Oh, lucky are the residents of Solana Beach! They've got sand, they've got money, and now they've got an eatery to equal those of San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. The opening of the sleek and sophisticated Blanca marks the arrival of our first 21st-century restaurant.
San Diego's "fine dining" scene has improved immensely: You can now find many versions of the "seasonal, local, and naturally raised" ingredient-driven cuisine that Alice Waters pioneered at Chez Panisse in 1971. But wholesome and delicious are only a start. In the years since, top chefs in the serious "foodie cities" have concentrated on highlighting their perfect ingredients so radiantly and originally that diners must rouse to rapt attention. Here, we've always had a few bold, mainly French-born chefs working in that direction (the Marine Room's Bernard Guillas springs to mind), but for the most part, this town has barely begun to play catch-up.
The owners of Blanca deliberately set out to update San Diego's culinary scene, and they nabbed the right guy to do it. Chef Wade Hageman spent eight years working for renowned San Francisco chef Michael Mina, and he's imported a similarly complex, labor-intensive style of cooking that appeals as much to the mind as to the mouth.
Blanca's menu follows the conventional structure of appetizers (divided between cold and hot preparations), seafood, and land creatures, with each item's pedigree and primary garnishes fully listed. But you'll be fooled anyway, because all that written detail doesn't begin to describe the flavors you'll encounter -- those behind-the-scenes flavor-enhancers (marinades, brines, rubs, soaks, infusions) that come into play before the final cooking and serving. When each dish carries so much nuance, you almost hate to swallow the last bite.
Among his other feats of culinary legerdemain, Hageman has imported a major Mina stratagem -- that of showcasing an individual ingredient by presenting it in several different incarnations within the same dish, much as a classical music composition may offer variations on a theme. The same animal, vegetable, or fruit emerges with different textures and even flavors when it's subjected to varying treatments.
One of my favorite appetizers, for instance, is Kurobuta pork belly "en sous vide." Pork belly is uncured, unsmoked bacon (a prized foodstuff in China, where its lush fattiness is relished). Here the chef brines it, then simmers it for 12 hours at 170 degrees "en sous vide" -- a high-tech version of "boil in the bag." The food (with or without seasonings) is sealed into a leak-proof Cryovac plastic bag and placed in a cooker that can be controlled to within a degree of the desired heat. Once the pork is fully cooked, Hageman slices it into portions and sears them -- giving your mouth soft, rich belly matched with crisp, smoky belly that resembles bacon. Real bacon comes into play when he surrounds the pork with "Manila clam chowder" -- not a soup but a sauce. The New England staple is lightened to a thin, savory cream that includes small rectangles of Nueske applewood-smoked bacon, diced potatoes, and a few tiny clams garnished with shreds of baby fennel. You can't gobble these goodies with an absent mind. The combination announces, "Attention must be paid!"
Another appetizer structured on the many guises of a single ingredient pretends to center on New York State foie gras but explores the possibilities of the exotic "donut peaches" used as a garnish. In season from July through September, donut peaches are an Asian heirloom variety. Round and flat with a sunken center, they're intensely sweet and taste faintly of almonds. Hageman serves pan-seared foie gras "Monte Cristo" style, plated atop brioche coated with donut peach and ginger compote, with accompaniments of raw peach chutney, plus raw julienne and rings made from slightly tart, less-ripe fruit -- four different versions of one fruit. Unfortunately, to my palate, he adds a needless throng of poached blackberries, so sweet I wanted to banish them to dessert. (Must foie gras always be paired in America with something this sugary? I really wanted a more acidic note here.)
Other dishes succeed through imaginative flavor pairings. My three companions and I fell in love with the sheer sensuousness of a summer corn soup. It reverses the equation of the foie gras' savory-robed-in-sweet. The chef reins in corn's natural sweetness with surprising savory garnishes. The waiter brings a serving bowl holding two lobster-shiitake cakes, looking like a pair of rocks in an empty tidepool. He pours thick, golden liquid from a gravy boat, so the "rocks" now rise from a sunset bay. The epicurean dumplings, with both delicate and earthy flavors, lend focus to the creamy soup. For a final contrast, a few drops of slightly spicy piment d'espelette oil (a smoky-flavored Basque chile) add piquancy.
From the list of cold appetizers, our order of flash-grilled Japanese hamachi carpaccio brought large, near-transparent, pounded slices of yellowtail (the whole loin is flash-grilled, then sliced -- only a thin edge is cooked). The fish is marinated in shallots, Szechwan peppercorns, cilantro stems, lime zest, and more for 24 hours. Splashed with lime-infused olive oil, the dish was salty but zesty. We were delighted by a fresh-tasting watermelon ponzu dip, more salsa than liquid, with minced onion, lime juice, soy, and rice-wine vinegar, along with the reduced watermelon juice -- steeped with Kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, cilantro, and other ingredients.
Where many chefs spend all their creativity on the appetizers but veg out on the main dishes, Hageman's entrées are as complex as his starters. We were astounded by the perfection of his "Day Boat Diver Scallops." (Not all diver scallops are iced, packed, and air-shipped the day they're caught.) The cold-water Maine scallops were the best that I've tasted in years -- sweet and satiny, almost melting on the tongue. They were plated over bouncy miniature potato pancakes, topped with paper-thin, buttery slices of zucchini and slivers of gray summer truffles, which by their nature don't have much "truffle" aroma or taste. But the silky beurre blanc sauce was studded with chips of virile black winter truffles (probably canned, but who cares?) unleashing a musky, flavor-enhancing umami-power on their companions.