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Blanca (SD) – finally a restaurant that is taking some risks

Restaurant Blanca was for quite some time on our list of restaurants to try in SD but we somehow never came around trying it when it was run by Chef Hageman. Recently Chef Jason Neroni took over the kitchen of Blanca and based on his very good background – recently Porchetta, 10 Downing Street in NY but also includes Spago, Chez Panisse and Alain Ducasse and named 2009 New York Rising Star, we decided that it was finally more than time to visit Blanca this Saturday. We didn’t really know what to expect and didn’t go with very high expectations but were extremely positively surprised after this visit and are happy to finally have found a restaurant in SD which is willing to not go the way of satisfying the mainstream but willing to take some risks in terms of flavors, ingredients, textures etc.
We were happy to see that Blanca is now offering a 5- and 7-course tasting menu which for us is always the best way to dine in a (new) restaurant. Both tasting menus are priced very good at $65 and $80. We decided to choose the 7-course:

Amuse-Bouche: Curdled egg with duck prosciutto served in the egg shell - Very nice way to start the evening. The duck prosciutto pieces gave the near liquid egg a nice texture counterbalance.
1. Course: Ocean Trout Tartar with pine nuts, pickled mustard seeds, quail egg yolk and pimento – Again an interesting texture with the very tender trout tartar and the crispy pine nuts and mustard seeds which also gave nice spicy undertones to the dish.
2. Course: Uni Custard with Lemon Foam – There wasn’t any average course this evening but this course was one of the highlights. Many people don’t like foams and think of them as chefs just playing around but here it was essential to have a sour counterbalance to the ocean-like taste of uni.
3. Course: Crispy Rabbit Salad with Kumquat Mustard, Baby Radishes, Onion Seeds and Shaved Fennel. As with many dishes from Chef Neroni here we again had a nice combination of different flavor and texture combinations – The meat slightly crunchy, very tender and with some sweet undertones, the kumquat mustard with a slightly bitter taste etc.
4. Course: Sushi Rice Risotto with Matsutake Mushrooms, Pears and Ponzu Sauce – An Asian take on Italian risotto with the mushrooms adding an umami flavor and the ponzu sauce giving it light citrus tone. The addition of pears was creative and delicious.
5. Course: Loup de Mer with leek, fig & potato gratin, torpedo onions – Very moist fish with a crispy skin, nice idea of adding figs to the potato gratin which gave it a subtle sweetness. The fish was served on the leeks as a leek puree.
6. Course: Braised Lamb with Kumquats, date marmalade (not 100% sure about it) and yogurt foam – Very tender meat which was again nicely balanced by sweet and sour components of the other ingredients (a theme you could see throughout the evening).
7. Course: Chai Panna Cotta with Cookies: A simple but delicate end of the tasting menu and it is good to see that it doesn’t always have to be something with chocolate to finish a dinner.

Overall an outstanding experience like we have rarely seen in San Diego with flavor and texture combination you normally never see here. Especially the uni course reminded us of a dish we would normally expect at Bistro LQ in LA (one of our favorite restaurants in LA) which even in a much more openminded LA is often criticized as too far out.
It was also nice to have the chance to talk briefly to Chef Neroni and discuss about his cooking philosophies and it was very clear that he will be going his way with food which will be novel to SD restaurants and he seems not willing to do any significant compromises. We really hope that he will succeed and bring some culinary novelty to SD but it is good to see that many dishes on the menu have often familiar main ingredients (e.g. Wagyu Flat Iron & Short Rib) which will help to sell them but are paired with unusual sides (e.g. marrow croquettes, mini kim chi, black garlic romesco). It was interesting to see yesterday how many other tables were so often surprised and skeptical at first by unusual ingredients and asked the waiters to know more about them but in the end all customers liked them.
We really highly recommend Blanca to everybody who likes outstanding food which you won’t in find every restaurant, we will be back very soon.

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  1. A few pictures of the different courses

      1. re: honkman

        Excellent report, will have to pay a visit soon.

      2. Did you mean coddled egg with the Amuse Bouche?

        1 Reply
        1. re: deckape

          It tasted like coddled egg but the waiter desribed it as curdled egg. It tasted like an slightly undercooked egg with duck prosciutto

        2. I don't know if I'd call that menu "risky". All those preparations are essentially fairly classic French derivatives or fusions with classic french cuisine in one form or another that are using not so common ingredients. You can definitely see an Alice Waters influence in that menu. The meal sounds pretty good though. Although the fish course (5) looks a little sloppy to me, it seems like maybe a good time for a revisit. Thanks for the update and pictures.

