Monday, March 24, 2008

North County Three-fer, Part II - Blanca

Luis at Blanca
First off, my apologies - this write up is almost as overdue as our visit to this restaurant! After nearly two years, we finally made it to Blanca for restaurant week - yes - in January. (It's coming around again in June, though so think of this as the halfway point!) I had been hearing good things about Blanca for a while, but I'd also heard it was very expensive, and while we like to try new things, we have to really work up some courage to take a chance on a new restaurant where the entrees reach into the $40.+ range. (Hence the reason we still have not yet been to Addison.) We visited Blanca with our good friends and dining out partners Lisa and Luis, and it was their first visit as well.
Restaurant Week at Blanca
Having just dined at Market just a few days earlier, we were of course primed for comparisons. The first thing I noticed about Blanca is how much more pleasant the room is. Like night and day, literally. Though they are equally busy and roughly the same size, the noise level and lighting are lower at Blanca, and the room has a softer, more intimate feel. I love the glowing lanterns that hang over the dining room, and the striped wood bar and white patent club booths in the bar area lend a chic, big-city feel.

When we opened the menu, I immediately noticed that the Restaurant Week menu had changed. When we asked about it, it turned out some of the promised ingredients were not to the chef's liking, so he had decided not to serve them. I was a little annoyed at first - but you can't really argue with that - so we consoled ourselves by venturing off the Restaurant Week menu. It was fairly easy to do, since their prices have been lowered considerably. Many entrees are now in the mid to low twenties, and the starters are mostly in the mid-teens. You can view the current menu here. While it doesn't change as often as Market's, it is also focused on local produce and humanely raised meats - featuring Crow's Pass, Niman Ranch and Chino's Farm products on the menu.
Hamachi post-sauce
We started with the Hamachi, pictured above. Pristine slices of the raw fish were draped over "caramelized watermelon" with avocado, and a citrus ponzu was poured over as a flourish at the table. The fish itself was perfect, and I liked the whimsical little "cones" made of pickled ginger, cucumber and radish - but I was hoping for a little more punch from the rest of the dish. I actually had a similar dish in San Francisco this weekend at Spork - where the ponzu was spiked with jalapeno. It gave the fish the bite it needed - echoing Nobu's hamachi served with paper thin slices of jalapeno.
Carpaccio with Caesar at Blanca
The Niman Ranch Filet Carpaccio served with a Petite Caesar Salad was a coup. The lush yet sharp flavors of the capers, cheese, lemon anchovies and mustard were perfectly complimentary with the raw beef and everything about this dish just worked. I couldn't stop stealing forkfuls off of James' plate.
Lobster Corn Dogs
The lobster corn dogs were also a hit - mostly because they were crisp fried in a lovely cornmeal batter - though given the size they were more like lobster hush-puppies. The creative mustard and ketchup were delicious too. I noticed that on the current menu this has been changed to a "seafood sausage" corn dog - but that's probably just as well since the lobster doesn't really have a chance to shine wrapped in a batter and deep fried.
Resto Week Scallop Entree at Blanca
This was my scallop entree - one of the Restaurant Week dishes. This was very good - but it reminded me so much of a dish I've had several times at Roppongi that I couldn't help compare the two. The scallops were seared and served on top of small potato cakes and topped with a delicious lemon butter sauce, just like the dish at Roppongi topped with hollandaise. The flavors in this dish worked really well, but it was incredibly rich - I could only eat two of the scallops. On the minus side - the scallops were overcooked by just the teensiest smidge (I bet they were perfect when they came off the heat - it was that small of a difference) and the potato cakes were not quite as crisp as they could have been. Resto Week Short Rib Entree at Blanca
Both Lisa and Luis ordered the short rib, which was served in a large hunk over potatoes with a red wine reduction. (On the regular menu, this is priced at $26. while Market's version is nearly ten dollars more.) I didn't try much of this, but they seemed to like it. My impression was that it might not have been sauced quite enough for Lisa's taste. Interestingly, the two Restaurant Week entrees were in some ways the weakest dishes we had.
Veal Ravioli at Blanca
This dish, on the other hand, was phenomenal. So good I can still taste it. On the menu it's billed as "Housemade Semolina Ravioli" with veal shoulder and caramelized root vegetables. The raviolis were filled with a very soft rich melting cheese - possibly mascarpone - and served over a ragout of veal shoulder and the root vegetables. It was sauced with a demi glace and a foam that may have been parmesan, garnished with some shaved parmesan and a little chive oil. It was very rich in flavor but savory enough that it wasn't too overwhelming.
Butterscotch Pot de Creme at Blanca
The Restaurant Week desserts were a little lackluster - above is the butterscotch "pot de creme" which was really pudding. The cookies alongside were good, but I didn't really enjoy the pudding much - not only was I already full - I was too busy staring at James' cheese plate.
Cheese Plate at Blanca
If there were any doubts about his favorite restaurant, they were immediately removed when this was placed before him. James is a "cheese guy" and these were right up his alley. He was the only one of us who ordered entirely outside of the Restaurant Week menu, and he had by far the best meal.

Overall, our enjoyment of this meal had very little to do with the fact that it was Restaurant Week. I'm glad we took a chance on it, and I was gratified to see that the lowered prices made it easier for us to explore. If we had all stuck with the soup and salad starters and two entree choices, I'm not sure we would have been so happy.

Another thing I need to mention, especially given the focus of the last post about Market - is the service at Blanca. It was absolutely perfect in every way - focused and professional, without being stiff or pretentious. Our questions were answered, our wine was poured promptly, the timing was perfect - everything worked. Given the comfort of the room, the level of service and the whimsy and creativity of the food, I was willing to forgive them for the slight mis-steps. I suspect if you went back without the hoopla of Restaurant Week, you'd find a more focused kitchen turning out some excellent, creative food. In fact, I hope to test this theory for myself very soon.

4378 S. Highway 101
Solana Beach, CA
(858) 792-0072
Reservations available on Open Table

recommended dishes - the Carpaccio, Lobster Corn Dogs, Semolina Ravioli with Veal, cheese plate.

They also serve a bar menu that looks very good (though the inclusion of PBR in a can might be a bit much!)


  1. I haven't attended Restaurant Week yet since I've heard of issues with the quality of food during that week compared to normally. I've got a reservation at Market next weekend. Perhaps I'll try out Blanca instead after reading your review.

  2. hey alice, i was wondering if you could email me, i couldn't get through to your email, i am a chef in los angeles but i do dinners in san diego every now and again and was wondering if you may want to attend a dinner. my email is thanks, craig

  3. Thanks for the review! I've been meaning to get to Blanca, but was a bit scared off by the prices - so nice to know they may be a bit lower now. Their happy hour is pretty reasonable. I think it's every weeknight 5:30-7.

  4. Nice blog. I wish I lived in SD! My parents have a home in Rancho Santa Fe but we don't go down much and they may sell soon. If you have any recommendations in OC, I would love to hear them. Although I do have quite a few favorites myself.

  5. Captain Jack3/29/08, 5:10 PM

    Hey Alice Q.
    That cheese plate looks great, nice review.