A shallow bowl of burrata agnolotti featured small pasta “priest’s-hats” stuffed with gooey baby mozzarella, sauced with smoked corn, bits of guanciale (cured pig jowl), and the bold touch of epazote leaves, an assertive Mexican herb that’s typically employed in frijoles as the natural version of “Bean-O.” I loved the accompaniments but found the pasta skins too thick; while, said Lynne, “I could Hoover this right up.” Roasted blue prawns served with a “deconstructed gazpacho” (bites of avocado, tomato, pepper, etc.) was a cute idea nobody loved due to poor execution — overcooked prawns.
One appetizer we contemplated but didn’t try was Crab Porridge. “Is that like Scottish oatmeal?” asked Sue. “And do Americans use the word porridge to mean a dish of hot cereal?” “Yes,” said Lynne. “Bad children are sent to bed with only porridge for their supper!” This one is made with rice — brown rice. “Oh, jook,” I said. “Congee,” Ryan said simultaneously. “With brown rice? I bet nobody ever orders it,” said Lynne.
The entrée masterpiece is titled “Willis Ranch Pork: A Day at the Farm.” Capturing our hearts as well as our tongues, it’s food for both the mind and body: the “ranch” offers six treatments of pig, while the “farm” offers Mediterranean vegetables in all their seasonal stages and colors, from newly sown grass-green sprouts to baby golden squashes and the rococo chartreuse elegance of florets of young romanesco, to deep-summer’s forest-green broccolini. (“I could just eat these veggies and forget the meat,” said Lynne.)
The pork array ranged from familiar roasted loin and tenderloin and pâté to the exotica of pig foot, bearing no resemblance to those pickled mutant lab specimens offered in jars at dive bars. The small, skinned cubes were a succulent combination of delicate rosy meat interspersed with fat (in some pieces, a lot of fat...or maybe those were unsmoked bacon pieces). Chicharrones took unexpected form: instead of golden wafers of crunchy grease (made by either frying the loin skin and fatback or baking them to render the lard and saving the crisp bits), these were slim white rectangles, relatively soft. Maybe they weren’t really chicharrones but Italian lardo — delicious by any name.
Ethereal boneless black cod had crisped, strongly salted skin, complementing melting, translucent flesh. Alongside were crisp bits of a house-made chorizo that I initially mistook for slab bacon. “Chorizo usually has a lot of paprika,” said Ryan. “This doesn’t, that’s why it’s hard to recognize.” A sauce on the side is a light, subtle (and splendid) almond purée — also hard to recognize if you don’t keep a menu with you. Our other maritime choice, day-boat scallops, were tender but so ordinary in treatment that I forgot them immediately.
Eucalyptus-scented guinea hen was another triumph, although I couldn’t smell eucalyptus. (Just as well. As a San Francisco exile, it smells like home to me, but it can also hint at cat-spray.) The meat is darker than chicken breast, with a richer texture, the flavor faintly gamy, similar to chukar partridge (more gamy than quail, less than squab). The well-salted crisp skin rides spectacularly over a thin layer of succulent fat, like a good Peking duck. The pieces are plated over a moist mixture of corn, cracked wheat, and lobster mushrooms — another form of “porridge” for very good children.
Blanca has a dessert chef to execute the sweet ideas of the head chef rather than creating them herself. The most attractive-sounding offering was caramelized brioche, stuffed with strawberry jam and served with an improbable brioche ice cream. But the kitchen was out of it that night. A ganache chocolate cake is based on curry-flavored graham crackers, its batter spiked with ground hot pepper (like just about every other chocolate cake in town lately, so I passed on it — I like heat, but not in the sweet).
More to my taste was goat cheese semi-freddo, a slightly soft ice cream. (Its Italian name means “half-cold.”) Here it arrived in a modest cylinder, surrounded by melon granita, bites of “fizzy melon,” whatever that is, and a wedge of pink-peppercorn meringue. Not everybody liked it — Lynne was put off by goat-cheese flavor in a dessert — but it vanished in a few seconds. “Now, that’s a good light dessert,” somebody said.
Tropical Fruit Soup is also light but weird, with a pale, glutinous liquid based on yogurt and tapioca. (“This tastes like soap,” said Lynne.) It’s dotted with bites of fruit along with peculiar “coconut marshmallows” with a heavy, sticky consistency closer to Italian torrone candies than the molten joys of American campfires. It was not Miss Popularity. My espresso came with desserts, as ordered, but it was flat, no crema, just acceptable.
Throughout the meal, our good waiter (his name was also Ryan, per the bill) kept checking in, without hovering, to ensure our needs were met and perhaps to spy on our reactions and report them back to the chef. Even the busser was sweet and alert as he cleared our table after each course, quietly laughing at overheard jests (hence, not a robo-busser but a human with a functioning brain — this can matter to diners in many small ways, e.g., how your leftovers are packed and whether you get dessert spoons).
After our recent excursions to trendy, rackety neighborhood restaurants, we appreciated the pleasure of a leisurely meal shared in a comfortable place where we could hear each other talk and enjoy tasty, interesting food that was worth talking about.
Blanca’s food prices are lower now than at its opening four years ago, and renovations have made the room more comfortable. Our food costs were about $50 per person, a splurge but not ridiculous, given the cooking.
But our two modest wines added another $25 per person, pushing the bill into the harder-to-afford realm; worse, I couldn’t find what I really wanted for the entrée course. Hate to preach...gotta do it: Sister Blanca, your huge wine list needs more affordable choices that go well with food, rather than serving as monuments to the accretion of ungodly wealth. I’d love to drink those trophy bottles, myself — but I’m middle class. (Maybe could handle the $70 Meursault Genevrière for a special occasion, but never the wines that cost a month’s mortgage.) And I don’t think you can survive on plutocrats alone — even “house-rich” long-time Solana Beach residents might be inhibited by those prices from dropping in at their best local restaurant in these times. The list needs lots of white Loires, affordable Beaujolais, Rhônes, and Syrahs, more Merlots (for that guinea hen), maybe even that unspellable Basque fizzy white (Txakoli) that the New York Times recently bubbled about. I suggest a couple of pages at the front of the wine list and/or tucked into the menu, labeled something like “Fun Food-Wines Under $50,” listing affordable bottles that you already have and those I hope you’ll add. Sister Blanca, I only want the best for you, so…c’mon and help me here! Let me hear you say “Amen!” ■