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.
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!” ■
437 South Highway 101, The Beachwalk, Solana Beach, 858-792-0072; dineblanca.com
HOURS: Monday–Thursday 5:30–9:30 p.m.; weekends until 10:30 p.m.; closed Sundays.
PRICES: Starters $8–$22; entrées $24–$36 (average about $27); Desserts $9. Chef tasting-dinner $70. Happy-hour weeknights 5:30–closing; until 7:30 p.m. Friday–Saturday.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Inventive artisanal farm-to-table creations with fresh ideas, incorporating house-cured meats, local produce, and well-raised animals. International wine tome has plenty by the glass and half-bottle, serious bottles at serious prices, but few affordable (under $50) bottles. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Duck terrine; charcuterie/salumi plate; black cod; Willis Ranch Pork (“A Day at the Farm”); guinea hen; goat cheese semi-freddo. Good bet: caramelized brioche with brioche ice cream.
NEED TO KNOW: Comfortable, quiet, well-spaced seating, excellent service. No vegetarian entrées; call ahead to arrange. Not formal (suit unnecessary) but grown-up clothing advised (e.g., clean jeans, business-casual, bohemian chic, etc.). Crowded lot, valet parking $3.