Masterful Modern American Cooking in a Secluded, Soulful Space
On my second stormy night in New York, I took my second trip to Brooklyn for what undoubtedly promised to be a memorable meal. Feeling much like I imagine those who walk through the Ginza subway station to find Sukiyabashi Jiro, I arrived in front of a decidedly unglamorous brick building in search of Blanca, a two Michelin star chef’s counter tucked away inside the buzzing, grungy Bushwick pizzeria Roberta’s. After navigating a line of a half-dozen patrons braving the two-hour wait for one of the restaurant’s cult pizzas, I checked in and was told to take “two lefts and right” to get to the pizzeria’s outdoor tiki bar where I would be “collected.”
There–the rain pattering on all sides of the sturdy white tent like the pounding of pizza dough–I dropped $11 on a plastic cup filled with a mix of craft beer and house-made cantaloupe purée and carefully sipped while I waited watching college football on a grainy television set. Five minutes passed, ten minutes. The “cocktail” was far better halfway down, the melon juice wonderfully sweet. The e-mail said to arrive at 7:45 because the first plates would go down at 8:00 on the dot. It was now 7:52. Had I heard the hostess wrong? Did I look like a fool waiting outside in my suit–alone–with the throngs of Brooklynites just imbibing before their pies were ready?
Nothing makes for a memorable dinner like a bit of fear and uncertainty. At 7:53, a neatly dressed man picked me out of the tiki bar’s crowd: “Blanca?” I followed him from covering to covering, the deluge doing its best to ruin my hair with every couple seconds’ exposure, until I reached the Promised Land. It was the antithesis of Roberta’s and the charmingly unpretentious outdoor tent: white, clean, crisp, bright, and bubbling with excitement over the movements of the attentive staff. As the Beastie Boys hummed on the restaurant’s record player, I was led to my seat, served a glass of sparkling cider, and greeted with a note: “Welcome, Paul! We’re looking forward to cooking for you!”
Unlike other chef’s counter experiences I’ve had in New York, there is a much clearer division of labor among the staff: the three cooks present that evening were assiduously focused on composing the dishes–torching, tweezing, and tasting–while two hostesses and a runner attended to the service aspect. It’s unclear whether chef Carlo Mirarchi’s absence had a role to play in this, but, nonetheless, the servers injected enough of a personal touch on their own while the kitchen kept a steady pace through all twenty courses.
Just as I finished soaking in proceedings, the twelve of us dining at Blanca that evening were formally welcomed and presented the first dish of the night: glass shrimp marinated in plum with a sprinkling of poppy seed on top. Though this scavenger variety of shrimp is usually purchased to help clean aquariums, the slightly blushing pink meat, benefitting from dark fruit’s juices, had all the sweetness and luscious mouthfeel of a delicate spot prawn. The poppy seeds were also a pleasant surprise and added just a touch of crunch along with their distinctive nuttiness.
Though the counter’s cuisine is multifaceted and global, there are nice touches of Mirarchi’s paternal Italian roots throughout the menu, the first of which, a glistening, gossamer-thin slice of house-cured pancetta, arrived next. The bite wasn’t just meltingly fatty and salty as all great cured meats are, but showed Blanca’s real connection–despite a clear mastery of more advanced techniques–to simple, fundamentally good things. There’s something bold but romantic about such an unfussy course standing proudly alongside the rest of the menu’s offerings, and, two courses in, I felt like I caught a glimpse of the restaurant’s soul.
From pancetta to eggplant: specifically, a baby eggplant “ceviche” with burnt eggplant purée. The striking char on the aubergine intensified the natural, bitter flavors. Nonetheless, the crunch of red onion and acidity of the citrus cleansed the palate and helped draw out hints of sweetness. A wonderfully complex dish that paired well with the champagne.
In what was perhaps the most elegant plating of the night, three sunflower seed specked orbs of watermelon adorned a blanket of shaved foie gras. Cooling and sweet, the melon yielded to the rich smoothness of the pillowy foie, which melted on the palate to combine with the fruit’s juices. The crunch of the sunflower seeds added a nice textural contrast along with a touch of salt and nutty depth in what was, in all, an elegant composition.
After a lovely bite of warm wagyu carpaccio dipped in horseradish smoked yogurt arrived yet another intriguing use of fruit: a garbanzo bean soup paired with green strawberry juice and huckleberry. Though visually not quite as inspiring as the use of melon, the humble dish amazed me, starting light and tangy from the berries but shifting towards the warm, comforting bean purée on the finish. If only they had filled that bowl to the brim.
