Thoroughly Modern Blanca

Oh, lucky are the residents of Solana Beach! They've got sand, they've got money, and now they've got an eatery to equal those of San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. The opening of the sleek and sophisticated Blanca marks the arrival of our first 21st-century restaurant.

San Diego's "fine dining" scene has improved immensely: You can now find many versions of the "seasonal, local, and naturally raised" ingredient-driven cuisine that Alice Waters pioneered at Chez Panisse in 1971. But wholesome and delicious are only a start. In the years since, top chefs in the serious "foodie cities" have concentrated on highlighting their perfect ingredients so radiantly and originally that diners must rouse to rapt attention. Here, we've always had a few bold, mainly French-born chefs working in that direction (the Marine Room's Bernard Guillas springs to mind), but for the most part, this town has barely begun to play catch-up.

The owners of Blanca deliberately set out to update San Diego's culinary scene, and they nabbed the right guy to do it. Chef Wade Hageman spent eight years working for renowned San Francisco chef Michael Mina, and he's imported a similarly complex, labor-intensive style of cooking that appeals as much to the mind as to the mouth.

Blanca's menu follows the conventional structure of appetizers (divided between cold and hot preparations), seafood, and land creatures, with each item's pedigree and primary garnishes fully listed. But you'll be fooled anyway, because all that written detail doesn't begin to describe the flavors you'll encounter -- those behind-the-scenes flavor-enhancers (marinades, brines, rubs, soaks, infusions) that come into play before the final cooking and serving. When each dish carries so much nuance, you almost hate to swallow the last bite.

Among his other feats of culinary legerdemain, Hageman has imported a major Mina stratagem -- that of showcasing an individual ingredient by presenting it in several different incarnations within the same dish, much as a classical music composition may offer variations on a theme. The same animal, vegetable, or fruit emerges with different textures and even flavors when it's subjected to varying treatments.

One of my favorite appetizers, for instance, is Kurobuta pork belly "en sous vide." Pork belly is uncured, unsmoked bacon (a prized foodstuff in China, where its lush fattiness is relished). Here the chef brines it, then simmers it for 12 hours at 170 degrees "en sous vide" -- a high-tech version of "boil in the bag." The food (with or without seasonings) is sealed into a leak-proof Cryovac plastic bag and placed in a cooker that can be controlled to within a degree of the desired heat. Once the pork is fully cooked, Hageman slices it into portions and sears them -- giving your mouth soft, rich belly matched with crisp, smoky belly that resembles bacon. Real bacon comes into play when he surrounds the pork with "Manila clam chowder" -- not a soup but a sauce. The New England staple is lightened to a thin, savory cream that includes small rectangles of Nueske applewood-smoked bacon, diced potatoes, and a few tiny clams garnished with shreds of baby fennel. You can't gobble these goodies with an absent mind. The combination announces, "Attention must be paid!"

Another appetizer structured on the many guises of a single ingredient pretends to center on New York State foie gras but explores the possibilities of the exotic "donut peaches" used as a garnish. In season from July through September, donut peaches are an Asian heirloom variety. Round and flat with a sunken center, they're intensely sweet and taste faintly of almonds. Hageman serves pan-seared foie gras "Monte Cristo" style, plated atop brioche coated with donut peach and ginger compote, with accompaniments of raw peach chutney, plus raw julienne and rings made from slightly tart, less-ripe fruit -- four different versions of one fruit. Unfortunately, to my palate, he adds a needless throng of poached blackberries, so sweet I wanted to banish them to dessert. (Must foie gras always be paired in America with something this sugary? I really wanted a more acidic note here.)

Other dishes succeed through imaginative flavor pairings. My three companions and I fell in love with the sheer sensuousness of a summer corn soup. It reverses the equation of the foie gras' savory-robed-in-sweet. The chef reins in corn's natural sweetness with surprising savory garnishes. The waiter brings a serving bowl holding two lobster-shiitake cakes, looking like a pair of rocks in an empty tidepool. He pours thick, golden liquid from a gravy boat, so the "rocks" now rise from a sunset bay. The epicurean dumplings, with both delicate and earthy flavors, lend focus to the creamy soup. For a final contrast, a few drops of slightly spicy piment d'espelette oil (a smoky-flavored Basque chile) add piquancy.

