Photo: New York Times
BLANCA was the first Michelin rated restaurant we went to this summer, and it set the standard for the rest of our Michelin-tasting journey. This post aims to provide you with a detailed, in-depth, dish-by-dish review of the restaurant. Like the works of a rising artist, many dishes bloomed beautifully with unexpected combinations and singular tastes.
Cozily nestled in the backyard of Roberta’s pizzeria and tiki bar, BLANCA was like an impeccable sanctuary amidst Roberta’s bustling chaos – the drastic difference was jarring and unforgettable. You would never guess this little space continues to carry its two stars proudly. By this little space, I mean the restaurant is by reservation only and holds no more than 12 people per night. Though the dining area seemed small, a tall and clean table stretched across the neutral-coloured room, and overlooked a pristine open kitchen. The set-up was like that of an infamous cooking show and we, the customers, were the judges.
Armed only with my Canon EOS M (22mm), I entered BLANCA wide-eyed. It was close to 9:00 pm in June – my family and I went straight to the restaurant after changing at the hotel, even though we had just gotten off the plane a few hours ago. Tired and hungry, we stuck out our necks inquisitively and surveyed the restaurant with curiosity.
The sommelier and server, Shanti, asked if we would venture to try their wine pairings. Judging from my dad’s tomato-red face and my mom’s tipsy manners (we had to wait at the tiki bar and they both had drinks), I politely declined. Despite my mother’s playful complaints, a $90 wine pairing on top of $195 per person for the tasting menu was really too much for our wallets. Seated beside me, two women in their mid-twenties decided to go with the wine. I envied their deep pockets.
The pictures you see here are untouched. I decided against editing the photos; the originals retained the ambiance of the restaurant with their warm tones and soft lighting. Also, I am an amateur when it comes to photography. I tried to capture each piece of art/dish with my senses first, then with my camera. Due to blog formatting restrictions, the images seem small, but if you right-click them or hover over the images (with this extension), you can get a better view of the dish in detail.
As aroma of all sorts started to fill the room, I knew the exhibition of artful plates was about to begin.
Shigoku Oyster with asparagus juice
Shigoku oysters are known for their scoop-shape and density of flavour. The bubbling asparagus juice coupled with one of my least favourite seafood –oyster– made me hesitant. After careful deliberation, I ate the oyster in one mouthful. The fishy taste of salt water and soft texture of the oyster tried to cradle my taste buds, but it was not welcomed. I am, sadly, not a fan of oysters. This first dish was a let-down I had expected: unless the chef had covered the taste of a fresh oyster, I would not have liked it. My parents, on the other hand, enjoyed the dish and praised the asparagus juice pairing. I sat expectantly for the next dish to be something less seafood-y.
Most of the dinnerware, as one of the servers explained, was made by a local artist who is familiar with ceramic and enamel. I felt like you could see some traditional Japanese influence on her work through the size, shape, and material of the plates and bowls. I wish they had used the same set for the entire meal. Every dish was different for every food item – a few were less unique compared to the others, while some complemented the dish appropriately.
Surprised, I ate the thinly cut Italian bacon without a second thought. The taste immediately overwhelmed the residual grossness of the oyster. Good save, BLANCA. I needed that clean-up.
Squid with sesame dressing
Mmm, this seafood dish was quite Japanese with its sesame and blood orange dressing. Chewy, raw, and tangy, I enjoyed every little bit of the combination. Those tiny yellow slices are preserved Meyer lemons and they are a delicious new love of mine! Despite the squid’s tastiness, it wasn’t as innovative as the rest of the menu items. Like celebrated works of a famous Japanese artist, I already knew this particular combination and style would be good.
Cardoon on green apple
As if to counter my previous comment on the squid dish, the crispy and tart wedge of green apple, coupled with fried bread crumbs, cardoon, crushed garlic, and bagna cauda was an explosion of new flavours. Please correct me if I am wrong: the clear vegetable is cardoon, and the emerald leaf is lovage. Small bite, giant flavour.
Carpaccio with horseradish
This lightly grilled beef carpaccio was amazing with fresh horseradish, arugula flower and a sour dressing I couldn’t quite make out. The beef was tender enough to melt on my tongue, and the horseradish added a delicate punch to it. Mmm…so good. The texture of the mostly raw meat was like a French kiss: all tongue, all soft, all moist.
Our main chef that day was Alex Leonard in the far right, and the sous chef on the left.
Upon arriving at Roberta’s, I was lost as to the exact location of BLANCA. Confused, I asked a random guy outside the cinder block house for directions. His companion, a tall and slender woman, said smugly, “You got the right guy.” He politely led my family and me into the waiting area and left without leaving a name. Only until 5 minutes before dinner, he showed up again in the kitchen and smiled at me mischievously. HE WAS ALEX, THE CHEF OF THE NIGHT.
English pea soup with green strawberry
From the strong flavours of beef, we transitioned into mellow flavours with this dish. The freshness of the peas and the slight sourness of the green strawberries blended flawlessly, like getting a whiff of a Spring meadow on a breezy day.
