Dining At Carte Blanche Bistro & Bar
Contributing Writer & Photographer: Jordan Younis
Before I moved to San Diego, a friend told me to check out Oceanside. I’d never heard of this city he described as “a quintessential SoCal beach town,” but I figured I could trust a born-and-raised Southern Californian. “Just go check it out,” he said. “I know you’ll like it.”
Now I see why. From dreamy beaches, sun-washed streets and a historic arts and culture scene, Oceanside oozes classic SoCal charm and a palpable laid-back vibe. One of its more recent crowning attributes is its growing food scene.
Over the last few years, the city has emerged as a San Diego County food mecca. And it boasts more than just a myriad of taco shops and places to grab a cheap beer. Today, a growing mix of restaurants, breweries and coffee shops pepper Oceanside’s coastal highway. The emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, eclectic flavors and high-quality casual dining draws a crowd from all over San Diego, Orange County and even LA.
If “high-quality casual” is Oceanside’s culinary calling card, Carte Blanche Bistro & Bar is the embodiment of it. For the last few years, brothers Ryan and Brandon Ross and their father, Chuck Ross, were looking for the right spot to open a restaurant, with their sights set on fresh construction in North County where they could get creative and build from the ground up. When they found their spot, Chuck gave them “carte blanche” to create their original vision, and Carte Blanche Bistro & Bar came to life.
Situated at the entrance of the city’s iconic pier, Carte Blanche puts a unique French twist on Mexican cuisine (and sometimes vice versa). This concept is echoed in the restaurant’s decor too, which is some cross between a posh Mexican cantina and a French farmhouse. The white walls are splashed with vibrant, simply sketched cacti, flowers, suns, and the occasional goose. I guessed that the goose was merely a nod to French cuisine, but Brandon told me its more interesting origins. The brothers commissioned well-known muralist, Eric Junker, to create Carte Blanche’s mural art, which depicts an epic tale Eric created especially for the restaurant. The goose, so it goes, traveled from the desert in the east and across Carlsbad’s famous flower fields, ending at the pier in Oceanside where he threw a handful of flowers into the ocean. Sentimentalist that I am, this instantly adds to Carte Blanche’s charm.
Just beyond the front doors, an elegant couch-lined lounge area borders a 12-person bar, flanked by two additional seating areas with communal and individual dining tables and booths. Beyond that, the interior morphs into the exterior, with a bright patio that spreads out onto the side of the building. It has a lively yet relaxed atmosphere — the kind of place where guests want to linger and savor.
I sat down around 4:30, catching the lull before a bustling dinner service. My table (complete with a fire pit, I might add) was on the spacious, heated patio, which was the ideal set-up for chilly coastal evenings and pandemic safety. Even in that in-between hour, the place was busy with diners enjoying tequila-laced cocktails and dipping fried plantain strips into tomatillo-avocado ketchup. I followed suit, opting for the signature Margarita Oh Là Là, which I picked up myself at the bar. I watched as Seth, the head bartender, shook up my drink and then topped it with lilikoi-guava foam, which was so delicious I could have eaten it with a spoon for dessert. “It’s vegan”, Seth added. “If that matters.” I giggled and watched him meticulously place black flaked sea salt on top of the foam before sliding the finished product my way. Clearly a master of his craft, Seth served up a few other drinks throughout the night which featured a mix of Mexican and French-Caribbean elements. Next up for me was the sunshine-hued “Mexican Radio,” which incorporates rum, ancho chile, lime and mango. For my friend, Alison, he blended together rum, Aperol, passionfruit and pineapple to make the “Jets to Belize”.
“When we first started brainstorming the concept for Carte Blanche, we envisioned a modern take on Mexican cuisine,” Brandon tells me. The family knows Mexican: they’ve run traditional Mexican restaurants for the past 10 years and are at the helm of the company that operates Old Town institutions like Casa de Reyes, Barra Barra Saloon and the Cosmopolitan Hotel & Restaurant. “After a little while we decided we weren’t quite clicking with the concept and wanted to get more creative with it. We dug into the history of Mexican cuisine and culture more and learned about the rich history of French influence. This is where the idea sparked, and we ran with it.”