From the list of cold appetizers, our order of flash-grilled Japanese hamachi carpaccio brought large, near-transparent, pounded slices of yellowtail (the whole loin is flash-grilled, then sliced -- only a thin edge is cooked). The fish is marinated in shallots, Szechwan peppercorns, cilantro stems, lime zest, and more for 24 hours. Splashed with lime-infused olive oil, the dish was salty but zesty. We were delighted by a fresh-tasting watermelon ponzu dip, more salsa than liquid, with minced onion, lime juice, soy, and rice-wine vinegar, along with the reduced watermelon juice -- steeped with Kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, cilantro, and other ingredients.

Where many chefs spend all their creativity on the appetizers but veg out on the main dishes, Hageman's entrées are as complex as his starters. We were astounded by the perfection of his "Day Boat Diver Scallops." (Not all diver scallops are iced, packed, and air-shipped the day they're caught.) The cold-water Maine scallops were the best that I've tasted in years -- sweet and satiny, almost melting on the tongue. They were plated over bouncy miniature potato pancakes, topped with paper-thin, buttery slices of zucchini and slivers of gray summer truffles, which by their nature don't have much "truffle" aroma or taste. But the silky beurre blanc sauce was studded with chips of virile black winter truffles (probably canned, but who cares?) unleashing a musky, flavor-enhancing umami-power on their companions.

"Untraditional Gumbo" is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes, perhaps as much for its title as its content -- although Maine lobster never hurts. More of a shellfish medley in broth than anything you'd find at Dooky Chase's, the dish was born of a negotiation between the chef and his bosses. Mother-son restaurateurs Debbie Hugonin and Seth Baas are originally from Houston, a short drive from the "Cajun Triangle" of southwestern Louisiana. Perhaps they were homesick when they asked Wade to include a gumbo on the menu. "I'm not making any stew," he muttered, and came up with this loose (and roux-less) play on shrimp gumbo -- not your down-home ingredients but deluxe cousins. First comes a bowlful of shelled Maine lobster tail, jumbo gulf prawns, and diver scallops, supplemented by a few tender lengths of baby okra deep-fried in rice flour (the token rice element of this gumbo), steamed mild greens, and a rim of tomatoes concassé (mashed tomatoes). Then the server pours in a light sauce based on shellfish broth (cooked with gumbo vegetables such as celery and red peppers). There is a touch of organic gumbo filé butter emulsified into the sauce -- but none of my tablemates and I could taste the filé.

Colorado Spring Lamb "Two Ways" tastes fabulous both ways. Way Number One: Baby rib chops arrived perfectly grilled with well-browned exteriors and deep-rose centers, coated with a mixture of whole-grain mustard, minced parsley, and bread crumbs (a classic French treatment for rack of lamb). Way Number Two: a navarin printanière pot pie/lamb stew -- an oval casserole topped with a flawless baked puff-pastry crust, buttery and frangible. Breaking through it, we found a remarkably delicate, greaseless stew of mild-flavored lamb shoulder and vegetables in a clean-flavored, meaty lamb broth. Mediating between the two was a pile of wilted mustard greens, their central veins removed to ensure tenderness. This is not Mom's lamb stew, it's not even Julia Child's navarin -- unless Julia had access to this pampered, corn-fed baby sheep. The grass-fed New Zealand lamb served in most restaurants tastes gamier, which is great for grilled or roasted cuts from high on the sheep. But with strong-tasting flesh like the front shoulder, the milder flavor of corn-fed animals is a major plus. Taking time to trim off the fat before cooking is a double-plus.

One dish flopped with all of us. Admittedly, business was slamming on a midweek night, but that's routine here. Whatever the reason, our free-range Jidori chicken didn't fly. It's an airline cut (breast plus first joint of the wing) and arrived with skin well crisped, flavored with lavender fleur de sel (a complex-tasting sea salt from France), but the meat was so dry on this reputedly ultra-moist premium bird that each of us took only a bite or two. The wing proved as arid as the breast, the center no moister than the surface.