          4 Replies
          1. re: mjill

            For SD I would definitely call this menu (and espcially the flavor components you have in the same dish) risky especially knowing that restaurants in SD which are not serving mainstream upscale food tend not to survive very long. Even Chef Neroni mentioned when we talked to him that he is aware that many of these dishes might be much more what most customers are use to in SD (and he mention that he eliminated one or two dishes from the menu which were "too much") but he is willing to take the risks.
            And as I wrote I think his approach at the beginning is to have pretty classic (not always French) cuisine but with very unusual twists and flavors which will help him to get customers try things. That doesn't mean that he will get more creatrive in the future. He is changing the menu daily now and is especially using the tasting menus to "think outside of the box" (Some of the dishes from the tasting menu are not available through the regular menu).

            1. re: honkman

              Again, not very risky to me. Nouvelle ingredients to me
              (farm fresh) doesn't seem very risky in this age of farm to plate dining. The pairings are fairly common when you consider the cuisines. Not too much ground broken to think this menu is a "risk" in any town, most importantly SD even by the self considered gourmands.

              1. re: mjill

                It sounds like he's talking business risk as opposed to breaking new ground in cuisine. San Diego may or may not have enough people to keep a place like this in business.

                1. re: royaljester

                  Thanks. That's exactly what I meant.

          2. Nice report! I think we'll have to swing by for another dinner.

            1. wow, great write up. Thanks so much for the effort!

              1. Awesome! I haven't been in a long while and definitely not since it changed hands, so I'll have to give a try again sometime soon. Thanks for putting this back on my radar.

                1. I was recently there this weekend and tried a good portion of the menu. I would have to say that the apps are really strong. The ocean trout tartar and the brussels sprout were two stand outs for me. The monkfish was terrible I had to send it back. The spice rub was overpowering and burnt and left a bad after taste. The porkbelly was over cooked and just sloppy all around. Pork belly should be an app not an entree IMO. The steak was ok I'm not sure the quality of Kobe they are serving here because it tastes like a normal steak to me and I've had my fair share of american and japanese. For dessert I don't eat ice cream but my girlfriend loved the bacon ice cream that came with the donuts. I had a trio of sorbets and found the strawberry and fennel to be really great. I found the service to be spotty. Many times during the night there were no servers or any employee what so ever in the dinning room. Also the server mistakenly charged me for an extra entree and the monkfish that I sent back. She apologized and took care of it, but when I checked my statement today there were two charges one for my bill and the other was for an extra $322. Be sure to watch this after dining here because the manager said it happens quite often. Overall I won't be running back and if anything I'll go to the bar for happy hour.

                  Here are the pics from the night.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: SDGourmand

                    Not surprised to hear this report. I went last week for an extended lunch with a friend. Had a coupon for 20% from the DT magazine and figured what the heck, worth a try since Honkman was hyping it so much. Well, that's what I get for believing the hype it turns out. I felt this meal was risky as in you just lost a grand at a table in Vegas and are clinging to some crazy hope that your last $50 is going to win it all back.

                    The food was ok, except for a poached egg in a broth that ended up having a snot consistency that I knew I was going to loath when dropped but ate it anyways– its official, I HATE poached eggs in soups since they all turn out snotty – my meal wasn’t as bad as you report but definitely not worth the drive from DT. I might feel differently if I lived in the area though to give it a 3rd shot way down the line, and had another coupon but it would take some serious arm twisting for sure. Service wasn't terrible. Not memorable though, but they didn't bill us twice or anything at least. Overall, my biggest complaint that turned me off from the get-go and couldn’t recover from since it was one mistake after another: the presentations were unbelievably sloppy IMO. I'm from the school of when in doubt chill it out. I don't think anybody really wants a Jackson Pollack looking back at them when they're about to dig in (bad). Balance, unity and flow (good). Items placed all over the map with no balance or focus, stacking things just for the sake of stacking them, Sauces, garnishes or raw spices that shouldn’t be on the rims of plates, there at all or just thrown where ever because the line cook is too lazy to take time and care - WOW. To me, it was a really bad day in culinary skills class visually. If they relax on the over the top, bad bad bad modern presentations, like giving modern a bad name bad, they might be able to pull the nose up. Who knows though, since chances are very high I'll never go back.