Early Bird Dinner at Blanca
The only menu you'll see at Blanca: the wine list.
The myth of Blanca was vast, despite my knowledge being limited mostly to the homepage of their website. The stature of their myth had been gained from their hard-to-achieve reservation, as well as the cost of their many-course meal. I finally scored an outing to Blanca due to two strokes of good luck, foodie friends who were visiting from San Francisco, and our willingness to dine at 4:45 p.m. on a Friday night.
The interior of Blanca was bigger than I expected, with an entry area housing a table on wheels holding a sea of glassware, and a wooden wall that evoked Chinese room dividers, which concealed a chic bathroom with a fancy heated toilet. The bar seats twelve comfortably, but while you do look out onto the kitchen, from high-backed golden leather chairs, don't think you're close enough to see much of the cooking. This is a dining experience where much of the prep-work is done hours before you show up, with just the final assembly being done on the 20+ plates: grill marks, herbs placed with tweezers, and finger twirls of flake salt.
A perfect slice of peach, in a peach cream with a celery frond on top.
For the most part, Chef Carlo Mirarchi remained behind his kitchen cover, turning meat over flaming coals and inspecting the work of two additional chefs. He came by to talk with us once, when my still-breastfeeding girlfriend inquired about the mercury content in the various seafood cuts on our plate. He suggested not eating the tuna, but that was all. The tuna in question, which I ate for her, was still raw but imbued with a liquid smoke taste, like it had been faux barbecued. The plate had five slivers of seafood: octopus, skate, mackerel, tuna and sardine. The sardine was my favorite, distinctly vinegared and tangy. It lay atop a drop of pesto, the two melding into a bite that you wanted more of, but okay, just the one was worth holding slowly in my mouth, eking out every last ounce of taste.
Busy catching up with my friends there was a moment early on in the dinner when, swept up in conversation, we ignored the dish in front of us. One of the two female servers came by to tell us that the dishes would be coming in quick succession and "we shouldn't slow down." I get that we're being served in concert with other guests, and that there are more dishes to come, but I'd also hoped that the dinner was something I could think about, savor and discuss.
Another reason for the myth of Blanca is that no photos are allowed (the few shown here were done quickly and when the staff's backs were turned), and no menus are handed out. I will give them their desire for no photos, but no menus? How do I remember this meal later? For $200 per person I think a menu is a small thing to ask for. (When I asked, they said that they used to give them out but then they would be posted online.)
As I reviewed the stand out plates in my head, I noticed a theme. Mirarchi excels at pulling together unexpected combinations of strange sauces and re-packaged ingredients, many of which I had never tried, or thought to try. And, unlike many other chefs today, texture doesn't seem to be one of the levers he pulls. Some of the dishes I most enjoyed were the plankton agnolotti with shaved truffles on top (it was like eating dirt, good dirt, from the bottom of the sea), plump ravioli with andouille sausage, grilled chicken in an egg yolk sauce, paper thin raw beef slices in kohlrabi broth (the meat cooked in the broth as it sat in front of you), the single tomato in a sweet corn broth, the vincotto sauce alongside a fatty piece of meat, and the smoked cheese course that helped transition my palate from savory to sweet.
Not every dish shined as bright as the ones above, but without a menu I can only tell you they came, and they went. Also, about halfway through the meal there was a break in the flow, the bread course, and we were given a roll, a baguette and two slices of rustic bread. The roll, pillowy and sweet, reminded me of rolls I eat in Hawaii, was dolloped with giant kernels of salt and tasted pretty magical with a swipe of house-churned butter. Good bread is not something I can easily say no to, but I'm not sure I needed the extra calories in a three-hour meal. (A small loaf of bread was also the takeaway gift, if that gives you any idea of the priorities.)
Soft tofu and pea sauce with micro-foraged greens, of which the highlight was the young garlic, hidden at top right.
Dining at Blanca had the delicate sensibility of a Japanese kaiseki meal, where each ingredient was allowed to hold center stage, while at the same time showcasing the chefs skill at pulling in new flavors (plankton anyone?), and old world charm (grilled meats and pasta like grandma makes). But, after reading the Times review from a year ago, I noticed there still existed some of the same secrecy, and hard to come by reservations. Does food need to be so elevated that it's not to be discussed, shared or posted?
Grilled lamb, okra, peach and vincotto, a grape reduction sauce that was the highlight of the plate.