The wine list is exceptional. It was put together by consultant George Riffle (previously of Laurel), who must have amazing connections in the wine world, since he managed to collect some first-growth Bordeaux of the proper age for drinking and similar joys from Burgundy, the Rhone, etc., as well as equally prized Napa bottlings, any of which I'd need a second mortgage to pay for. There are also plenty of fine choices in the $40--$50 range and even a handful of pleasing lightweights at "peoples' prices."

The restaurant's decor is as modern and polished as the food, with couches in a sleek lounge by the door and an intimate dining room with plenty of booth seating, done in white, black, and shades of brown, with billowing fabrics and pendant balloon lamps for textural interest. World music plays softly over the sound system, to an always-crowded room full of dressy, prosperous-looking diners, mainly from the immediate area. The waitpeople are plentiful, dressed in navy-blue quasi-military uniforms with high necks and buttons down the front -- rather Kafkaesque garb. Now and then, when one passed behind me, I felt a frisson of anxiety, as if I were about to get busted for breaking a law I'd never heard of.

Blanca does have its own dessert chef, but sorry to say, not one of us could proceed past the entrées. It's not just the amount of food -- it's the intensity. If Blanca's prices are higher than average, you're not paying to line the owner's pocket but to assure that what you put in your mouth is the best San Diego has to offer. You're buying flavor, labor, and art.

ABOUT BLANCA

Owner Seth Baas is a trained chef himself and a world traveler. "My parents owned restaurants, so I was born into the business -- but nothing of this quality, more like fast-food franchises. I always wanted to be in the restaurant business. I went to college for accounting, and then I went to the California Culinary Academy and did my externship at Pamplemousse Grill.... I'm really a kitchen guy by trade, but I'm not good enough to cook at Blanca. I wanted to open a restaurant that has no weak points -- decor, service, food."

A professional headhunter pointed to Wade Hageman. "So we tried his food, and he's a very comforting cook and at the same time cutting edge. I think that's right for San Diego. The city doesn't have the culinary culture yet, it's not old enough.... There's no modern, sophisticated fine dining yet, but people here are becoming more traveled, more educated, and they can appreciate what we're bringing."

Chef Wade Hageman was born a Zonie. "I always loved cooking," he says. "I was working in a little Italian restaurant while I was in high school. I went to college with the idea of being an accountant, but I couldn't see myself in a suit and tie, so I decided to check into culinary school. I went to Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Then I moved to Las Vegas, before the big boom in restaurants hit there, and I worked under Mark Miller at Coyote Café. Then I got the opportunity to work under Wolfgang Puck at Spago. When Michael Mina's Aqua was about to open at the Bellagio, I met with Mike and he offered me a position...and I worked for him at his various restaurants for eight years. I left when I got an opportunity to run the dining room called the Palace Arms in the Brown Palace Hotel...generally considered the nicest dining room in Denver.

"But I didn't care for Denver all that much. Blanca's owners, Seth and Debbie, flew up to Denver, and I made a tasting menu for them. They flew me to San Diego, showed me the restaurant, and we talked more about what they wanted to do, and it was really exciting.

"The menu is constantly changing. We rotate dishes in and out seasonally, as things become available. I want to use whatever's the best that week. Some of our produce comes from the little micro-farms around here, like Connelly Farms in Ramona. Newport Meats, because of their buying power, can get me the specialty meats, like the Berkshire and Kurobuta pork, the Snake River Kobe beef, the milk-fed veal from small farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota."

I asked him what he thought of the controversy over foie gras, which appears on the menu more than once. "I think it's very unfortunate. It's absolutely worse to be injecting cows and caged-up chickens with hormones -- we do so much more inhumane things to animals. People don't think about what they're buying from the supermarket. Unlike commercial meats and poultry, the ducks and geese are not mistreated, just overfattened."

Does cooking his style of food in a beach town mini-mall present any special challenges? "The people have the money here, for sure, and people want the fine dining experience," he answered, "but I'm not sure that all of them are exactly used to what that is. My food is very modern, the presentation is modern. People don't always know what they're eating, but they seem to love it. When I come out and talk to them, they're very appreciative. And I'm very appreciative for the chance to do this kind of cuisine in San Diego and how warm and receptive people have been. We haven't done much advertising, but we're busy every night, and it's all word of mouth from people who've eaten here."

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