We were standing outside Blanca after our fabulous meal, plotting ways to hang on to its new chef of four months, Gavin Schmidt. “Even for a Wednesday, there aren’t enough people in here, given how good the food is,” said posse newbie Ryan, a stereotypical fair-haired Leucadia surfer with stereotype-smashing food sophistication. “It defies understanding,” said long, tall Scottish Sue, “why people keep going to exorbitant steakhouses for boring food, instead of really having fun eating here for less.” “Looks to me,” I said, “like Blanca’s owners somehow lack the mysterious PR magic that makes a restaurant hot. They hire fabulous chefs, way better than the San Diego norm, who are mainly ignored and who eventually run away. Whereas, look at Market in Del Mar — it drew crowds, starting with opening day, and kept them despite all the service glitches the first few months. Market’s great, but Blanca is more exciting, comfortable, hospitable.
Three hours earlier, we’d settled into a well-padded leatherette booth with ample room for four bodies AND purses AND even the two-ton wine tome (whoo-hoo!). Although the wood floor is uncarpeted, the ambient music is soft, and tables are well-spaced, easing conversation. Suddenly, we all burst into a furious farrago berating the trendy new neighborhood places (Bankers Hill, Barrio Star, etc.) that most of us had recently suffered, with their noise, crowding, hard chairs, and amateur service. Blanca, instead, is a grown-up restaurant, a place to go when body and soul need a treat, not some raucous update of a college dining hall, plus alcohol. (Yes, it costs more than “the nabes,” maybe $10–$15 extra on food. But it’s really the wine prices that sneak up on you. More about that later.)
Sue asked about the new chef. “Started in Seattle, moved south, and became a hotshot at a “hall of fame” of top San Francisco restaurants,” I said. (Aqua, Elizabeth Daniel, the Fifth Floor.) “Then he was executive chef at Campton Place, where Brad Ogden made his name. But he must’ve gotten bored with their nicey-nicey hotel food, because he took a slight demotion to be chef de cuisine under chef Daniel Patterson at Coi, which got two Michelin stars. It’s a pretty awesome track record.”
After suffering over the huge wine list, I chose an Eberle Paso Robles Viognier for our starters — bright, sunny, clean; I really enjoyed it and regard Paso Robles as a wine region to look for. Later, for entrées split between seafoods and light meats (pork and game-bird), I wanted a Beaujolais, but the sole choice was $125. No rosés that I could find. Finally settled for a $44 1996 Côte du Rhône that proved oddly “closed” and stingy, even after time in the glass.
A tiny, delicate amuse involved a bit of scallop with a tart pomegranate dip and other tiny things. There was an interesting house-made bread with a texture like cornbread, and room-temperature butter. Then the real dinner began.
All the charcuterie and salumi are house-made, and the duck terrine provided my big Ratatouille moment of the year to date (the one that takes you back to your first and best taste of a dish): this sent my palate home to my first house-made pâté in a San Francisco neighborhood French joint called Le Bouc, and then on to more luxurious mousses from La Folie. This one seemed even richer, combining unctuous duck-liver mousse with streaks of tender duck breast. It could give foie gras a run for its money. If that wasn’t enough, on one side was a giddy little lychee foam for dipping, and on the other, a pile of roasted peanuts mixed with chopped long beans seasoned by a touch of something Asian-semi-sweet. My friends loved it, too, each of us shooting quick glances around the rest of the table when our turn at it came, to help restrain ourselves from gobbling it up before everyone had had a taste.
For a different and larger sampling of the house’s artisanal meats, you can try a house-made charcuterie and salumi plate offering tastes of three ($13) or five ($22) selections accompanied by colorful pickled root vegetables, toast slices, and peach mostarda, a brilliant Italian condiment blending fruit and mustard, to serve with full-flavored cheese and salumi. The confusing menu listing has French-style charcuterie arranged in a column on the left, Italianate salumi to the right, but most of the salumi names (“spiced muscat,” “red wine eucalyptus”) read like they might be sauces for the charcuterie. “What’s ‘blood and mole’?” I asked our waiter. “I apologize,” he said, “this part of the menu is badly formatted. ‘Blood and mole’ is blood sausage.” “Ooh, morcilla,” said Ryan. “Gotta have it,” said I, expanding our planned plate to five choices.
The charcuterie superstar proved to be a soft little cylinder of guinea-hen-liver mousse, a side benefit of the guinea-hen entrée on the menu. “I really like that the chef uses the liver,” I said. “Like French chefs — nothing is wasted,” said Sue. “Or Asians,” said Ryan. “There’s no such thing as a ‘disgusting’ part; they use up every bit.” The mousse is smooth but dense, with just enough butter to “mousse” it without diffusing the distinctive gamy flavor. It’s subtly liverish — not like beef liver, but more an intensification of the dark undertones in the flesh of game birds like squab. “It catches you deep in the throat, in a good way,” said Sue. “Do I taste a whiff of booze in there?” asked Lynne. “When my uncles on the farm made pâtés from the game birds they shot,” said Sue, “they always included a bit of brandy.” “Ahh, cognac,” I guessed.
Another curious hit was the tête de cochon (hog-head terrine), rarely if ever found in SD, a textural treat in a two-inch cube with quarter-inch striations of sweet pink meat, fat, and firm, gelatinous matter. The pâté de campagne was good-normal, ditto the smooth, tame, fat-topped rillettes, which fairly demand to be spread on toast and smeared with peach mostarda. But the “blood and mole” wasn’t the oozy, soft Argentine sausage that Ryan and I had anticipated, merely a couple of chewy black coins of dried salumi.