Chef Alex Carballo helms new French-inspired Mexican bistro in downtown Oceanside
Blending global cuisines is a decades-old concept, but not many restaurateurs have attempted combining the seemingly disparate flavors of France and Mexico. That’s what can happen when a father offers his two sons “carte blanche” to develop their own restaurant.
Carte Blanche Bistro & Bar, which opened Feb. 18 in downtown Oceanside, serves French-inspired Mexican food in a communal-style French farmhouse-style bistro. The 180-seat restaurant is the brainchild of siblings Ryan Ross, 35, and Brandon Ross, 31, who both work for their father, Chuck Ross, a 40-year veteran of the restaurant industry.
For the past decade, the Ross family has run the Old Town Family Hospitality Corp., which opened the Fiesta de Reyes dining/shopping complex and revitalized the Cosmopolitan Hotel & Restaurant in Old Town. Last year, Chuck sensed his sons were ready to learn the hardest part of the business: How to create and launch a new restaurant from the ground up and make it a success. Chuck found the location in Oceanside’s newly opened SALT luxury apartment complex, and he gave his sons a budget. They took it from there.
Ryan, who joined the family business nine years ago ago, said he and Brandon liked the idea of capitalizing on their experience in Old Town but with a surprise twist.
“We do Mexican well in Old Town, so we thought why don’t we evolve this to bring a modern, contemporary take to Mexican food?” said Ryan, who lives in Encinitas with his wife, Kristen. “What we’re doing here doesn’t scream French or Mexican. We hope it’s something new.”
Over the past three months, the brothers have worked closely developing the Carte Blanche menu with executive chef Alex Carballo, a San Diego native who calls himself a “French-trained chef who cooks Mexican food.” Carballo was initially brought in as a menu consultant. But after the brothers tasted one bite of the chef’s duck mole tacos, they convinced him to stay on full time.
“Brandon and I have been excited by the collaboration,” Ryan said. “We understand what a taco is, but Alex was phenomenal in knowing how to elevate it.”
Carballo said he, Ryan and Brandon pushed each other to develop unique menu items with layers and layers of flavor that are spice-forward but not too hot.
“It’s all about the seasoning,” Carballo said. “It can’t just be good. It’s got to be a wow.”
A favorite French-Mexican dish on the menu is the duck mole tacos, made with crispy duck confit, Oaxacan-inspired mole made with cherries and Mexican chocolate, pickled red onions, avocado creme and duck skin chicharrons. Another is the escargot tostada, made with pureed French snails cooked in cognac, Aperol, juniper berries and cumin and served with pureed potatoes on a tortilla fried in duck fat. Another favorite is the quinoa negra, a chilled appetizer of toasted black quinoa mixed with grilled chayote squash on a bed of ricotta beet hummus, grilled vegetables and lemon-thyme vinaigrette.
Instead of chips and salsa, customers can nibble fried plantain strips with tomatillo-avocado ketchup, a nod to France’s colonial history in the Caribbean and South America. And for dessert, there’s a 28-layer Mexican chocolate crepe cake, a pot de crème made with Mexican coffee and a French tart with dulce de leche ice cream. At the bar, lead bartender Seth Marquez, formerly of Campfire and Clara, has crafted fruit juice-infused cocktails made with Mexican spirits and French liqueurs, like the French margarita made with tequila and Cointreau foam.
Carballo also runs the kitchen with the ethos of a French bistro, which uses every part of its ingredients, like the duck tacos, which feature the duck skin and meat, as well as the bones, which are cooked down for stock.
Brandon, who joined the company seven years ago, said he doesn’t like using the word “fusion” for the menu because that word has a negative connotation and it sounds pretentious. With its hands-on food, shared-plates menu, affordable prices — most dishes are in the $11 to $14 range — and comfortable decor, the Ross family wants Carte Blanche to become a neighborhood hangout rather than stuffy special-occasion spot.
“Our family is very food-centric and the way we spend our holidays is eating great food together in an unpretentious, comfortable setting where we share everything. We wanted to weave how we like to eat into the menu here,” said Brandon, who also lives in Encinitas, with his wife, Alexis.
The 4,200-square-foot restaurant’s decor is eclectic and international, with three separate customer “zones,” including a traditional dining room, a lounge area with a 12-seat bar, two 14-seat communal dining tables and couches, and a dog-friendly patio. The restaurant’s mascot is a chubby and contented goose, who appears on some of the share plates, windows and walls. Brandon said the hand-drawn cartoon goose — a protein steeped in French cuisine — represents the restaurant well.
“The goose is fun, relatable and relaxed,” he said. “That’s how we hope people will see this place.”
Carte Blanche Bistro & Bar
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. daily. Brunch and lunch will be added in the coming months
Where: SALT Complex, 339 N. Cleveland St., Oceanside; underground parking is $3 for two hours
Phone: (760) 231-5370