Friday, September 6, 2013

Blanca - Brooklyn, New York

"People take pictures of each other
Just to prove that they really existed."
A couple years ago, reports began to emanate of a second kitchen at Roberta's, a funky "third wave" pizzeria in deep Brooklyn. Roberta's chef Carlo Mirarchi was already turning out acclaimed pizzas. But this was something else - delicate fish crudos and composed dishes, "fantastical tales of aged birds and beef." Soon the mainstream media caught up, and word was out on these extremely limited edition tasting menus.

Demand ultimately led to a separate venue inside the Roberta's compound for these dinners, dubbed Blanca. Since opening about a year ago, Blanca has become known for a number of things: its artful, extensive, and expensive (currently $195pp) tasting menus; its extreme dry-aged meats program (not "fantastical" after all); its location in Bushwick (Roberta's is on a "grim street" in "basically a frontier community," according to Alan Richman, though Ruth Reichl didn't find it nearly so desolate recently); its extremely limited seating (12 spots, two seatings a night); its obtuse reservation "system" (since fixed);[1] and its no-photos no-cellphones policy.

Some of these are more important to me than others. I'll travel pretty far - even Bushwick[2] - and navigate a pretty tricky reservation system if there's something great to eat at the end of the ordeal. And as someone who started off this blogging venture with very ambivalent feelings about photography, I never really imagined that not being able to take pictures would have any impact on my enjoyment of a meal.

And yet I find myself now with ambivalent feelings about our meal a few months ago at Blanca, and I wonder if the no-photos policy has anything to do with it. I have vivid recollections of only a handful of the 20-ish courses we were served. Many others are only fuzzy vague memories; and some I don't recall at all.

Do people take pictures of their food just to prove that it existed? Does a dish no longer exist to me if I don't have a picture of it? Have I so externalized my own brain functions that I can no longer clearly remember something if I've not digitally recorded it somewhere? Or was it something else about the Blanca dining experience?

Here's what I do recall:

(continued ...)

When you book a reservation at Blanca, you check in first at Roberta's - which I'd never been to before. Roberta's feels like a house party. It's crowded, noisy and casual, with twinkle lights strung all around the room. We squeezed into the bar in the back and had a glass of a very nice biodynamic something or other. It occurred to me that I could have stayed right there and been very happy. After about fifteen minutes, the hostess tracked us down and led us through the outdoor tiki bar to the separate building that houses Blanca.

The paradigm shift is dramatic. Where Roberta's is dark, jumbled and raucous, Blanca is bright, austere and somber. A neutral shaded countertop lined with a dozen leather-clad captain's chairs makes an "L" around a spacious open kitchen. The walls are whitewashed cinderblock. The only decoration is a taxidermy bluefin tuna head jutting out from the far wall. A turntable near the entrance is spinning Dolly Parton at low volume.[3]

Mirarchi and his crew work methodically and silently as the hostess pours champagne. The champagne is followed shortly after by a generous dollop of caviar floating on a cloud of parsley root cream, the flavor of the roe's briny pop prolonged by the silky purée. And after that, it all gets kind of fuzzy.

I recall a sashimi plate composed mostly of a variety of silver-skinned fish, what the Japanese call "hikarimono" - sayori (needlefish), herring, and mackerel - with some geoduck for variety. Each had a different accompaniment - freshly grated horseradish and crisp apple are all I can recount. This plate was overtly Japanese, but the same minimalist Japanese aesthetic pervades much of the meal - most dishes offer only two or three components, sauces are sparingly applied, dishes mostly speak of their ingredients rather than the techniques applied to them.

I remember a tender filet of sea perch, topped with a fluffy egg sauce, with an intriguing dusting of black lime adding notions of both sour and smoke. I have slightly less clear memories of sweetbreads napped with a tangy lime purée, the offal done delicate and subtle instead of the more typical heavily sauced approach. Several other rounds made no lasting impression: my notes mention cardoons with lovage and kumquat, tofu in an apple broth with ramps, and an oyster with celery, but I can tell you nothing more about them.

The procession of pastas, though, are a highlight, each of them outstanding, and each one somehow better than the last. First, ravioli with a filling of oozing pine nut purée, dusted with black truffle. Next, a tangle of hearty, thick pici tossed in a squab ragu dense with a rich, gamy, almost ferrous goodness. As good as both of those are, they are overshadowed by the n'duja ravioli - the pillow of tender pasta encasing a filling of spicy porcine magic. It was one of the best pasta dishes I've ever had.

While the style of the meal bore a Japanese influence, the progression followed a more typically Western approach, with vegetable and seafood courses followed by pastas giving way to heavier meats. These were for the most part another high point. A duck which had been doted upon in various ways throughout most of the dinner service was finally carved and served, my plate getting a slice of breast, a hunk of the leg meat, and a nugget of pure crispy skin. Aging had concentrated the flavors of the meat; the cooking methods highlighted the perfect snap of the rendered skin. It was excellent.

So was the massive, well-aged sirloin which sat on the counter awaiting its fate for most of the meal like Checkhov's gun.[4] When finally seared and sliced and served (simply, with slivers of Asian pear and tangles of wild onion), it revealed an intense, complex mineral beefiness. A cube of burnished, crisp-edged beef fat was like a chef's treat that made it onto the customer's plate. A pork dish with licorice root which preceded the duck and beef was not at the same level, memorable primarily for the almost antiseptic mouthwash feel the licorice instilled.

