Blanca - Snout to Tail Dinner

>> Sunday, May 1, 2011

Date of Dining: 1/10/2011
Price: $95 for special tasting menu
Location: 437 S Highway 101 #301, Solana Beach, CA 92075

The Quick Bit:
+ Very good creativity in dishes
+ Chef showcased a wide variety of cooking skills
+ Many "WOW" dishes
+ Good use of Asian Fusion to enhance dishes
+ Chef wanted to "go the extra mile" for the customers
+ Great showcase of Farm to Table
Δ Could have been fewer deep fried dishes
Δ Wines for pairing could have been poured earlier to allow them to open

When the conversation of the best restaurants in San Diego comes up, Blanca is usually part of the discussion. According to Blanca's owner Seth Baas, his focus for the restaurant is to bring great food and great wine together at an affordable price. This is even more challenging because Blanca has been the victim of an annual chef's carousel; just as a chef arrives and builds up his reputation with the restaurant well enough, he decides to leave because the San Diego clientele doesn't appreciate the cooking.

Blanca's latest chef is Gavin Schmidt (pictured above right), whose previous credits include working at 2 Michelin starred Coi in San Francisco. Chef Schmidt's approach to cooking highly revolves around the "farm to table" approach where he likes to showcase fresh and local ingredients. Chef Schmidt is an avid forager and shared with our group that several of the items on the menu every day include some locally foraged product. When previously asked about what he thought of the San Diego culinary scene, Chef Schmidt responded saying he thought that the true identity was still emerging and more exciting than the already developed San Francisco scene. Shortly after Chef Schmidt arrived in San Diego, a fellow blogger visited the restaurant to find out how Chef Schmidt compared to the previous chef. What followed was nothing but a glowing review, which interested many members of the San Diego Chowhound community to contact the chef for a special event. As Chef Schmidt was a member of Chowhound himself, it didn't take much more than that to get him on board to suggesting a Snout to Tail dinner where he showcased all the things he could do with a pig that he would special order for our group. 

Before getting into the review, I'd like to apologize for the low quality photos. Somehow during the meal, I bumped the camera and it changed the settings to take the lowest quality photos. Because of this, I've refrained from too much cropping or editing of the pictures.

Chef Schmidt prepared a special 9 course menu for this event along with special hors d'ourves prior to the meal. Additionally, the restaurant offered a wine pairing with the meal, which I elected to sample as well.

Chaucuterie Plate
I wasn't able to take good notes of everything mentioned on this plate, but I remember Chef Schmidt mentioning salami, blood sausage, and not all of it being pork (some of it was lamb instead). Overall this was very good. Others at the table commented that what really impressed them and brought the entire dish together was the pickled vegetables that accompanied the meats.
Pork-fiteroles - This was a play on profiteroles with the pork serving instead of the cream. The pork was very flavorful and the pastry dough provided a nice buttery contrast. These were a hit as an appetizer
Lettuce Wraps with crispy pork (not pictured) - There were bits of deep fried pork belly organized in lettuce wraps. This was my favorite appetizer as the crunch of the pork and the crunch of the lettuce was a very nice complement.
Garlic Sausage on a spoon (not pictured my photo was fuzzy) - This was my least favorite of the appetizers, but it was still really good. There was just nothing particularly memorable about it for me compared to the other items.
Korean Pork "tacos"
This was Chef Schmidt's take on Kogi BBQ - pork belly bbq with kimchee in a chicharrone taco shell. This was an expertly crafted dish that had the sweetness in the pork belly contrasting with the sourness of the kimchee and the crunch of the chicharrone. This was the consensus favorite of the hors d'ouerves.

Amuse Bouche
smoked potato foam, pork kidney, house made proscuitto, caviar
When Chef Schmidt explained this dish, he said that it contained house-made caviar so we asked him if he had fish in the back that he was squeezing to get the eggs. This dish was a very good dish and the smoked potato foam drew comparisons to the mashed potatoes from L'Atelier. However, the dish didn't work for me as an amuse. After combining all the components into one large mouthful, I was left with the taste of the kidney on my palette, which was not appetizing. Additionally after all the amazing hors d'ourves, this dish was overshadowed by the other ones we had already eaten.

