Its third chef in as many years finds his groove with local flavors and lower prices
A year into his residence at Solana Beach’s Blanca, chef Gavin Schmidt seems to be successfully winning over the community and regaining some of the customers the restaurant lost in recent times. His predecessor, Jason Neroni, was a lauded though controversial chef transplanted here from New York. Neroni was famously written up in a New York Times article for taking to Twitter to lambast posters on a user-review Web site who were critical of his adventurous flavor combinations and experimental cooking techniques.
437 South Highway 101, Solana Beach
For his part, chef Schmidt has yet to call anyone out on his own Twitter account. He admits that his cooking style, developed over 10 years spent in some of San Francisco’s best kitchens, has evolved for San Diego palates. But he insists it’s the local ingredients he has access to — seafood and produce — that have been responsible for influencing any shifts.
Among the highly regarded kitchens in Schmidt’s past is Coi, a two-Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant whose contemporary menu is peppered with Asian ingredients.
On his menu at Blanca, he carries that thread through in dishes such as a savory, comforting porridge made with brown rice, topped with crunchy nuggets of Dungeness crab tempura and accented with flavors of carrot and lemongrass.
Another of Schmidt’s more artful compositions, called “Still life of local waters,” uncannily conjures a retreating tide, complete with strewn pieces of seaweed. A vinaigrette, gelled with agar, is made from a Japanese soup base called dashi and seasoned with fresh lemon and celery juice. It drapes like a glassy sheet over pieces of pristine raw seafood — oysters, custardy-sweet sea urchin and local spot prawns, whose short harvest season makes them especially precious. The presentation is unusual, but the flavors are clearly defined; citrus and seafood are a classic pairing.
Despite its small size, the restaurant is surprisingly comfortable and quiet, even on busier nights. There is an easy elegance to the decor, and the curved booths that line the space offer cozy privacy and allow you to settle in for your meal. Courses arrive at a relaxed pace, so count on dinner being an entire evening’s event. In between, you may be gifted with an extra tidbit from the kitchen, perhaps a bowl brimming with fresh popcorn, an heirloom variety from Wisconsin whose black hulls pop into nutty-tasting, snowy-white kernels. A staple on the menu since Blanca’s early days, the kernels are dressed simply but decadently with brown butter, Parmesan and truffle salt.
One of the chef’s favorite endeavors is charcuterie and salumi-making, and his biweekly whole-animal deliveries, from lamb to pigs, ensure he’s able to break each down into the sections he needs to craft nearly anything. The rotating selection includes lamb prosciutto, country paté, soppresata and tête de cochon, or headcheese — each slice a mosaic of rosy pig parts framed by a thin ring of skin and fat. On a recent visit, everything on our charcuterie boards (which come with fruit mostarda, pickled vegetables and toasted house-made bread) was well made, if just a bit underseasoned for my taste, with the exception of the duck-liver mousse. I’d normally polish this off first, but my portion was too salty to finish.
The whole hog is also the centerpiece of a dish titled “A day on the farm.” Choice cuts of a Berkshire pig, sourced from a ranch outside San Luis Obispo, are nestled among baby vegetables and a crumble of edible soil, dark as espresso powder. There’s a section of grilled loin, juicy cubes of seared pork belly, an excellent homemade sausage, a crispy cake made from pork trotters and that all-pleasure, no-guilt treat, freshly fried pork rinds. The chicharones are also featured on the restaurant’s popular lounge menu, half-priced at Happy Hour, when they’re dusted with espelette chili pepper (as is also done at my favorite pork palace, The Publican in Chicago).
Not all plates were superstars; a square fillet of local halibut, poached gently in olive oil, tasted bitter upon first bite. The flavor of olive oil can vary dramatically from mellow and fruity to sharp, peppery and, in some cases, bitter. Perhaps the oil used in this would have been better employed as accent for the fish, rather than a bath. A salad of greens and thinly shaved baby vegetables was fresh and beautiful but tasted flat despite a citrus vinaigrette and spheres of tart yogurt.
But when the chef is firing on all cylinders, taking into account eye appeal, texture and taste, he creates unquestionable winners. Guinea hen, a chicken-size fowl with an earthier — and frankly more delicious — flavor was paired with peas and nasturtium leaves on a springtime menu. The velvet chew of the meat set against a jumble of crisp-tender legumes, including sweet pea pods, and the peppery nasturtium added interest to the swipe of brilliant green pea purée that bisected the plate.
And thankfully, the restaurant’s prices have come back down to earth since the early days, when a friend and I had to split a pork chop dish because of its nearly $50 price tag. Now, a four-course menu of your choosing is $58 — a deal considering both the care with which Schmidt sources his ingredients and the attention he gives to accomplishing some pretty delicious feats.