For the Ross family, finding Chef Alex Carballo was a star-aligning moment. A natural fit for leading the French-Mexican concept, he uses French cooking techniques combined with traditional Mexican ingredients to create unique dishes, in order to feel like a natural combination of the two cuisines.
This was reflected in the first dish I tried at Carte Blanche: duck mole tacos — the distinct marrying of a classic French protein with a Mexican staple. Brandon explained that the dish is created with what I’ve heard of as a “nose-to-tail” approach, where every part of the animal is used in some way. In the case of the tacos, the duck skin and meat are front and center as the filling, but even the bones, cartilage and other carcass parts of the animal are used to make a savory stock that give it its flavor and tenderness. This approach to cooking where nothing goes to waste is the essence of bistro-style cuisine, one Carballo weaves it into many Carte Blanche dishes.
What followed next were a few cold, shareable dishes. I chose a caesar salad, which is a far-from-typical order for me. I can’t pass up grilled greens when I see them on a menu though, and the slightly charred stalk of romaine piqued my interest. When I put in this order, our fabulous and friendly waitress, Kim, gave me a word of caution about the kick to the chili arbol caesar dressing and the anchovies scattered on top, but it was a go for me. Along with it, Kim dropped off the photo-worthy quinoa negra. She set down a plate with a generous smear of rosy pink ricotta beet hummus. On top of it stood a circular mound of black quinoa studded with herbs and edible flowers almost too pretty to eat.
The first hot entree or table dish came next. Now, I have to say that it’s almost impossible for me to choose a favorite out of the things I had that evening. Each dish was so different from the other, each with its own unique flavor profile. But seafood lover I am, the black cod was the winner in my book. I didn’t want to share it. Brandon explained that this fish that is commonly known as black cod is actually called sablefish. It sometimes goes by the alias “butterfish” which is more than fitting. Due to its high oil content, it is buttery soft, helped by the fact that it was cooked perfectly. Its mild flavor was complemented by braised leeks, herby chimichurri and jewel-toned roasted beets.
The night was rounded out by a third protein of the meal featured in the Mexican hot pot, which consisted of chicken bathed in saucy adobada broth. On the side were warm corn tortillas and a bundle of cilantro and epazote, a pungent almost medicinal-tasting herb I’d ever had before. An ideal plate for sharing, Brandon explained that we could fill the tortillas to make street tacos. So, we started with tacos and ended with tacos, and we did not complain.
Just as I was beginning to breathe again after being happily stuffed, Brandon dropped off a towering 23-layer crepe cake. My eyes widened. I was not too full for this, I decided, so I dug in. The cake consists of delicate crepes stacked one on top of the other with striations of hazelnut spread and cream holding them together. I could only muster a few bites, but make no mistake, the cake made it home with me and disappeared the next day.
It’s rare that dining out is memorable. But a dining experience should be memorable. More than that, it should be an experience. There are so many trendy places to eat in San Diego, so many places to get a fancy drink or an amazing taco. But Oceanside’s Carte Blanche truly surprised me. It’s the kind of place that inspires you to savor everything: the unique yet accessible food and drinks, the colorful atmosphere and the top-notch hospitality. I left thinking about what I was going to order the next time, how I need to take friends here who visit from out of town, how maybe next weekend I’d suggest a girls’ dinner up in Oceanside instead of our usual downtown spots. I left remembering the vacation-like feeling that permeates the whole place and the decor that momentarily transported me to somewhere far away yet familiar…
An experience. Luckily, you need look no further than Carte Blanche for that.
About the Writer & Photographer
Jordan Younis is a San Diego-based writer and photographer. She spends her days working in the world of biotechnology, but outside of work, you can find her doing personal writing projects, cooking, taking photos of food, local entrepreneurs and landscapes, and exploring the great outdoors. Connect with her on Instagram @jordanyounis.