First Course:
Skin Salad - fried pork skin with baby vegetables in various forms
This course was Chef Schmidt's hope for us to eat some vegetables over the course of the evening. What I really liked in this course was the yogurt chamomile, which acted as a dressing to tie the entire dish together. Because it was altered from the "modernist cuisine" process, the dressing was effectively suspended in a small pouch. When I bit into that pouch with some vegetables,the pouch exploded in my mouth to coat the vegetables. While I can't really say that I was floored by the taste of a bunch of raw vegetables, this dish was very fun for me to eat so I enjoyed it.
Mirror Pond Pale Ale
The Mirror Pond Pale Ale is an IPA from Bend, Oregon. When the IPA was first mentioned, I was somewhat tentative because I don't particular care for IPAs, and I also couldn't imagine how one would go well with what was effectively a salad. However, this ale ended up not being too bitter and it was actually a little sweet. The sweetness in the beer complimented the yogurt chamomile to make the course more interesting. Additionally, the carbonation in the beer added a layer of "playfulness" to the molecular portion. If I had to describe this beer with something more commonly known, I'd say it was a sweeter version of Stone Levitation.

Second Course
Dichotomy of the Pig Head - plan vs impulse, conform vs deviate, tradition vs unknown...  ...and sassafrass

First, this dish had 5 parts of the pig head: terrine of the head meat, braised cheek (in red wine), smoked tongue, pickled then fried ear, and brain-aise. The star of the dish for me was the pickled then fried pork ear. However I did enjoy the other elements as well. I didn't really like the tongue, but because it was paired with the brain-aise, the the brain-aise really saved the tongue for me as it was a great sauce.
Lamadrid Torrontes 2009
The Lamadrid was a sweet and flowery white meant to contrast the richness of the pig head. This wine opened immediately and was very easy to drink. Of the white wines served, this was my favorite. I was also surprised that a white was chosen to go with the head course as usually those flavors are stronger. This was a nice surprise for me as it showed that a sweet white could cut into the richness of offal flavors if done correctly.

Third Course
Blood and Flowers - Pork trotter, blood, cocoa, nasturtium
I was very impressed by the plating of this dish. I felt like Chef Schmidt had invented some new art form named spherism and we were the first group to feast our eyes and then our stomach on the art. There were two sauces on the plate - the first was the blood sauce which was blood mixed with cocoa, and the second was the puree of nasturtium. The nasturtium sauce had a nice pepperiness that contrasted really well with the blood. When the sauces were mixed, they formed a very nice dipping sauce for the trotter. As for the trotter, it was cooked nicely and all the gelatinous bits were prevalent for our enjoyment.
Torre Gaia Sannio Falanghina 2009

This wine was described as having a "funk" quality to it. Diners had often complained about the funkiness, but complained even louder when the wine was removed off the wine list. I didn't really understand what was described as the "funk" but this white had a very tart dryness to it. It didn't really go well with the pork trotter, but that could just be because the dish worked very well on its own.

Fourth Course
Chowder - pancetta and potato broth, various clams, jown and razor clam 'ravioli'

This dish was the first course that came with a flavor explosion, mostly from the impressive pancetta and potato broth. The complaint that we all had was that the serving vessel for the dish needed to be re-thought. The bowls were probably 4 inches deep and it was really difficult to get the knife inside to cut the ravioli, and it was also difficult to get a large spoonful of the delicious broth. From a personal perspective, I was slightly disappointed because Kaito has taught me to appreciate the flavor of the raw razor clam. I would have liked the razor clam and the geoduck to be raw and the broth more like a "shabu shabu" type of slightly cooking the meat so that it still retained more of the natural sweetness in the meat from being raw. The "various clams" turned out to be a mix of  manilla, geoduck and littleneck clams.
Marc Jomain "Les Tillets" 2007 
This was a dry chardonnay that paired well with the chowder. The sweetness complimented the sweetness of the clams, and the dryness of the wine made you want to get more of  the broth. I felt like this wine probably had more going for it, but it didn't get a chance to open as the courses were coming relatively quickly.

Fifth Course
Surf and Turf - seared rock cod, pork cider jus, pork belly apple
As I was the slowest to take photos and notes, I was always the last one to start eating. As I was still taking the photos of this dish, I knew that this was going to be a good one. How did I know? All conversation stopped and the only sounds I could hear was the the sound of the utensils on the plate. The rock cod was cooked perfectly with crispy skin and not overcooked. The pork cider jus was an amazing sauce. After I finished the proteins, I was still sopping up the sauce with the bread.

A to Z Pinot Noir
The A to Z Pinot Noir is one that is on the Wine Spectator Top 100 of 2010. I had high expectations for this wine that never materialized. This was a combination of two factors. The first was just that the wine never had a chance to open, so the flavors didn't have the opportunity to develop. The second was that the pork cider jus flavor was so strong that it needed a darker red to stand up to the flavor.