Fluke and plum vinegar
Bathed in a pool of almond water and plum vinegar, the fluke (also known as Summer Flounder) was garnished with fennel and borage flower. When the server brought the dish, I was surprised by its simple and exquisite appearance – the white and purple colours painted a peaceful tableau.
Aside from its appearance, the dish tasted somewhat discordant. Fennel, borage, and plum vinegar created a harmony that was disturbed by the almond water. Without the almond taste, it would have been as tasty as it were beautiful.
Spot prawn, deep fried with black lime
While we waited for the fluke dish to be garnished, I saw Alex carefully and attentively fry each prawn with utmost concentration. His usual playful expression disappeared; instead, he kept a vigilant eye meticulously monitoring the mesh fry basket. Though the previous fish dish wasn’t so delicious, I knew the prawn would be different.
And it was. The pinkish-orange fried prawn was pleasingly crispy and crunchy! Every bit of the sea critter was made edible and enticing by well-timed frying – it was not too fried, not too raw, but just right. Black lime dust gave the prawn a Middle-Eastern touch with its smoky, tangy, and bitter flavour. Oh, I loved it.
Honeycomb with sunchoke
One of the most memorable dishes of the night was this sweet honeycomb with sunchoke. Like an Elvish delicacy from a fantasy novel, the combination was other-worldly. Infused with honey, the root vegetable was cooked thoroughly into a smooth and soft oval that sat on top of honeycomb bits, There was also a slightly toasted sea lettuce (on the right) and a dainty little nasturtium leaf (on the left) that added colour and depth of flavour.
The lingering mellow sweetness and unique taste made me feel as though I had met a young, bubbly, and chubby little elf through this dish.
Agnolotti filled with plankton
If the sunchoke was a woodland elf, then the agnolotti was a sea monster.
This one was memorable for a different reason. As harmless as they looked, the little pockets contained explosions of deep sea essence. They burst inside my mouth and oozed a salty, fishy, green goo. Made from taleggio cheese and plankton, it tasted like squid ink and an abundance of unwashed seaweed. According to Pete Wells in his New York Times review on BLANCA, eating the agnolotti was “a disorienting sensation,” and I couldn’t agree with it more! I felt engulfed by the green monster who had devastated my poor tongue. I remember very well how I quickly downed some water and couldn’t be more relieved when the next dish came.
‘Nduja Ravioli with orange
After the agnolotti, I wasn’t so pleased with the order of the menu. Perhaps to contrast different flavours on each end of the spectrum, the sunchoke followed by the agnolotti and ravioli seemed disrupted and extreme. A smoother transition would be fluke, honeycomb, spot prawn, agnolotti, then ravioli. The deep fried prawn would have eased into the zest of the plankton, followed by a “surf-and-turf” combination with the spicy spreadable Calabrian sausage filling of the ravioli.
Sequence aside, the single ravioli surprised me with its –once again– explosion of red goo and tangy punch. Whew, it was unexpectedly spicy and fiery. I enjoyed the surprise because the flavours were unusual, but there was no satisfaction to the dish. I felt like it was supposed to be eaten with either more pasta or bread. It was too “raw,” like an artist’s unfinished and unmodified work.
Fava – wild greens
The lingering taste of the ‘nduja was too strong, which caused the fava dish to be less memorable compared to others. I remember biting into the miniature turnip (so cute and tiny!) and savouring the mixture of the vegetables with cheese and cayenne pepper. The combination was an interesting blend of flavours; the creaminess of the cheese alleviated the raw taste of wild greens, and brought out an earthy aftertaste instead.
King Crab with bottarga
“Oohh la la~” was the sound my mom made when she saw this plate heading to us. To her, this was the staple dish of the night (probably because she knows how expensive King Crab is).
BLANCA proved to be a deliverer of surprises – just when I thought the night was dwindling down, they picked it up with this salty and tangy combo. The vibrant yellow of bottarga mixed with butter not only looked appetizing, but it also brought together a perfect mariage with the springy crab meat.
Like a deep sea love story, the union of fish roe and King Crab was a beautiful scene to watch (and taste).
BLANCA has the friendliest staff and they were all eager to answer any questions regarding the food. Laughter often filled the room during dinner and made the dining experience very casual and warm. There was also a really amicable server of whom I couldn’t get a picture; he was the sweetest and most attentive man when it came to making our dinner enjoyable. My parents spoke a bit of English and often asked him to repeat his explanation of the food, and he was always patient and understanding with them. Good service is, in my opinion, what sets a great restaurant apart from a good one (as you will see in my review of Jean Georges NYC).
Fresh pizza bread with butter
I could smell the scent of freshly baked pizza dough from the other end of the long-stretched table. Mouth-watering was the torn bread, still steamy and crispy, served with home-made butter on the side. Upon first bite, I immediately realized how buttery and wheaty the bread tasted. The mixture of the two was overwhelming. I was reminded of BLANCA’s mother ship, Roberta’s pizzeria, and its bustling chaos outside our little peaceful shelter. As I was already getting full, I gave the rest of the bread to my dad again. My parents couldn’t be more happy to finish it; they never stopped expressing their delight with “ahh,” “yumm,” “mmm” as they ate it. I felt like the adult at the table.
