Blanca - Market Restaurant & Bar


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Blanca

Location - 437 South Highway 101, Solana Beach
Phone - 858-792-0072
Chef - Wade Hageman

Market Restaurant + Bar

Location - 1555 Camino del Mar, Del Mar
Phone - 858-523-0007
Chef - Carl Schroeder

TWO RESTAURANTS OPENED within an easy gallop of the Del Mar Racetrack last year, both with high-profile chefs and contemporary California cuisine. Here’s the scoop.

When restaurateur Seth Baas named the place he helped launch last year, he chose the Spanish word for white: Blanca. To him, the hue denotes elegance, class and cool. The plates in this dinner-only establishment are white, as are the pressed table linens, pendant lanterns and striking concrete bar. Blanca is a lovely name, but we’ve come up with one that fits better: Perfecta.

It’s been ages since we’ve seen a local restaurant get everything so right. From the executive chef (Wade Hageman, who honed his craft with the likes of Mark Miller and Michael Mina) to the servers (a crackerjack group who attend pre-shift training every night), Blanca’s the new gold standard in town.

As a youngster, Baas helped out with his folks’ fast-food joints in Houston. Later, he trained in accounting and culinary arts in San Francisco before he and his mother, Debbie Hugonin, launched their dream eatery in this former Solana Beach bike shop.

General manager/sommelier Zubin Desai, formerly of the University Club, serves up charm and wine advice in front while Hageman works his magic in the back. Using favorite ingredients, both timeless (sweetbreads, foie gras, chives) and of-the-moment (pork belly, quince, the crunchy root vegetable crosnes), the chef fuses the best of French and California styles.

One night’s amuse-boucheof hot celeriac soup, flecked with truffle oil and a pinch of chives for punch, was served in a demitasse; we could have devoured a potful. Fresh wild-salmon tartare ($16) arrived as a tower, constructed with chopped avocado and onion and surrounded by a moat of chilled dill sauce.

Hot starters include the chef’s signature short ribs with horseradish ($20), a constant on the ever-changing menu, and luscious sautéed sweetbreads ($18) coated with woodsy ground porcinis and complemented by earthy, bite-size crosnes.

The entrée lineup boasts dry-aged New York steak ($50) and Kobe-style rib-eye (a princely $75), as well as poultry and seafood. Hageman knows fish: His pan-seared John Dory—paired one evening with truffle-oil risotto, braised endive and a light-handed tangerine-Vouvray sauce—would have hooked you for life.

Duck breast, too, is superb. Sliced and rosy-centered for maximum juice and tenderness, the meat made a perfect foil for spaetzle blended with chives ($36).

The pastry chef turns out all kinds of goodies, among them an orange-tinged French chocolate souffle with Grand Marnier ice cream ($12). But it’s the cheese course, artfully arranged on a quartet of plates, that’s a show-stopper.

Too often a forlorn afterthought even in our nicer eateries, cheese takes a star turn here, with four choices paired with items that complement or contrast. Normandy’s pungent, creamy Epoisses plays off a snappy apple-walnut chutney; slightly sweet Petit Basque from the French Pyrenees is balanced with lemon, olive oil and tapenade. This course is well worth the $20 price tag.

Yes, Blanca is pricy; the tab for two with a couple of glasses of wine can easily exceed $200 before the tip. But here’s what you can expect:

A serene, understated dining room with gentle lighting and comfortable seating in booths and at tables. Polished servers who don’t play “Who gets the duck?” A gorgeous bar, blessedly free of a television, and a good-looking, food-savvy clientele blessedly free of cell phones. An inviting wine list and a sommelier to help navigate it. A private dining room that can seat 22, and a separate lounge (which does have a television, along with cozy sofa seating).

Blanca means money well spent.

DOWN THE ROAD on Via de la Valle, former Arterra chef Carl Schroeder has taken over the former Blackhorse Grill as chef and co-owner, bringing his passion for all things fresh to the new Market Restaurant + Bar.

As at Arterra, Schroeder’s cooking can thrill. One night’s amuse-bouche, lobster bisque with a bracing splash of Chardonnay, capitalized on both main ingredients for spectacular results. A first-course cassoulet with duck confit and spicy sausage was first-rate ($12.75); we liked the confit in a panini with caramelized onions ($12.50) as well.

Schroeder’s tarragon-infused game hen served with smoked tortellini and a terrific jalapeño hollandaise ($26.95) was an absolute 10. But chewy, overdone monkfish ($26.50) was disappointing, despite a succulent prawn garnish.

We found other letdowns as well. Arriving with a dinner reservation (under an assumed name), we were escorted to a drafty table in the bar, although the dining room was nearly deserted. It wasn’t a momentary stop; we were meant to dine there. Harshly lit and not at all cozy, the bar features a view of the kitchen via giant wide-screen television. Watching chefs work from a counter or through a window is fun. Looking at a static view of the line on a screen is not.

Pleas to be relocated were eventually granted, and the modish dining room is cleverly decorated and a magnet for well-heeled locals. Our banquette table, however, was small, with glasses and plates teetering at the edges. Our waiter seemed inexperienced, butting in every few minutes to check our progress.

Food and a chef of this caliber deserve stellar support. Here’s hoping they get it soon.

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