The alternate choice on the $45 prix fixe is fillet mignon with black truffle butter and red-wine sauce, with garlic-roast potatoes. Although rib-eye eaters may consider that tender cut milquetoast, it’s a favorite of the chef’s wife and co-owner, and those garnishes do sound alluring.
The à la carte appetizer list is a parade of enticements. There’s a house-made duck liver pâté; escargots with prosciutto in a puff pastry shell; scallops over pea coulis; and Mussels Provençales with fennel and white wine. But I arrived with my heart set on the crêpe de homard, filled with Maine lobster and mascarpone in a white-truffle carrot emulsion. It was…not as expected. Most of the flavor came from chopped green asparagus and the thick, vegetally sweet carrot sauce that surrounded the crêpes. Inside them — was there some lobster there? Sort of. It’s frozen lobster meat, which is a large step up from the awful vacuum-extruded “knuckle meat” of many local restaurants, but the freezing seems to have sapped much of the flavor and texture.
A steak tartare needs rethinking (and the owners are rethinking it even as you read this). The menu describes it as “smoked raw filet mignon,” but it’s no longer raw after its turn in the smoker, merely bits of cooked beef running around loose on the plate. It’s not lush, not sinful, not risky like true tartare — in fact, not really anything.
For the à la carte entrée I chose cassoulet de mer, precisely because this dish was god-awful when I tried it under the previous owner — the repository of the evil, stinky mussels, not to mention undercooked white beans with too much crunch on the surface and hard, dry cores. Glad to say — Come on in, the mussels are fine now, and so are the beans! (The new owners get seafood deliveries more often and dump old seafood readily rather than poison their customers.) The dish was probably invented as a local response to a New York food fad of the late ’80s, pairing lobster with beans. Here, it’s not lobster but sea scallops, mussels, shrimp, and salmon, all very tender, in lobster sauce, covered with a fluff of cornbread crumbs. “I can’t taste the seafood under all this frou-frou,” beefed one of my companions. And I couldn’t taste any lobster flavor in the lobster sauce. Oddly enough, I enjoyed the remains of the dish more at home the next night, gently reheated, and found myself appreciating the flavorful bits of onion and tomato mingling in the shells with the mussels. I even enjoyed the fluffy topping. (I still couldn’t taste any lobster.) The beans were now cooked soft all the way through, as they should be, so they properly took a supporting role to the seafoods, instead of horning their way to center stage.
Other interesting possibilities include poulet de foie gras, a flavorful Shelton chicken breast, grilled and topped with foie-gras butter and Madeira-mushroom sauce, and a balsamic-marinated rosemary rack of lamb that the new chef-owner has brought to the menu. Weekends bring original specials.
By dessert, our appetites were sated, but since we had three prix-fixe dinners, we were entitled to three sweets and couldn’t say no. A fine gingerbread was somewhat obscured by a generous pour of caramel sauce on top. (Now, that’s a dish where I’d rather have the sauce pooled on the plate.) A fallen chocolate soufflé was very dark and properly airy. Since we still had some tasty Côte de Rhone in our glasses, we went for the cheese plate (an extra $2 on the prix fixes — pocket change). The cheeses were ordinary but delicious — a good, gooey Brie, a blue, and a mild Fontina.
Coronado Island is hardly a normal neighborhood, with its million-buck three-bedroom houses, but Chez Loma (barely 12 minutes from the ghastly Gaslamp) has restored its street cred as anybody’s neighborhood restaurant, regardless of where you live. With Valentine’s Day coming up in a few weeks, it’s also a rather romantic destination. If it’s not quite flashy enough for Gaslampish trendy daters or a swain with a big diamond ring in his pocket, it could be just right for steadies, marrieds, or cohabitators, as well as friends looking for a pleasing night out with good company, good food, and good conversation.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Lars and Carolyn Sjostrand bought Chez Loma, the first restaurant they’ve owned. “We’ve both been in the restaurant business a long time,” says Carolyn. She’s the pretty blonde who works the front of the house, as hostess or waitress, while Lars is the chef. “My husband started out as a breakfast cook when he was 16, working in the same little place that his mom was a waitress, up in Huntington Beach. Then he moved to the front of the house, since there’s a little bit more money in the front. And I started out as a hostess in a Mexican place when I was 16. He worked for Las Brisas in Laguna Beach for a while, and then we moved up the valley and I worked at Hula Grill, which is the same chain as Jake’s up in Del Mar. And then I moved back here. I met my husband when I was on vacation in Hawaii. He was working at Duke’s, which is also part of the chain. I moved there and managed Keoke’s, on the south side of the island. We moved back here about six years ago, I worked at Pacifica, he worked as a bartender at Jake’s and En Fuego.
“About three years ago, we started thinking, ‘Now we’ve done everything in a restaurant, maybe we should start thinking about our own place.’ We worked with the same broker who sold the restaurant to [previous owner] Ken Irvine. We didn’t actually know much about Chez Loma because we live in North County, but it seemed like a good fit. It was nice to get something that has an established name, because new-concept restaurants are so hard to get started. It didn’t seem as scary to take over this restaurant. My husband decided to do the back of the house, so Ken and my husband trained in the kitchen for a few weeks together from July to October of ’05, when we took over the restaurant. Lars learned the menu, learned the food. He has great knowledge of cooking and he’s so creative, although he doesn’t have any formal training.