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.
The house-made breads were French baguette and focaccio. The butter came served atop a cold black metal ingot — tart unsalted European butter, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and minced fresh chives. Ravishing.
And now, those brussels sprouts. The crisp roasting brought out a touch of natural sweetness, while the rich-flavored sous-vide slow-poached duck egg (which you stir into the broth) turned the dashi velvety. With so strong a primary flavor as sprouts, the crisp garlic and lovage were quiet grace notes. It was all in balance, worth attention — not an easy deliciousness, more of an intellectual conversation, offering the sort of pleasure you might enjoy at a lively book-club discussion. No, the dish didn’t make me love brussels sprouts, but it made me respect a bold chef. Note: definitely red wine with this.
Inspired by a recipe by top Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda, ocean trout tartare was original, too, a change from the endless local ahi and hamachi tartares. The rich, fatty flesh of this Tasmanian fish (which Neroni finds both more consistently available and consistent in quality than Alaskan king salmon) is dark pink, and fishier than ahi. It’s finely chopped and mixed with pine nuts, pickled mustard seeds, and spicy Spanish pimentón red pepper, plus minced chives and microgreens. Like an old-time beef tartare, it’s united by a raw quail egg. A subtle sweetness, resembling sweetened sushi vinegar, provided a backdrop. The dish is perhaps more rigorous than instantly lovable, but we all went nuts for the nuts in it.
At one point the chef did a brief stage at the legendary El Bulli in Barcelona, originator of “molecular gastronomy.” He’ll use those techniques occasionally, sparingly, he says, but not in a showy fashion. What he gained was an appreciation for Spanish ingredients. In a white-bean soup with garlic confit, for instance, the surprise element was bacalao, salt cod — not shredded as usual (into croquets, fritters, salad), but in small whole pieces. (The menu listing for a pimentón-dusted monkfish entrée, which we didn’t get to try, boasts of “Catalan flavors.”)
Our ebullient waiter had already given us a rave résumé of the chef’s background. As he poured wine, we asked about local reactions to the cooking. We feared the worst, and our fears were justified. “The problem,” he said, “is that most people really don’t know much about food. Yesterday, somebody asked me if she could have the trout tartare heated up! All they want is the same dishes they eat everywhere else — the seared ahi, the Caesar, the fried calamari, lobster bisque…” We chimed in: “Crab cakes, beet salad…” “You know,” he continued, “that couple sitting right there [a table away] a few minutes ago? They asked, ‘Don’t you have any salads?’ So I pointed out the Chino farms salad. A few minutes later they closed their menus and walked out. They just didn’t see anything they wanted to eat.”
Given that week’s starters, I could understand the problem: In this season-bound menu, the appetizers were wintry and innovative, none offering light SoCal pleasures. (Even the Chino salad includes anchovies, which people think they hate if they’ve only encountered them as fish-sawdust on pizza.) The website menu from a few weeks earlier offered a sexy chestnut soup, at least. Thing is, the beachy breed doesn’t really believe in winter, no matter the icy downpours! So, to win the palates of famously food-fearing San Diegans, this uncompromising chef may need to lighten up a bit at the start of the meal, to gently seduce the populace until they’ve learned to trust his palate.
The easy pleasures began with the next course, and kept on coming. A pair of house-made pastas are listed each evening as a “Middle Course,” hinting that they should be shared family-style, as Italians do. The “agnolotti nero” were shiny black small rectangles visually resembling licorice candies, colored by squid ink, surrounded by a generous scattering of peekytoe crab, cauliflower, tomato comfit, and fennel pollen. It’s an excellent use of rare peekytoe, showcasing its delicate flavor and texture. The subtle, creamy filling oozes out from the al dente pasta, easy to love and hard to identify (is it crab, cauliflower, cream, or all three?). The other choice that night was a carbonara involving guanciale (pig-jowl “bacon”), Parmesan, and poached egg. I have no doubt we’d love that, too.
Neroni made his name partly at Porchetta, a restaurant dedicated to the pig, and his “suckling pig confit” here speaks to those passions: Tender, pale baby pork-meat, brined and slow-cooked in duck fat, is pressed overnight and then seared, resulting in crispy-crackly pork skin. To die for. (Did you know that pork fat is actually better for you than margarine?) Alongside are apples shaped into little round marbles, with black figs, red cabbage, and horseradish cream. Decorating the pork’s surface is “vodavon glaze” — an Indian spice mixture that Neroni learned while working for renowned chef Floyd Cardoz at Manhattan’s Tabla.