Many of my friends hold an aversion to baby corn, citing a sort of “strangeness” in texture or looks or fundamental existence, but I adore the crunch of cornlettes and will often double or triple their amount in my recipes. With this in mind, my ears perked up and saliva started flooding my mouth when I heard the couple next to me receive their dish right before me: Mexican baby corn treated like elote, that is, grilled in its husk and garnished with a sprinkle of Calabrian chili and a squeeze of lime. Crunchy, a bit spicy, and incredibly clever overall, the dish was so captivating that I swallowed a fair bit of husk just to confirm to myself that I hadn’t bypassed a single, miniscule kernel.
An excellent sweet and salty bite of sunchoke purée and honeycomb paved the way for what would be a mesmerizing sequence of three handmade pastas (and one of the most memorable dining progressions I’ve experienced). First arrived a few forkfuls of bucatini all’Amatriciana with lamb, sun-dried tomatoes, and shaved Pecorino Romano. No gimmick, no novelty, just sublime, al dente noodles, a little gamey meatiness, and a wonderful acid from both the sauce and the tomato garnish that stayed on my tongue for what must have been minutes.
Following the punch of the bucatini, something a bit more nuanced and unusual: three agnolotti filled with–of all things–plankton. Though far more subdued, the, again, wonderfully chewy pasta unleashed a subtle sea flavor that helped accentuate the dish’s texture all the more.
The last of the pasta trio took a step back towards the adventurous side with a ravioli of Andouille sausage. Bursting with spice–but with an al dente structure as good as ever–the singular bite turned up the heat just right while being careful not to overwhelm.
The cheese selection, which–according to the hostess–changes in some small form every day, was an intriguing mix of wet fresh cheese with onion powder, burnt fava beans, and wild greens. Though a bit watery on the palate and predominantly bitter, the beans helped round the flavors out and stoke my hunger for the final array of savory dishes.
The first of these: a crowd-pleasing chunk of steamed, sweet Alaskan king crab with rich bottarga butter made from cured and salted fish roe. I’d never tried the roe on its own, but it made for a slightly thickened, decadent butter with just the amount of salt and sea flavor to help elevate crab that would have delighted even on its own.
In what I can claim was a bread course to rival even Semilla’s excellent sourdough, Blanca’s gave a cheeky nod to the pizzeria outside and served up warm crusts of bubble-spotted Roberta’s pizza dough. Though paired with a knob of tangy cultured butter, the chewy, flaky dough’s appearance in itself was a nostalgic and joyous occasion during the dinner. The knowing smiles on the diners’ faces revealing how even a restaurant’s humble bread selection can forge a much larger shared moment.
The first dedicated meat dish came late but had been staring at diners as it rested in the kitchen for most of the meal: a carved whole duck portioned out into two medallions per diner and served with a cube of cantaloupe and dollop of beet mole. The fowl was cooked to a stunning pink hue but in no way sacrificed an audibly crunchy and well-rendered skin. The seductive mole offered perhaps the biggest burst of spice on the menu that evening, but transitioned into a bit of sweet beet flavor that combined with the melon to refresh the tongue just a quickly as it shocked it.
A pineapple and cilantro sorbet brought a clean, tart break to the action but was, overall, uneventful. Nonetheless, it cleared the palate one more time before the menu’s final savory dish arrived: a spin on porchetta served with a chimichurri and grilled okra. Like the duck before it, Blanca’s pork roast combined glistening, tender flesh with a superlative crust. The chimichurri had less spice to it than the beet mole but brought a great bite of garlic and herbaceous backing to the dish that complemented the salted meat. The bit of okra on the plate, though almost negligible among the stronger flavors, did offer a little extra crunch once all the porchetta’s skin was quickly consumed.
The shift to dessert came by way of more typically savory flavors. First, a sourdough ice cream with tomato and black wine that might not sound very sweet but spun the hearty sourdough flavor and acid of the fruits into a satisfying frozen treat. Second (and the last of the evening), frozen coconut cream with white asparagus. Far more subtle than the ice cream, the dish was mild and refreshing if unexciting. Yet given how often Blanca shifted between sweet and savory flavors throughout the twenty courses–frequently and artfully combining them–the desserts as best considered as part of the larger, continuous menu than two isolated expressions.
As the rain–I imagine–pounded unrelentingly for the duration of the meal (it sure was yet again on my departure), I might as well have been in a completely different world. Blanca offered me one of the year’s most memorable meals not through the intricacies of service or presentation, but through a clear respect for ingredients and the excellence of traditional preparations. Some of the preparations were, indeed, quite the spin on the classic, but the team never abandoned a certain nostalgia and recognizable reference point. It’s a difficult line to tread–and one that Ferran Adrià talks endlessly about–but creates cuisine that surprises without abandoning its soul.
Date Visited: 9/12/15