As my posse and I settled down and looked at the latest menu at Blanca, I sang out happily, “Thank God, it’s not the same old food again!” There’s a new gunfighter in town; he’s not as mellow with his sharpshooting talents as Colorado (Rick Nelson) in the classic Rio Bravo, but he is as fiery as Billy the Kid. Chef Jason Neroni, aged 33, arrived at Blanca last October after receiving a “Rising New York Chef” award for his work at 10 Downing Street in Manhattan and prized two-star ratings in the New York Times (both there and at his previous gig, the famously porky Porchetta). Outspoken, and sometimes irascible, he also hit the blog-sites frequently in the Big Apple, where celebrity chefs are even more newsworthy than the Kardashians (who?). (If you’re starved for the gossip he spawned, go Google him.)
Neroni started out as an Orange County high school kid with no idea of what good food tasted like, and then he took a summer job cooking at Disneyland. Palate rapidly awakening, talent showing, during his second summer he swiftly rose from the kitchens of Disneyland’s regular restaurants to Club 33, the park’s classic French dinner house. Instead of going on to art school as planned, he headed for San Francisco to work at Chez Panisse and Postrio and then south again for a grueling, vital training gig at Spago.
He now felt ready for the Big Apple, where the level of ambition in restaurant cooking was even higher. At Manhattan’s fabled Le Cirque, young Jason, fresh from Orange County with a backpack on his shoulders, strolled through the formal dining room in the middle of its ultra-chic lunch hour, straight to the kitchen to hand the top chef his résumé. He was hired the next day. Working his way through the stations of the kitchen at New York’s top restaurants, he gained experience at Tabla (creative Indian cuisine) and Dan Barber’s Blue Hill (deep country-style American with French techniques) and even worked as chef tournant at the short-lived restaurant opened at Essex House by French chef Alain Ducasse, record-holder for the largest number of Michelin stars awarded to a single chef. At age 27, Neroni was finally ready for the top-toque slot at chef Wylie Dufresne’s revered avant-garde farm-to-table eatery, 71 Clinton Fresh Food, and then on to his final two New York gigs at Porchetta and 10 Downing Street.
Now that he and his wife have tots, they wanted to move closer to his family in Orange County, so now he’s here cooking for us. Unfortunately, “us” doesn’t mean the full-time fish-taco crowd (some of whom have posted idiocies on Yelp) — just you and me, folks, and our own food-lovin’ posses. Shoot down the no-taste bad-guys; support our local culinary artist. (Lest, like so many other outstanding chefs who’ve briefly set foot in San Diego, he moseys on to the next town that’s looking for a hot hired gun.)
The extremely good news is: Blanca’s prices have dropped by at least $10 on entrées since a year ago, to a mid-$20s average (about the same as most “better” neighborhood restaurants). So this could be a worthwhile splurge-and-thrill-ride — say, to celebrate an IRS refund.
I’d read in various publications that Blanca’s new chef was, professionally speaking, a hottie, so I checked the website menu. There, I spotted a starter featuring ingredients I mildly dislike: brussels sprouts, dashi (Japanese dried bonito broth), and lovage (an herb resembling ultra-intensified celery leaf). It also contained two lovable items: crispy garlic and slow-poached duck egg. If the new chef was half as good as he sounded, he might even make me like brussels sprouts. With that, I gathered the posse.
The dining room (along with the kitchen) was renovated while awaiting Neroni’s arrival: The coldly chic cream color has been replaced with mellow grays and informal-looking hardwood flooring (but it’s not noisy). We were seated in a roomy leather booth. The Lynnester and her gourmet-cook mom, Mary Ann, joined me, along with Ben-the-Stew, about to fly off to Tokyo. The first page of the wine tome offered a list of cocktail creations at $10 each. The pomegranate martini and blood-orange variation were superb. My pear-lavender “spritzer” had enough lavender to savor but was otherwise too sweet. Ben’s “B-12” spicy Bloody Mary variant was interesting, if you like V8-type flavors.
But the intensity of the current wintery menu calls for wines, not frou-frou, particularly reds — and especially French ones. I was glad to find a palate-pleasing, no-big-deal Marsannay Burgundy for $52, along with an Eberle Paso Robles Viognier ($38) to go with the seafoods. If your budget can stretch to big-deal French reds, go for it! The list is loaded, and the food deserves it.
The chef’s “amuse” consisted of tiny brioche sandwiches enclosing tender shreds of cured salmon, crème fraîche, and herbs. “Ooh, where can I go and buy a 12-pack of these?” asked Ben. “This is what I really want late at night, not some crummy taco.”
Next: an assortment of three house-made charcuterie selections, with mustards, fruit chutney, fresh-pickled cukes, and crostini. The country lamb pâté with pine nuts was solid and classic; the ramekin of chicken rillettes charmed my friends, all of them new to rillettes (a sort of fluffy chopped pâté). “At home in Paris,” said our exuberant French waiter, “rillettes like this are everyday food, which we buy from the charcuterie on almost every block.” (Charcuteries kept me alive in France the way Denny’s Grand Slams kept me from starving my way across Texas — only much better.)
Not in the slightest “everyday” was the chef’s almost- shocking chicken-liver mousse, something more like essence of chicken liver, gooey-soft, and powerful. (Neroni says it’s Julia Child’s mousse, made with apples and thyme, but no way — I’ve made that scores of times, and this is a different animal!) This was one of those dishes where your palate takes a roller-coaster ride, screaming with joy once you’re over that scary first drop.