1132 Loma Avenue, Coronado
Breathe a sigh of relief: It’s not your grandma’s Chez Loma anymore. The lovely, long-running Coronado bistro has sprung back to vivid life with new owners who quietly took it over two years ago. This is cause for rejoicing, because during its final five or six years, under the previous chef-owner (who was distracted by his other eateries), the food at this charming, civilized restaurant often plunged into dangerous sloppiness, while the front-of-the-house staff exhibited a cultish fortress mentality. (At my first meal there, the mussels were alarmingly stinky. At my second and last try, two years later, the bagna’s olive oil was blatantly rancid; when I asked for butter instead, the waiter got hinky and brought a frozen, equally rancid block of some unidentifiable rendered critter fat.) So good riddance to all that (including the waitrons, all replaced). Service is user-friendly, food is much improved. Ring in the new regime.
Better yet, there are several fine three-course bargain meals at various price levels, including a nightly “early bird” special (5:00–6:00 p.m.) for $25 that’s available all evening on Tuesdays. Every night, there are also $38 and $45 prix-fixe menus. In all of these, the dishes are drawn from the à la carte menu (although sometimes with the substitution of a simpler sauce). And the interesting, merciful wine list (mainly $30–$35) also helps one enjoy life even with post-holiday budget blues.
The bistro occupies a historic Victorian cottage a few blocks north of the Del hotel. At the front porch you’re greeted by delicious cooking aromas — it’s like visiting Grandma’s house. The decor is warm and cozy in the mode of O.B.’s Thee Bungalow, with two small, cozy dining rooms of well-spaced tables on two floors. The night we ate there, the sound system softly played Lady Day all evening. Perfect. (Piaf would work too — sisters under the skin.)
The bread still comes with a bagna (olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, et al.), but when one of my friends asked for butter, she was accommodated graciously and quickly. About 70 percent of the menu is carried over from the 30 years of previous regimes — old favorites remain from generation to generation. Our foursome chose the $25, $38, and $45 prix fixes and one à la carte meal. They were all equal in quality. (If anything, the $25 dinner was the best.)
On the early dinner menu, one starter choice is the soupe à l’oignon — a Normandy-style onion soup. Normandy is France’s apple-growing region, so the soup includes cider — and what a grand difference it makes. Where classic onion soup gains a certain rooty sweetness from caramelized onions alone, the cider adds a vibrant fruity dimension to the deep, dark broth. The top comes capped by the classic baked Gruyère cheese crouton. It’s pure pleasure. (And usually I don’t even like onion soup.)
Another starter choice from this menu is the house Caesar salad. If you love anchovies (as I do), you’ll enjoy the bountiful array of oil-packed fillets along with whole romaine leaves, shaved Parmesan, and croutons of toasted fougasse bread. The dressing (which includes a touch of pasteurized egg yolk) seemed a bit on the light side, closer to a vinaigrette than the classic Caesar but still enjoyable.
For our entrée on this menu we chose canard rôti, a generous portion of half a roast duck, flawlessly cooked with crisp skin and tender meat in every part, breast to drumstick. The bird came with herbed rice, Provençale vegetables, and two traditional sauces, both sweeter than I’d wish: a cherry–port wine sauce and a burnt orange sauce. Well, that’s tradition.
Other early dinner options are boeuf bourguignon and saumon saifort, the latter with a light, bright horseradish crust, my favorite dish here under the ancien régime. I’ve no doubt that it’s still wonderful, since everything else we ate was at least as good as, and usually better, than it was in olden times.
On the $38 menu, we chose the château sirloin steak entrée — Angus (USDA Choice) beef, grilled, served with bordelaise sauce, blue cheese butter, and gratin potatoes. The sauce is the Julia Child classic — sautéed shallots, red-wine reduction, lots of butter beaten in to thicken it. It’s simple, rich, satisfying. (The à la carte version comes with a heavier, more elaborate espagnol sauce.) The meat is a bit chewy (at least compared to steakhouse Prime grade) but has good beef flavor.
The $45 prix fixe starts with a difficult choice of tempting appetizers: lobster bisque or saumon fumé, rum-smoked salmon tartare over brioche toasts with avocado crème fraîche. (The restaurant smokes whole sides of salmon.) The tartare sounded more spectacular than it tasted: The cubes of cured salmon met with no perceptible sign of avocado, alas. Without much sauce to unify the dish, it seemed to lack concentration and purpose — chopped gravlax with attention deficit disorder. We didn’t try the bisque. Since there are no lobster entrées on the menu to provide spare parts (like swimmerets), along with fresh shells, I knew the stock would be made from frozen empty lobster shells and separately packaged lobster meats of some sort. One can make a good bisque with those ingredients but rarely a great one.
For the entrée, we chose flétan grillé “Oscar” — pan-seared Alaskan halibut served with asparagus, crab, and béarnaise sauce. This dish was carried over from the past. The “Oscar” garnishes were originally designed to go with veal, but I was willing to try them with fish — why not? Ultimately, I didn’t think they suited the halibut, which seemed aloof from the crowd. The crab, unexpectedly, wasn’t loose crabmeat in sauce but a thin crab cake crowning the top of the fillet like a miniature party hat on a compliant bulldog’s head. The sauce thinly coated the plate, not the fish. The asparagus sat on the side of the plate like an innocent bystander. I might like the dish better if everything (especially the sauce) were piled right on top of the fillet. Mild-mannered halibut doesn’t need protection from additional flavors, it needs all the help it can get.