Blanca - Summer 2011 Tasting Menu

>> Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Chef Gavin Schmidt (left) and Pastry Chef Jasana Singer (right)
Date of Dining: 8/30/2011 
Price: $100 for "12 course" tasting menu, $60 wine pairing
Location: 437 S Highway 101 #301, Solana Beach, CA 92705

The Quick Bit:
+ The progression of the meal was heavily factored
+ Many courses had an additional olfactory stimulus
+ Great use of seasonal ingredients
+ Plating was inspired
Δ The "palette cleanser" course could have had an additional utensil

I've previously written about Blanca several times, and when Bobby @Gourmand's Review asked me to attend a special extended tasting menu event with kevineatsEpicuryan, and Rodzilla, I found out a way to clear my schedule to join them.

Being asked to attend such an event was completely epic for me; it reminded me of the days in my youth where I lined up three days prior to the release to watch The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Once I was reminded of this memory, I began formulating a connection between Chef Gavin Schmidt and a certain race in that world; hobbits.

According to the Lord of the Rings Wiki, a hobbit's lifestyle is summarized as:
Hobbits are fond of an unadventurous bucolic life of farming, eating, and socializing. They enjoy seven meals a day, when they can get them - breakfast (seven a.m.), second breakfast (nine a.m.), elevenses (eleven a.m.), luncheon (one p.m.), afternoon tea (four p.m.), dinner (six p.m.), and, later in the evening, supper (eight p.m.). They like simple food such as bread, meat, potatoes, and cheese, and also like to drink ale, often in inns... Hobbits also enjoy an ancient variety of tobacco, which they referred to as "pipe-weed", something that can be attributed mostly to their love of gardening and herb-lore. Another interesting fact is that hobbits have an inordinate liking of mushrooms, prizing them above many other foods. A common pursuit for younger hobbits is mushroom-hunting, and Frodo Baggins said he had stolen Farmer Maggot's mushrooms on at least one occasion.
Now I've never seen Chef Schmidt's feet, but I do wonder if they are furry and he secretly hides the truth from us. Chef Schmidt is definitely a fan of eating and socializing; I'm not sure if he actually farms, but he does go out and forage for many of the ingredients that he uses in his cooking. I'm also not privy to information about his eating habits, but one would imagine that as a chef, he is constantly tasting the food that he is sending to his diners. While I do know of a mushroom foraging club in the Greater San Diego area, I don't know if Chef Schmidt is a member. He certainly does forage for many ingredients on his own such as local nasturtium and seaweed. I'm sure that if truffles did grow in this area, he would own and raise a pig trained to sniff them out.

Since The Hobbit is going to be released soon, I couldn't help but feel that Chef Schmidt was playing the part of Bilbo and our dining group was the party of thirteen eight dwarves visiting Bag End Blanca prior to setting off on an epic adventure.

Perhaps in my next visit, I will convince Chef Schmidt to remove his shoes and socks so I can see if there is fur on his feet. In the meantime, I can only speculate...

Surprise Course: Amuse (Hobbit's breakfast)
Thanks to Epicuryan for allowing me to use his photo for the amuse as all mine photos were blurry
Bacon Flavored Donut - maple-whisky sabayon
As I mentioned, I was struggling with my camera and was scolded by the others for taking too long. I definitely missed the "sweet spot" in the thermal temperature of the donut, but I still did enjoy the dish. The savory saltiness of the bacon, the breading of the donut, and the maple flavor of the sabayon contributed to reminding me of some superior refined version of pigs in a blanket. I was definitely ready for more as this course started.

First Course: (Hobbit's Second Breakfast)
Tasting of House Made Charcuterie
Wine pairing: NV, Louis de Grenelle, brut rose
The progression was right to left from the photo above:
Duck Liver Mousse with Balsamic - Completely blew me away, I started to smile after I ate this and I don't think I stopped smiling for at least two hours. The mousse had a decadent and rich texture and the balsamic provided just enough acidic contrast to keep the offal flavors from being overwhelming
Pâté de Campagne with Fig Mostarda - While this wasn't bad, it got lost on the plate when compared to the other dishes. The boldness of the fig jam harmonized with the bold flavors of the pate.
Chicharrón with Honey and Espelette - Chef Schmidt's Chicharrones are very memorable, but this particular instance was elevated by the local honey.
Coppa & Soppressata with Pickled Carrot - This is probably more of what was expected when I heard charcuterie plate. The soppressata had a nice kick to it and was very well made.
Lamb Speck with Lamb Powder and Strawberry - This portion was a serenade to lamb. The speck already conveyed the great flavor of lamb, but it was elevated by the concentrated lamb powder under the speck. The powder seemed to have a hint of powdered sugar that added a bit of sweetness and really smoothed out the texture of the lamb powder.
Foie Gras Torchon with Artichoke, Licorice, and Cherry - I'm usually not a fan of licorice, but this preparation made be a believer. I usually prefer seared foie to the torchon, but this one may have convinced me to become a fan of well-prepared torchons.

