helped to keep our palate alive, as did the vibrant pistachio puree.

Intermezzo - Chevre-honey parfait, tangerine, pine
"Textures of early Spring"
Green cardamom chiboust, tequila-lime mascarpone, raspberries, pistachio
Blanca's new pastry chef acquitted herself admirably with this dessert. Cardamom and pistachios are a classic combination, but their presentation here was invigorating. The green cardamom was incorporated into a light chiboust, whereas the pistachios took form as a cream. The tequila-lime mascarpone (strong emphasis on the tequila) bridged the cardamom and pistachios in both taste and texture. The raspberries were a delightful and unabashed burst of fruitiness. I think the only thing that detracted from this dish was the rather dense piece of pastry underneath the mascarpone - it was hard to eat (tasting undercooked), and I didn't find its texture appealing. Thankfully, it was easily separated and discarded.

Mignardises - Chocolate-raspberry macarons
The check was delivered with some decent house-made chocolate macarons filled with raspberry cream.

Another delightful evening. The kitchen is really beginning to find its groove, and service in the front has vastly improved. The pace of dinner was rather fast (only slightly over 3 hours), but acceptable for a weeknight. I'm especially glad to see how much the restaurant has grown since our first visit a scant 7 months ago, and am looking forward to future meals.

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