Restaurants shoot to the top of our wish list these days via hushed word of mouth, like underground clubs, cult sneakers and hot IPOs. A certain class of gastro-groupie collects eating experiences like Foursquare badges—the more impossible the entry, the bigger the score. They beg, borrow and steal, looking for a way to get in, scouring Craigslist for a ticket to Next in Chicago, calling in favors for that special dinner in the East Village at Ko. But is it really worth all the trouble, time and expense?
At Blanca, the new tasting-menu restaurant from the team at Roberta’s in Bushwick, the answer’s not quite as straightforward as you might think. This modern white box, in the pizza joint’s asphalt garden, serves a $180-a-head, 25-to-31-course menu that might be the single most impossible reservation in town, available on 12 stools at a counter just four nights a week. Variations on that same exorbitant feast have been the hot get for more than a year now, served inside Roberta’s to only two tables a week. Now that it’s shifted to its own stand-alone venue, the waiting list to try it—once as long as six months—has started to move.
Given the price and format of dinner at Blanca, you might expect to be challenged, delighted and knocked off your feet. But the pleasures are much more quiet than that. Tasting menus this ambitious, in fact, are rarely quite so low-key. There’s a real grace to the simple pursuit of perfection on display, in one lovely course after another, from the restaurant’s vast showcase kitchen.
Roberta’s chef Carlo Mirarchi, a self-taught prodigy with natural talent to burn, knows when to go wild and when to hold back. You won’t find a single extraneous element on his sparsely constructed and elegant plates, edited down to their bare essentials.
The finest ingredients are brought to life with just a few complementary notes—a streak of sauce here, a foraged leaf there. The raw materials alone are worth the price of admission, an introductory dollop of caviar with goat’s-milk granita setting the luxurious tone. There’s geoduck to follow, several courses in, the sweet giant clam—pricey as platinum—served in raw nickels atop a smidgen of ripe Tuscan melon (a super-deluxe cantaloupe strain). The briniest San Diego sea urchin melts into the creamiest soft tofu in town, with lemony gremolata and sea rocket scrounged from a tristate-area beach.
Mirarchi, wielding a maple-handled Japanese knife, slices through raw and cured seafood like a sushi sensei, sending out pristine slivers of striped jack, with chrysanthemum leaf adding a peppery bite, on one plate; and creating another of smoked bonito with purslane and cured sardine with pickled pepito cucumber. From these very subdued aquatic beginnings come punchier tastes: a soft-shell crab claw on a slip of savory yogurt, a sweetbread nugget as crunchy as extra-crisp KFC, whisper-thin Wagyu in an evanescent carpaccio topped in terrifically musty shaved summer truffles.
The uncommonly versatile chef plays with order and pacing, fending off the fatigue of a long meal—dinner runs to three hours at least—by alternating between potent and mellow plates, back and forth between seafood and meat. Halfway in there’s a pasta-course intermezzo, three plates of handmade sauced and stuffed shapes: perhaps a few garganelli quills with braised goat ragù—the lineup changes all the time—or a single fat raviolo hiding a spicy surprise of liquid nduja (it’s like a pepperoni soup dumpling).
Mirarchi and his chefs move through the kitchen as quietly and deliberately as monks. A whole golden bird, a top-shelf Sasso chicken, emerges from an upright oven. Three or four courses later it’s portioned for 12—there’s just one seating a night—in delicate slivers surrounded by meaty porcini and zingy red currants. A hunk of aged Wagyu, fat as the Oxford English Dictionary, has been tantalizing on the counter all night. And then there it is on the plate, in a couple of glistening slices—paired with roasted hearts of palm and sweet-tart vincotto—a gutsy conclusion to the meal’s savory run.
The desserts are as pure and clean as everything else here. A refreshment of strawberry soup with sorrel granita softens the palate, and then something rich, fudgy gianduja, say, with a smooth semifreddo intensely flavored with cherries, amps it back up.
After dozens of courses, don’t be surprised to find you’re more sated than stuffed. The tasting menu at Blanca, more of a long walk than a marathon, won’t leave you breathless or crying uncle. The most gluttonous meals these days tend to earn the most bragging rights, but dinner at Blanca doesn’t leave you with a tale of endurance to tell. Just come and enjoy. Sometimes that’s all it’s about.
Eat this: Tasting-menu highlights include soft-shell crab with yogurt, geoduck with Tuscan melon, creamy tofu with sea urchin, Wagyu carpaccio with summer truffles, an nduja raviolo, and Sasso chicken with porcini and currants.
Drink this: For a meal of this length, the beverage pairing (starting at $85), featuring beer, wine, spirits and sake, makes the most sense.
Sit here: All 12 stools at the counter offer the same vantage point of the chefs in the kitchen at work.
Conversation piece: The enormous bluefin tuna head that hangs on a wall is all that remains of a 700-pound fish caught by the owners of the Meat Hook in Williamsburg (and given as a gift to the chef here).
By Jay Cheshes