Sixth Course
Grilled Pork Chop - brassicas, pamesan, picholine vinagrette

The naming of this dish needs to be reworked because the pork was not the star. The star was the cauliflower (I want to say gratin but Gavin definitely didn't call it that) cheese accompaniment with the parmesan cracker and broccoli on top. There were some comments that the veg may be too salty, but we determined that all the salt was the salt from the parmesan and wasn't the fault of the cauliflower. The pork was good also, but my piece was slightly overcooked. The good part of the pork was the fat caps around the edges that were really tasty. One diner remarked that the fat in this pork chop was almost like "kobe pork" because it made the pork so flavorful.
Edward Sellers "Le Thief" 2006
This wine is a GMP blend of 65% syrah, 21% grenache, and 14 mouvedre. I really didn't like the taste of this wine on its own as it was more of the moldy muted flavor in wine that I don't usually appreciate. However, when this wine paired with the cauliflower gratin, it really changed the complexion of the wine and made it more palatable.

Seventh Course
Dumpling - braised hock, foie gras, truffle dashi
This was my favorite dish of the night. First, Chef Schmidt brought the bowls out with lids and orchestrated it so everyone opened at the same time, allowing the mouth-watering truffle aroma to wash over the room at the  same time. I put all the components into my mouth at the same time, closed my eyes and had a private party for a minute. The foie was cooked perfectly and the decadent richness was perfectly complimented by the shaved black truffle.
One very pleasant surprise to this dish was the dumpling skin. The skin seemed to be handmade in house (which many fine dining places actually do). However, what was very surprising is that the thickness of the skin was made just right. Most other "western" restaurants that try to make dumpling skin invariably make it too thick or too thin. However, Chef Schmidt managed to get the thickness done correctly.
Domaine de la Renjarde Massif d'Uchaux 2007
This was my favorite red wine of the night. It drank like a nice fruity pinot and was very easy to drink. It was pretty much what I had been expecting out of the A to Z pinot and didn't get. The only downside to this wine was that it didn't pair well with the strong flavors of the dumpling. This would have been a much better pairing with the Eighth Course...

Eighth Course
Chef Schmidt brought the pork butt out and carved it tableside
Farm elements without the pork
A Day on the Farm - soil, seed, sprout, root, flower
Gavin brought out a large roasted Pork Butt that had been cooking all day and carved it tableside to top on the vegetables. The pork in this dish was once again very enjoyable, especially the fat-capped crispy skin. However, having such a large piece of pork as the eighth course was somewhat overwhelming by this point. My palette also hadn't recovered from the previous course to fully appreciate all the intricate flavors of the vegetables and nuts.
Palazzo 2006 Napa Valley Red
This pairing was actually supposed to be the Palazzo 2008 Cabernet Franc, but they made a mistake. The wine served ended up being a blend of 68% merlot, 22% cabernet franc, 10% cabernet sauvignon. I felt that this wine would have been had it been given a chance to open, but it didn't have the opportunity (Additionally you can see the glassware may have been incorrect). This was a stronger red that I felt would have gone better with the dumpling course.

Ninth Course
Pumpkin Pie 2011 - Tahitian squash frozen meringue, bacon brittle, spiced chichacones, maple ice cream
The maple ice cream with the bacon bits started off this dessert wonderfully. However, what I really remember is the bacon brittle. Gavin managed to capture the essence of the bacon flavors in the brittle and succeed in a bacon dessert where others have failed before.
Royal Oporto Tawny Port
This was a nice port wine to finish the meal with. However, it didn't really pair well with the pumpkin meringue. The pairing with the maple ice cream suggested that it would be an excellent pairing for chocolate.

At this point, one of the other diners decided to open an old Bordeaux to share with the entire table as well:
1995 Chateau Canuet
This wine was 1-2 years past its prime as it had a lot of moldy taste in it and the fruit flavors were muted. However, it was still the best wine of the night. It drank very smoothly and the complex fruit flavors would have paired well with many of the courses during the night. The wine was good enough that I remember the taste of the wine the following day.

Blood Orange Truffles
Following the main dinner, the meal concluded with what Chef Schmidt called Blood Orange Truffles. These were made with pork blood and chocolate. These pieces of chocolate also confirmed that the tawny port paired much better with chocolate than the pumpkin pie.

Overall I was extremely impressed by my experience at Blanca. The range of the dishes being playful to creative to tasty was a very enjoyable experience. I also was able to remember many of the flavors of the night the next day, which is always a good indicator of having a great meal. While Chef Schmidt didn't have to provide the various appetizers and extra dessert, adding those showed creativity and was a very welcome touch.

Additionally, the cauliflower gratin kicked off an interesting discussion... can one eat at Blanca without eating meat and still be satisfied? Stay tuned...


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