Second Course: (continuing Second Breakfast)
Vegetable Composition - castelvetrano olives, citrus vinaigrette, yogurt chamomile spheres
Wine pairing: NV, Louis de Grenelle, brut rose

What was interesting about this dish is that I've seen it change through the seasons. This dish really highlights Chef Schmidt's use of seasonal ingredients as the main components of the dish remain the same, but the flavor profile altered with the inclusion of new ingredients. While the previous rendition seemed to focus more on bittersweet flavors such as grapefruit, fennel, and beets, this version focused more purely on the sweet flavors of the season. Even the ingredients that were re-used had a sweeter flavor as summer has come into full bloom. (The small "micro-watermelon" is actually a cucumber.)

Third Course: (Hobbit's Elevenses)
Still Life of Local Waters - spot prawn, uni, oyster, seaweed, dashi, smoked avocado
Wine pairing: 2009 Perolla, vermentino

Last time I had the vegetarian version of this dish, one of the people I dined with asserted that the vegetarian version was superior to the meat version. It may have been a seasonal thing earlier, but with the beautiful spot prawn, this version was superior to my experience with the vegetarian. This rendition focused more on highlighting the flavors of the seafood with the undertones of the smoky avocado puree and the umami of the dashi and seaweed. The spoonful of uni melted in my mouth where all the flavors worked together to give one of those wow moments. The only thing that possibly compared was the spot prawn; at the peak of freshness, the natural sweetness and pleasing texture combined with the smoky avocado and dashi to give a wonderful mouthfeel as well as flavor. This was definitely among my favorites for the evening.

Fourth Course: (continuing Elevenses)
Cherry Tomato Salad - bay scallops, tomato sorbet, almond, gazpacho
Wine Pairing: 2009 Hans Wirsching, Silvaner

Earlier in the week, Chef Schmidt posted a photo of this dish as his latest addition to the menu. This dish was completely surprising to me on many levels. The most surprising thing to me was the great aroma to the dish when it was brought out. The smell was very inviting and added a nice extra-sensory experience to the dish. The other surprise was the inclusion of the tomato sorbet. At the heart, this dish is a gazpacho, but gazpacho was cooked and somewhat warm, so the tomato sorbet brought the refreshing coolness of the traditional gazpacho, but in a surprising manner. The melon provided some extra sweetness to the contrast, the almonds a nice textural contrast, and the scallops a nice body to the dish.

Fifth Course: (Hobbit's Luncheon)
Grilled Asparagus - burratta, lemon, fried hen egg, chocolate mint
Wine pairing: 2008 Domaine Saint-Francoise, Bourgogne

This was another dish that I had enjoyed previously, but that altered with the season. With the passing of the Meyer lemon season, regular lemon foam was used instead, which had a much more sour and acidic impact. As a result, the asparagus that had previously been infused with extra umami were now very smoky in flavor to contrast the bolder lemon. While this dish was still enjoyable, I thought the previous version was far superior. In the spring, the flavors were much more about harmony whereas the summer rendition seemed more about having two bold flavors trying to balance out. One benefit to the smoky asparagus though was that this dish now had that great smoky aroma to it, which continued the series of courses with that added olfactory sense.

Sixth Course: (continuing Luncheon)
Charred Yellowtail - abalone, young zucchini, ginger, kimchi, basil
Wine Pairing: 2009 Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc

This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The vadouvan made a re-appearance from the previous visit, and paired with the extra charred yellowtail belly was a delight. The kimchi provided a nice spicy bite, but was not overwhelming. The fried squash blossom was also pleasing as it provided a good counterpoint in plating, but also the counterpoint in texture to the zucchini.

Seventh Course: (Hobbit's Afternoon Tea)
Grilled Octopus - brown rice, artichoke, plum, cinnamon
Wine Pairing: 2007 Robert Weil, Reisling Kabinett

This dish was my least favorite dish of the night. There seemed to be a lot of acid in this dish seemingly from some lemon that was squeezed over. This element really overpowered the other flavors of the dish for me. I feel like this course was supposed to be more about subtle flavors, but the smoke and lemon from the previous course carried through here and covered up some of the story Chef Schmidt was trying to tell.

Eighth Course: (continuing Afternoon Tea)
Olive Oil Poached Baja Halibut - corn, shiitake mushrooms, toasted wheat, tomato uni sauce
Wine Pairing: 2009 Chateau Musar, Musar Jeaune

This course was another course that came with a great halibut aroma. I'm normally not a fan of halibut, but the tomato uni sauce provided enough flavor for the fish, and the oil poached cooking style preserved the great texture of the halibut. The corn provided a nice contrasting sweetness while the toasted wheat gave a slight textural contrast.

