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An Italian spin on sushi at Blanca
You can thank Mario Batali for introducing crudo to America back in 2000, when his seafood restaurant Esca debuted in New York City. But if it weren't for the countless Japanese sushi joints that opened our minds and primed our palates to eating raw fish, this Italian version of sashimi would've been DOA.
Instead, it has exploded into something of a culinary phenomenon, permeating the food scene of every major metropolis, with the exception of Orange County.
In an unmarked building overlooking Newport Harbor and in a room that's as white as Superman's Fortress of Solitude, Blanca is one of many restaurants in a planned blitzkrieg masterminded by the mysteriously named MOR Project. The man at Blanca's helm, executive chef Nicholas Weber, might be OC's first crudo specialist.
In truth, OC is no stranger to the delicacy, as diners here have already sampled it in one form or another. Michael Mina once did a crudo of scallop at his Stonehill Tavern, and one dish out of his current repertoire of tuna straddles the thin line between the European and the Japanese. You can even find some sushi chefs playing up their pseudo-crudo creations. At his South Coast Plaza restaurant, James Hamamori does sashimi that eschews soy sauce and wasabi for coarse sea salt, truffle oil and vinaigrette. Taste a piece, and you would have to conclude that it is crudo (but don't dare call it that in front of him).
So what is crudo, exactly? In its purest, most traditional sense, it's just fresh, raw fish, sliced thinly, drizzled with good olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and spritzed with lemon. But in the hands of gourmet alchemists such as Weber, the possibilities are endless, the results thrilling.
His Premium Scottish Salmon crudo, for instance, is adorned with oven-dried baby tomatoes, tarragon and Murray river salt. The bigeye tuna is topped with avocado, grapefruit gelée, puffed wild rice and coriander olive oil. To heighten kampachi's pink and milky flesh, Weber utilizes crunchy Hawaiian salt, lemon oil, and some basil sprouts and seeds.
In his albacore crudo, he incorporates Serrano ham to even better effect. The salty, thin-as-a-filament wafers of crispy pork join a spicy Espelette pepper sauce, gazpacho vinaigrette and parsley sprouts in topping five, bite-sized slices of fish. And, contrary to what you may think, none of it overpowers. All the notes work in unison, like a five-part harmony in your mouth.
But for the sea urchin, Weber exercises restraint and leaves it alone, save for a drop of olive oil, a drip of lemon juice and green onion. Each tiny, truffle-sized morsel melts into a sweetness reminiscent of runny egg yolk, which is cleansed by the lingering tang of the acid.
Plan on two plates of crudo per person if you're going to make a meal out of it, possibly more if you're feeling particularly ravenous. And if you can pry yourself away from crudo, delve into Weber's entrées—executed to varying degrees of success, but daring nonetheless.
The diver scallops are roasted to a crusty sear, served with marbles of potato confit, a grilled watermelon wedge, razor-thin slices of prosciutto and a pickled melon vinaigrette that ties it all together in a fruity embrace.
Our familiar friend, the Premium Scottish Salmon, is cooked "sous vide" (which means "boiled in a vacuum-sealed bag," for those who aren't Top Chef fans) and drenched in a foam that contains Cinzano, an Italian brand of vermouth. But despite the stuffed zucchini blossoms, and probably because of the ricotta gnudi (pillowy-soft nuggets of cheese that eat like gnocchi), the dish becomes too rich, too fast. You almost want to cry out for a lemon wedge, a lime from the bar, anything that can cut through the clout.
Weber's butter-poached lobster suffers the same fate. It's narrowly saved by early girl tomatoes—diminutive, but bursting with lip-puckering tartness. Unfortunately, the rest of the ingredients undo the good. The worst offender is the hot broth your waiter pours into the dish from a repurposed French press.
The other components—a dollop of basil aioli, a poached egg and the lobster—are submerged beneath the liquid. Before long, the egg breaks, the aioli dissolves, and what was once a clear consommé is now a murky, convoluted mess.
But the most lamentable thing about the dish isn't in its miscalculation; it's in how many more wonderful plates of crudo you could've ordered instead.
Blanca, 3420 Via Oporto, Newport Beach, (949) 673-0414; www.blancanewport.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Crudo plates, $9-$14; entrées, $26-$40. Full bar.