Duck with beet molé
At this point during the night, I was amazed by the number of dishes on this tasting menu. It had already been 14 dishes! The duck was our 15th dish, and my-my, what a wonderfully piquant meat!
The duck had been roasted carefully; the skin was an appetizing colour of caramel; the middle layer of fat a creamy hue; the inside of the meat a beautiful rosy pink. I marveled at the chef’s ability to make a meat I rarely enjoy into something so delectable. The mulberry-colour beet molé complemented the duck’s luscious flavour, and added a bit of sweetness and depth to the dish.
Two slices weren’t enough to satisfy my greed. On the last piece, I chewed thoroughly and savored the pleasing richness of the best duck I’ve ever had.
Pineapple Sorbet with cilantro
Yet another curious combination at work here. The sorbet refreshed my mouth and cleansed any residual meatiness left by the duck. The chefs at BLANCA had a way with creating paintings using unexpected combinations of colours. Though astonishing, there was no disharmony between the pineapple and the cilantro juice, as if the two were meant to be eaten together.
Porchetta with chimichurri
BLANCA excels at cooking meat dishes more than anything else.
Roasted to utter perfection, the skin of the porchetta was golden-brown, crispy, and crunchy. Cooked with just the right amount of time and seasoning, the tender meat melted and gently embraced my tongue – I could only give in to its warm and hearty flavours. I tossed the second bite with some chimichurri and it was a completely different painting: the bold and potent taste of white vinegar, parsley, and lemon ameliorated the slight oiliness of the porchetta, and made the meat even juicier than before.
Sour Cream with cippollini
What is cippollini? Well, I am not sure myself. At the end of the meal, BLANCA gave us the menu of the day to jot down our memories, and this was how the dish was spelled on their little menu. My best guess is that cipollini onions were incorporated into this creamy paste, but do leave a comment if you know otherwise.
The sour cream was particularly smooth and refreshing, probably designed to cleanse lingering meat flavours. I did not taste anything that resembled the distinct flavour of onions; however, this restaurant was extremely good at masking certain flavours to create a completely unique one.
Coconut with white asparagus
The last dish of the ensemble was this silky and icy coconut dessert. It reminded me of a famous shaved ice dessert in Taiwan, called Mian hua bing/Shue pian bing (“cotton ice/snowflake ice”). Like this iced dessert, BLANCA’s last dish was soft, velvety, and fine.
On the bottom of the semifreddo laid a dollop of white asparagus cream. Rich but refreshing, the cream blended effortlessly with the tropical innuendo of the coconut. BLANCA thoroughly concluded dinner by bookending the first and last dish with green asparagus juice and white asparagus cream.
Despite having eaten 19 different dishes at this point, it wasn’t as satisfying as I might have expected. I wanted more. Not that the dinner wasn’t filling, it was, but the coconut semifreddo just didn’t give me enough punch or satiation. Like the sketches of Picasso, the last dish hovered and lingered without providing fulfillment. Perhaps it was intended for dinner to end with a need for more, a need for closure.
Marshmallow and truffle chocolate
Like many high-end restaurants, BLANCA also prepared these little sweets as an alternative ending. I rarely enjoy very sweet desserts, so when both of them proved to be extremely sweet after one tiny bite, I left them for my parents. They are not for me, but most people would appreciate them.
As I often have my tea without sugar, this light and aromatic tea with a hint of sweetness was much appreciated after a big meal. I couldn’t quite make out the exact flavour of the tea, but it smelled more Japanese than Western to me.
BLANCA provided a very interesting parting gift: their small menu of the night and handmade peanut butter from Roberta’s. The menu was extremely helpful in the writing of this review, partly because many dishes were made with ingredients I’ve never heard of. The peanut butter, on the other hand, was creamy and smooth, and more natural tasting than any other peanut butter I’ve had. And it came in a cute tiny jar.
BLANCA, Brooklyn http://www.blancanyc.com/
Spanish chef Ferran Adria once said: “How things taste is one of the most difficult things to put into words.” I hope this post, at least in some ways, made you feel closer to every dish of the night through the words and photos presented. Most people probably don’t have time to read such a long, in-depth review, but I write this for all the food enthusiasts out there who appreciate details and thoroughness 🙂
BLANCA is both a chef and food geek’s atelier. Miniaturist in nature, the tasting menu was a wonderful way to get to know the capacity of the restaurant and its chefs. The dishes served as art and called for self-reflection and attentiveness. Each plate added more colours to my palate, and painted infinite combinations of flavours. Although there were a few less favourable dishes, BLANCA was an eye-opening experience that would be remembered with a smile. Regional: 9.4/10; Worldwide: 8.9/10.