Ninth Course: (Hobbit's Dinner)
A Day on the Farm - soil, seed, sprout, root, flower
Wine Pairing: 2008 Carr Vineyards Cabernet Franc

Apparently my day on the farm didn't include very much soil which was disappointing because I liked the soil component a lot. Even without that, this dish was very enjoyable and against showcased the sweeter flavors of summer.

Tenth Course: (continuing Dinner)
Grilled Grass Fed Beef Brisket - corn puree, grilled apricot, roasted padron peppers
Wine Pairing: 2007 Terra Valentine Cabernet Sauvignon

This was one of my favorite courses for the evening. The brisket was first smoked, then cooked sous-vide for 72 hours, and finally finished by grilling. All the care and attention to the beef really came through as the flavors and textures came together in an extremely enjoyable bite. The padron pepper provided a nice mild spice element to the dish that worked well also (although Epicuryan's pepper was hotter than a jalepeno and perhaps altered his experience of the dish). The corn puree provided a light sweet contrast to the rich  and heavy savoriness of the brisket.

Eleventh Course: (Hobbit's Supper)
Lamb Roasted in Hay - roasted eggplant, potatoes, and wheatgrass emulsion
Although I'm sure this had nothing to do with anything, I feel like Chef Schmidt was trying to play games with me a bit. When we visited Rancho Valencia, the hay-smoked potatoes were my least favorite dish while the lamb was one of my favorites. Here, I got my favorite and least favorite element from the other meal on the same plate. Luckily for me, Chef Schmidt prepared these potatoes much better as they were fluffy and airy. While the lamb may look a little raw in the photo, I felt that it was cooked perfectly for me. I especially appreciated that the skin was left on the lamb chop and the skin was crisped to give a great charred flavor as well as a textural contrast. While I really appreciated this lamb, my only worry is that other San Diego diners may think this preparation a little too avant-garde for them.

Twelfth Course: (continuing Supper)
Goat Cheese Semifreddo - melon granite, pink peppercorn meringue, fizzy melons
Wine Pairing: NV, Valdo Prosecco

As with the previous visit, the chilled block made a return. Adding some symmetry, only a spoon was provided to eat off the block. This was a challenge since it was hard to pick up the melons and granite with just a spoon. The inclusion of a second eating implement to help position food on the spoon would have helped. Other than that, this dish was the perfect palette cleanser/cheese course/pre-dessert. The goat cheese was at the forefront of the dish, but was nicely complimented by the sweetness of the melon granite and the slight acidity from the fizzy melons.

Thirteenth Course: (Continuing Supper)
Blueberries and Corn - polenta chiffon, corn panna cotta, blueberry sorbet, caramel corn
Alchohol Pairing: NV, Dog fishhead, midas touch, ancient ale

Dessert was courtesy of new Pastry Chef Jasana Singer (pictured above). This dessert was not particularly sweet, but that only made me enjoy it more as the flavors were able to come through. I enjoyed the slight sweetness of the panna cotta contrasted against the sweet tartness of the blueberry. The caramel corn and polenta chiffon cake provided nice textural contrast. Overall, a great start for Chef Singer. Adding to the conspiracy theory that Chef Schmidt might actually be a hobbit is the fact that he snuck in an Ale with the alcohol pairings....

Maldon white chocolates with kaffir and lemongrass, Dark chocolates with peach liquer and sea salt
The chocolates were a nice way to finish out the meal

Additionally it was Stephanie's (of Gourmand's Review) birthday. She decided to treat us by making her own macaroons that were delectable. I think if those are included in the market they are planning to open, they would be a smashing success.

Overall, the dinner vastly exceeded my expectations. Perhaps I'm jaded from San Diego, but when I get a tasting menu, I kind of expect a few bad courses, mostly average courses, and maybe one or two great to "wow" courses. During this particular dinner, I felt almost half the courses were in the great to "wow" category and only one dish was in the below average category. This is certainly worthy of accolades as I said the entire experience reminded me of The Return of the King (winning all the Oscars).

While some of the dishes may be too adventurous for the standard San Diego diner, I feel that what Chef Schmidt is doing at Blanca is exactly what San Diego needs. In a previous interview, he expressed that he wanted to be one of the torchbearers for defining San Diego cuisine, and I personally feel that he his leading the charge in a very positive direction.

Finally, I hope that by some miracle, San Diego naturally begins to produce truffles so Chef Schmidt will not have to relocate to satisfy his natural hobbit desires.


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