Blanca - Vegetarian Tasting Menu

>> Thursday, May 5, 2011

Date of Dining: 5/3/2011
Price: $70 for vegetarian tasting menu
Location: 437 S Highway 101 #301, Solana Beach, CA 92075

The Quick Bit:
+ Vegetarian meal was very fulfilling even for an omnivore
+ Wide variety of cooking techniques were showcased
+ Dishes I've previously eaten taste better
+ Some "meat" versions of dishes may be better as vegetarian
+ Great value for the price
+ Good progression of dishes
Δ Some dishes may have been oversalted
Δ Perhaps some ingredients were overused

Last time when I was at Blanca for the Snout to Tail dinner, one of the dishes had a pork chop that was overshadowed by the cauliflower gratin on the plate. We also discovered that Chef Gavin Schmidt was an avid forager and affinity for cooking vegetables well. At some point, Chef Schmidt threw down a proverbial gauntlet and said that he could make a vegetarian tasting menu where meat eaters (namely myself) would not miss the meat. What followed some a lot of wishy-washy planning and re-planning to get some event together. Finally, we were able to work out a date where Chef Schmidt could showcase the vegetarian menu. I went ahead and invited a bunch of vegetarian coworkers to get their opinions also; a question I'm commonly asked at work is where they can go for a vegetarian fine dining experience.

While Blanca offers an excellent wine pairing with their tasting menus, after the alcohol overload from the previous dinner, I was reluctant to indulge in such extravagance this time. We chose to bring a white wine since it was likely to pair well with all the vegetarian courses.
2008 Pierre Matrot Meursault
This wine opened nicely to have a rich, fruit forward body. There was a nice initial dryness when the wine had not opened, that went away as time progressed. This wine paired well with many of the dishes, but it would have been better if there was more dryness at the back end.

Menu for the night
I went into this meal without extremely high expectations despite the impressive Snout to Tail experience. I figured since that was a special event, it would have been much more impressive than the regular tasting menu.

First Course:
Still Life of Local Waters - seaweed, crispy shiitakes, dashi, smoked avocado
The first thing I noticed in this dish was the shiitake mushrooms; they were apparently deep fried which gave them an extremely interesting texture that was half chewy, half crispy. This texture added a lot to the dish to contrast the gelatinous dashi. A very pleasant surprise in this dish was the spherical green apples. The apples had a very nice sweet tartness to compliment the savoriness and umami of the dashi. The smoked avocado really tied together all the flavors and gave a nice and rich finish to the dish. As a small complaint to this dish, the size of the spoon combined with the plate made this dish difficult to eat as it was somewhat challenging to get all the elements of the dish into the spoon.

One of my companions had eaten the meat version of this dish which contains abalone and other seafood, and he commented that thought this vegetarian version was far superior. He thought that the avocado and apple in this version really separated it from the meat version. Chef Schmidt later mentioned that the seaweed was foraged from a local beach.

Second Course:
Vegetable Composition - castelvetrano olives, citrus vinaigrette, chamomile spheres
I have to admit that when this dish first came out I was a little disappointed because it seemed like a repeat from the previous experience. However, the dish that I tasted was far superior as a result of the combination of being much more refined and having more seasonal vegetables included. If there was a vinaigrette in this dish, it was either very light or missing, which was a very good thing. Each of the seasonal vegetables in this dish was raw and had a distinct and enjoyable flavor. Some of the vegetables included were shavings of fennel, beets, asparagus, carrot, and squash. Additionally there were nasturtium petals and the most amazing pea pod. The highlight of this dish was definitely the raw pea pod included in the mixture. Each individual pea pod was bursting with a natural sweetness of the peas, which was a nice pleasant surprise.

Third Course:
Grilled Asparagus - burratta, meyer lemon, fried hen egg, chocolate mint
I thought this dish was the best dish of the night. The asparagus was grilled perfectly and the chocolate mint, Meyer lemon, and fried egg all worked in harmony to enhance the dish. Chef Schmidt mentioned that the asparagus was finished with a soy oil that gave the vegetables a nice savory umami flavor. The fried hen egg was a visual masterpiece and also contributed the runny yolk enhancement to the dish. The Meyer lemon provided the acid, and the chocolate mint provided the fresh herbal kick without being overpowering. The savory umami finish to the asparagus along with the hen egg actually had be say wow when I put everything in my mouth as my mouth was filled with all sorts of contrasting textures and flavors.

Fourth Course:
Artichoke Soup - blood orange, fried baby artichokes
The rest of the table thought this dish was the best of the night. The flavor of the soup was an intense concentration of artichoke, and definitely had everyone say wow. The soup was also very rich and pureed to a very nice texture. However the soup was over-salted, which brought this dish back down to terrestrial levels. The fried baby artichokes and sprig of baby fennel added nicely to the dish. Originally I thought the fennel was dill, but the fennel flavor came through and added freshness to the soup. After finishing this dish, I also took a sip of water and felt a large layer of salt as well as sour acidity wash away. This was an extremely unpleasant feeling.

Digression: Throughout the night, the waiter provided a selection of house-made breads. The first bread was an olive bread, which tasted very mediocre the first time since it wasn't fresh-baked, but which tasted very good when it was brought out freshly baked. There was also a sourdough that apparently was just introduced recently. The sourdough was everyone's favorite and showed remarkable skill in the chef as the sourdough culture was developed from scratch. The final bread was a multi-grain bread, which contained a surprise as there was a small spicy kick to it. Everyone enjoyed the soup so much that we asked the waiter to bring out additional bread so we could mop up the remains of the soup with the bread.