Pre-desserts and desserts played among the boundaries between savory and sweet, starting with a carrot sorbet in a puddle of wheatgrass juice, and finishing with a hemp seed macaron, with a couple stops in between. I didn't particularly like any of them - not because I found the ingredients challenging, but rather because I found their execution somewhat clumsy - no real harmony to the composition, and lacking in textural contrast.[5]

On that note (and the coda of a roughly $500 bill for two people), dinner's over. There's no menu, either before, during or after the 20-ish course meal, instead just a whirlwind procession of plates and beverage pairings.[6] That credit card receipt will serve as the only memento (literally, a thing by which to remember) of the experience.

And though the kitchen crew is no more than ten yards away in this very consciously open kitchen, they choose not to interact with the diners at all during the entire four-hour service: every dish is presented and explained by the servers. It's not that the servers don't do a good job of it - they're friendly, engaging, knowledgeable and informative - but it's just kind of weird and uncomfortable.

Going back at least to Joel Robuchon's L'Atelier, many higher-end restaurants have adopted the counter / open-kitchen format, with several others in New York, including Momofuku Ko, Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, and Atera more recent adoptees.[7] Often it's a way of bridging the distance between those doing the cooking and those doing the eating, to create an atmosphere more like the intimacy of a sushi bar where food passes nearly directly from the cook's hands to the diner's mouth.[8] At Blanca there are no physical walls; but the invisible wall is palpable.

And it's this feeling of awkward discomfort - such a contrast to the warm, buzzed embrace of Roberta's - that, for whatever reason, is one of my most vivid memories of our dinner at Blanca. Maybe it's the absence of any pictures that makes me focus more on the overall zeitgeist of the meal, but I think the no-photos policy is just another symptom of the same thing: the feeling that the diners are being tolerated, but that their enjoyment isn't the primary point of the whole endeavor.[9]

It's too bad, because there is plenty to enjoy here. You can see and taste the incredible care the kitchen puts into the selection of the ingredients and their preparation. Maybe with just a fraction of that attention paid to the diners themselves, I'd have felt less ambivalent about our experience of it.
"People take pictures of each other
And the moment to last them forever
Of the time when they mattered to someone."

- The Kinks, "People Take Pictures of Each Other"

261 Moore Street, Brooklyn NY

Blanca on Urbanspoon

[1] When Blanca first opened it was entirely under the radar: people who had booked the Roberta's tasting menu were just walked over next door. When they let the cat out of the bag, they began taking reservations by telephone on the first day of each month for the entire month. Needless to say, the line was usually jammed. Still and yet, when we decided to go, I set myself a reminder to begin calling at 10am the first of the month. After a couple dozen auto-redials, I got through and was able to book for the day we wanted without any further fuss - far from the hardest booking I've ever made. They have now changed to an online reservation system through SeatMe that is perfectly transparent and easy to use.

[2] It's actually just a 15 minute taxi ride from Manhattan, or a slightly longer subway trip will put you within a block of the restaurant.

[3] For reasons I can't fathom other than hipster irony, Dolly Parton appears to be on high rotation at Blanca. It wears thin quickly.

[4] Pete Wells beat me to the Checkhov simile.

[5] Pastry Chef Katy Peetz has since left Blanca and was most recently involved in a pop-up dinner series at a cinema in Williamsburg with Max Sussman, another Roberta's alumnus. That is, when she wasn't making recipes for Weed Ice Cream. Ah, Brooklyn.

[6] After the meal, I frantically jotted down notes on my phone, knowing that memory might fade. Here's what I got:

I wish I could tell you more about the beverage pairings (wine and others, I seem to think there was both a sake and a cider somewhere along the line), which were both interesting and thoughtful, but there was only so much I could manage to capture in my notes, and trying to remember several wines on top of about 20 courses of food was a hopeless endeavor.

[7] Curiously, several - Ko and Brooklyn Fare, anyway - also have no-photos policies.

[8] It may also be a way of bridging the financial divide between front of house and back of house, where tipped employees often make several times what the salaried line cooks are paid. I believe many of those places also include a "service charge" which is distributed to both FOH and BOH, who are both involved in serving the customers.

[9] If it doesn't impact on other diners' experience (and though Blanca's setup is a communal dining counter, where annoying your neighbors could be a valid consideration, it's actually quite roomy and diners are far from right on top of each other), why should a restaurant limit how someone chooses to enjoy and memorialize a (significantly pricey) dinner? I've not found any official pronouncement on the reasons for Blanca's no-photo policy; anecdotally I've heard that it is so as not to "spoil" later diners' experience by giving too much of a preview (some have said they were permitted to take photos if they didn't post them publicly). If so, that is a pretty goofy justification: the major publications were permitted to take and publish photos for their reviews, anyone seeking out pictures obviously wants to see them, and the style of cooking is not one where presentation is paramount. I recall that during our first meal at Arzak in San Sebastian (a restaurant where presentation is a much bigger part of the experience), I was told the same thing by Juan-Mari Arzak; by the following year, even Papa Arzak had given up, and at least half the dining room was photographing their meal.


  1. It doesn't help you now, but Blanca's policy is (or was, in May '13) exactly the same as Momofuku Ko's: no phones, no pics, but you're allowed to jot down as many (handwritten) notes as you wish. Oddly enough, the servers are perfectly willing to write down or email the pairings.

    When Blanca first opened, they allowed photos but requested that guests not post them online. I don't know the exact reasoning for the no-post request but the current policy is a response to people doing what you'd expect them to do.

  2. The food is just as good at Blanca as it was when the tasting meals were done inside Roberta's, but it has lost the essential element of fun in the process of the move. Your post hit the nail on the head. Bravo!

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