In New York City, there are two kinds of upper-tier restaurants: those that give you dinner and those that give you dinner and a show. Blanca falls into the latter category. By which I mean that patrons not only get to try the most delicate and exotic of foodstuffs, they also get to watch the chefs crafting those ingredients into a 20-course tasting meal, while seated at a counter overlooking the kitchen "stage".
It's quite the show, and one with not a spatula in sight. Instead, the deadly serious cooking crew here move from station to station (with the type of concentration usually reserved for brain surgery), weilding an array of tweezers and pokers and gizmos, the oddest of which might be thin rod of metal which the head chef inserts into meats and then holds up to his lip to judge the temperature. "More accurate than a thermometer," he told me when I queried him after the meal. And much more dramatic, I'd add.
I'd also say that watching a chef methodically placing tiny microgreens onto a teaspoon-sized portion of fish, or delicately carving an entire duck, its mouth still stuffed with the cloth used to catch drippings as it aged for week, is a potent way to build culinary suspense. By the time the pasta the chef has been twirling in sauce for twenty minutes straight (a peppery lamb carbonara) hit the plate, I was ready to taste it. And it didn't disappoint. This might be grub assembled with tweezers, but the flavor profiles are oversized, whether you're chowing down on a citrussy plankton agnolotti; that duck with an exquisite mole sauce of beets, chocolate and coffee; or a glass shrimp with a pop of plum emulsion. The high-falutin' grub is balanced by hearty treats like puffed pizza dough with housemade butter and wonderfully tender pancetta (also made on site). Those going for the full blow-out, get the wine tasting to accompany the meal—really a liquor tasting here, which starts with a custom beer (the label has the faces of the Blanca's staff on it) and goes to ten more nips of everything from sake, to amaro, to a self-fermenting wine.
So how, overall, does Blanca measure up against Semilla and Brooklyn Fare, its two biggest competitors in the restaurant-as-theater genre? Well, Blanca is far less formal than Brooklyn Fare (where you'll get booted out if you show up without a coat and tie) though the chairs here are equally comfortable—important when you're sitting for two hours. At Blanca, you wait in the tiki bar of sister restaurant Roberta's before being led to a room that looks like it's only been set up temporarily. And the menu at Blanca is more protein-heavy than you'll get at the vegetable-centric Semilla, though it shares that restaurant's rakish, "let's-put-on-a-meal" aesthetic.
Which to pick? It's a toss up, but know that you'll have a genuine, only-in-Gotham feast at any of the three.
- Pauline Frommer