Fifth Course:
Spring Vegetables and Blossoms - nettle emulsion, tapioca
This dish was the most memorable dish of the night as it was the flavors and textures of this dish that I remembered most the following day. The tapioca was prepare with some ginger flavor that completely soaked into the tapioca. The resulting kick of the tapioca and nettle mixture with the vegetables was extremely pleasing. The mushrooms were prepared perfectly and were complimented well with the tapioca.

Sixth Course:
Roasted Summer Squash - basil, vadouvan, kimchee, fried peanuts
This dish was another hit with the table. While many restaurants do some sort of risotto, Chef Schmidt described this dish as more of a rice porridge. He said that he preferred to prepare the rice in this manner because it was creamier and more fulfilling. I agree with his statements that this dish was very satisfying. The Indian diners at the table mentioned that the rice porridge was very similar to an Indian dish except that the kick of the ginger in the rice was much stronger. However, I was very fond of the ginger kick and prefer the porridge the way it was. As a minor complaint, this dish was not over-salted, but the rice did give a weak impression of it. The salt amplified the sourness of the kimchee (that was mixed in the rice), which created a taste that is similar to being too salty, but was not. The squash was cooked perfectly and the peanuts provided a good and needed contrast to the rice.

Seventh Course:
A Day on the Farm - soil, seed, sprout, root, flower
This was another repeat from the previous menu which showed much refinement. I actually enjoyed this dish much more without the slab of meat on top. The flavors of all the vegetables were very amplified and they worked in harmony with the cocoa soil. I especially enjoyed the sauteed kale that was also finish with the soy oil for added umami. Other additions to this dish from the previous version include a celery root puree, white beans and peas that were mixed into the soil. Overall, this dish was much improved from the previous incarnation.

At this point in the meal, we were the last table at the restaurant so I started to use the flash to compensate for the extreme low-light conditions in the restaurant

Palette Cleanser:
Intermezzo - honey parfait, tangerine, pine
This dish was extremely well-prepared; everyone actually enjoyed this dish more than the dessert. The honey parfait was extremely enjoyable. The crushed pine nuts also included pine needles that were crushed and ground into the mixture, which gave nuts an extremely unique flavor. Two complaints about this dish: we were only given a spoon to eat this and it was difficult to get all the elements into the spoon, so a second utensil would have been appreciated, and we all wished that there was more.

Eighth Course:
Strawberries - various forms with balsamic gelato, black pepper gel, rosemary marshmallow
The waiter mentioned that the long pepper gel was included because putting pepper on strawberries that are not fully ripe has the effect of making it taste sweeter. He was correct in that everyone enjoyed the long pepper gel. The part about this dish that bothered me was the strawberry-prosecco sauce. This sauce was a nice addition to the dish in that the bubbles of the prosecco amplified the smell of the strawberry to give the dessert a very nice olfactory experience. However, when tasting the prosecco sauce, it basically tasted like a very cheap syrup that detracted from the rest of the dish. The cake was very moist and the strawberries were very enjoyable.

Strawberry Pistachio Petit Fours
These petit fours were very moist and capped off an excellent evening of food. The restaurant was nice enough to provide a few additional petit fours to go so significant others that missed the meal could try some as well.

When Chef Schmidt came out to speak with us following the meal, I expressed that I enjoyed the vegetarian tasting over the snout to tail experience. I don't think he believed me. As to the challenge, I was extremely pleased with this meal and I truly enjoyed all the flavors of spring vegetables. However, even if I ate this way for every dinner the rest of my life, I would definitely miss the meat. I definitely think Chef Schmidt fulfilled his end of the challenge, but I also know that I enjoy eating meat. Also my favorite dish overall at Blanca still has to be the dumpling...

Ever since Snout to Tail, I have been an avid cheerleader for Blanca; I have suggested it many people. I have had two great experiences there myself, but I've heard from some of the people that I've sent that their experiences were not the same as mine. Chef Schmidt commented that he prefers to do tasting menus because the restaurant needs to be able to produce the same high-quality product night in and night out for every customer that walks in the door. I've seen a vast improvement in the dishes offered at Blanca and I hope the improvement continues, but I also hope that if you visit Blanca, you have the same experience that I've had.

Based on my two experiences at Blanca, I'm prepared to award them with both the gigabyte and oeno-byte awards. As for fine dining experiences in San Diego, Blanca provides the best value for the money. If you are not prepared for a tasting menu, they offer a deal where you can order four items for $58. Blanca also has an extensive wine list, which doesn't appear to have extreme markups in price. There are several good wines that can be ordered for less than $50. Owner Seth Baas prides himself on the selection of wine offered at the restaurant.


Post a Comment

About This Blog

gastro bits is a blog that juxtaposes the geeky with the foodie; it is an attempt to be educational about food, yet entertaining at the same time.
None of the reviews are meant to dissuade you from trying anything by yourself, but simply to provide information for you to make a more informed choice.
If any special treatment is provided to the blogger, full disclosure is presented at the beginning of the post.

  © Blogger template Webnolia by 2009

Back to TOP