Hanger steak was another knockout. “That’s what I’d call perfect medium-rare,” said Ben, making me laugh because the color was dark red, extra-rare. (I hadn’t even bothered specifying. It didn’t matter — it wasn’t grilled, it was slow-cooked sous-vide.) The hanger steak is a rare cut itself, only one per animal, hanging inside the carcass — a favorite of butchers because it ages naturally in there. It was wonderfully rich and came with a lightened version of sauce perigourdine (a truffled French meat gravy that takes about five days to cook in Julia Child’s weighty haute cuisine version of 50 years ago). It came with a separate ramekin of astonishing smoked potato purée that started out heavy and then took wing, silky (from Plugrá ultra-rich butter) and mysterious and addictive. The menu claims there are short ribs with this — a thin layer of boneless braised meat topped with chives serving as a pillow on which the steak slices recline. But Neroni was actually on vacation that week, so maybe the kitchen guys just, uh, didn’t bother with it? Or else one of my best friends Hoovered it up behind my back before I got my turn at this plate! Didn’t see any, didn’t really need any, would sure have liked to try it.
The lightweight of the dinner was Maine diver scallops — the real thing, not just another passable batch of dry-pack scallops like the kind I’ve been hitting lately. They were cooked ultra-tender and came with trumpet mushrooms, cauliflower, and a splash of emerald-colored parsley juice that the waiter poured around the periphery of the plate, turning it into a Fauve painting.
Spotting “herb and truffle-roasted chicken” on the menu immediately brought to mind the legendary French poulet a demi-deuil (“chicken in half-mourning”), a whole chicken with the breast stuffed, between skin and meat, with slices of black truffle — figure about $200 per person for that, if anybody still cooks it. The actual inspiration for this dish was something more homey: Judy Rodgers’s roast chicken at Zuni Café in San Francisco. It’s a brined, tenderly roasted whole chicken (serves two), with bits of black truffles poked into any spot they fit. (Blanca’s departing chef Wade Hageman left behind a huge supply of frozen house-made black truffle butter, made with fresh truffles.) It comes with lavender jus, orange-glazed sweet Chino carrots of many shapes and colors, and best yet, a pool of remarkable smoked soft polenta that turned us all into Hoovers. Quibble: Now that I know the origins, Zuni’s chicken-skin is crisper.
The desserts, designed by the chef, looked tempting but, really, we could eat no more. Bottom line: four courses that would easily feed five ran $200 for food costs (about $40 each). For a special treat, the chef tasting-menu for $65 doesn’t replicate any regular-menu dishes, and you get matched wines for a semi-reasonable $40 more. The main thing is: this is fresh and new to San Diegans. Many good chefs here are now doing “farm to table,” but the style at Blanca is different, not like anybody else’s. The Orange County Kid has picked up the seriousness and perfectionism of New York. That’s a long way from Disneyland — and from Legoland, too.
- 4.5 stars
437 South Highway 101 (Beachwalk Center), 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: House-made charcuterie (to feed about four), $13–$25; starters, $8–$17; pasta course, $16–$19 (feeding two); entrées, $24–$35; desserts, $9; cheese plate, $13. Five-course tasting menu, $65; matched wines, $40.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Inventive “farm to table” cuisine with French and Spanish influences, utilizing top global ingredients, Chino Farms produce. Huge global wine list with plenty by the glass and the half-bottle, ranging from well-chosen affordable quaffs to well-aged greats for plutocrats. Full bar, creative cocktails.
PICK HITS: Menu changes frequently; everything’s worth trying. Starters: charcuterie plate, roasted brussels sprouts with duck egg, any pasta. Entrées: confit of suckling pig, hanger or Wagyu flat-iron steak, black truffle herb-roasted chicken. Tasting dinner (all off-menu dishes).
NEED TO KNOW: Happy hours 5:30–9:00 p.m. weeknights; until 7:00 p.m. weekends. Valet parking $3. (Lot is small, crowded.) Casual-nice dress, spiffier on weekends. No vegetarian entrée, but easily made on request, as veggie treatments are thrilling.