By Marisa Marsey
Dining is theater; everyone plays a role. There are settings, choreography, presentations. Open kitchens bring backstage to center. But most folks rarely see preproduction; the late-night set-building and rehearsals leading to the invitational dress rehearsal (for restaurants, they’re called “friends and family night”). And before all that, the read-through: the seminal point when players come together for the first time to go through the script line by line. Ice is broken, past gigs compared, connections uncovered.
Chef-owner Courtney White of Blanca Food + Wine, a dot of a spot in Riverview, conducted such a gathering for her team one rainy Sunday evening a few weeks before her Euro-stoked bistro’s scheduled October 9 debut. She wanted them to get acquainted with each other and Blanca’s essence through its food (more eat-through than read-through). Let’s cut in…
“Guys, I’m so happy you could join us,” White says, looking out over the kitchen counter-cum-bar, her sous chef Emily Meyers at her side. “Is everyone here?” a server asks, turning her head to count six in the petite space – another server besides herself, one more cook and general manager Dylan Powell huddled together facing the chefs. “Shawn the dishwasher had to go to Richmond,” White shares. “Zach couldn’t make it either.”
Amidst animated chatter, White and Meyers produce dishes in rapid-fire succession. Duck with muscadine grapes and red wine comes first. For today, its communal – one plate, multiple forks. This group will be a family, after all. Phones click for social media pics and reference. The duck disappears in a flash, a heaping bowl of mussels with pistou emerges.
White’s exuberance is palpable. She’s dreamt of her own restaurant ever since fourth grade when she dressed as a chef for “Colonial Craft Day” at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy.
“What’s pistou?” someone asks. White details what goes into the garlicky Provençal sauce. It’s emblematic of Blanca, an American spin on the kind of tucked-away inn with an oft-changing menu, driven by the seasons and the chef-owner’s whims, you’d serendipitously happen upon on a single-lane French country road. In one taste, the questioner comprehends pistou.
White cooked at Charleston’s Chez Nous and other notable establishments including a couple Michelin-starred restaurants: cloistered Osteria del Vicario in Tuscany and Rebelle in New York City (“I bopped around a lot!” she says). She wants to expand her crew’s culinary horizons, just as her mentors did for her. When hiring, she asked candidates to describe their last memorable meal.
Between bites of a salad bristling with radicchio and escarole, toasted walnuts, shaved pecorino and red onions, she shares with them that she’s weighing making focaccia against buying a really good baguette.
“Try this,” she says, unwrapping focaccia leftover from a booth she and Meyers had manned hours before at Riverview Days (“I think I misspelled it on the sign,” White confesses. “Don’t judge.”) The room buzzes with mmmmms.
“A lot of people in the neighborhood said they’re really excited about our opening,” says Meyers. With mainstays like the French Bakery and Mary Barnett’s across the street, the crew embraces the culture surrounding their new home.
“I’m super excited to be here,” gushes server Sara Bray. “It’s so intimate.”
And quirky. The only truly enclosed space is the bar (awaiting its white and gray quartz countertop) with a couple high-top tables and several bistro stools facing the open kitchen – coveted front row seats. A temperature-controlled tent envelops the 30-seat dining room. “There will be a good flow between the two spaces, giving guests a sense of connectivity,” envisions Powell.
Today, it’s still a work-in-progress. But the recently-hung chandelier alludes to the funky elegance to come. There’s an outdoor area, too, draped with greenery for a courtyard effect.
The dream taking shape, White admits to opening night butterflies. Understandable, between late-arriving equipment and an upcoming health inspection, stuff even hard-boiled restaurateurs sweat.
“Dumber people than you have opened restaurants,” a Charleston chef-pal consoled her via a long-distance pep talk. White is an alumnus of the University of Virginia and New York’s French Culinary Institute, including a program in Emilia-Romagna. Along with Italian and French influences, a recent trip through Spain persuaded her to include Iberian inclinations. Blanca, her surname in Spanish, honors her father and her mother, a Spanish teacher.
“Em, you nailed the pasta,” White praises her sous chef, as the group polishes off a bowl of spaghetti al limone. Ecstasy erupts when they bite into fried eggplant with honey, mint and a jolt of peppers, a dish White encountered at a tapas bar in Madrid.
Over trout with espelette (a Basque pepper) brown butter, Dee Dee Shiver, who’s about to graduate from TCC’s culinary program, asks: “Could we finish this in the oven?” Meanwhile, the front of the house debates uniforms. Khakis or jeans? White or blue shirts?
“We want to be approachable,” says Powell. “I don’t want all black, no long bistro apron. Too stiff.” He’s written a classic cocktail list and will be pouring from a small, thoughtful selection of predominantly Old World wines.
Server Sierra Corso asks if she may use the restroom. “I mean are they functional?” she clarifies. They are. Their location, across the patio, hint at the structure’s past life as a filling station, before incarnations as The Bent Fork Grill and Barking Dog.
Returning, Corso asks: “Courtney, what’s that framed napkin in there?”
“I’m sentimental,” White admits, referring to her dad’s scribbling: Blanca 7-20-2018. “It’s from the day we signed the lease, we popped the champagne. We’d been going back and forth for so long.” Although her dad thought she was crazy the first time he saw the place, the dedicated parking lot in back was a clincher.
“Tell me what you think of this,” White says, spooning chocolate mousse and crème fraîche into Nick & Nora coupes, named for Dashiell Hammett’s sophisticated sleuths. “At a restaurant called King in New York City, I was obsessed with the way they served sorbet in these sexy little glasses.”
“Retro!” someone remarks while White contemplates tweaking the texture. “Texture, schnexture, it’s chocolate!” declares a server.
As they clean up, White breathes a sigh of relief. “This has been calming,” she says. “I can do it in this space, and I have good people around me.” Curtain – and order – up!
4117 Granby St., Suite A, Norfolk. 757-390-2405. Dinner Tues.-Sat. facebook.com/blancafoodandwine
Got restaurant, food or beverage news? Contact Marisa Marsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.