520 Orange Avenue, Coronado
I’ve passed Crown Bistro scores of times, always wondering about it: a little white building, well gardened and with an inviting front patio in front of a small white boutique hotel, it looks charming — but in wealthy Coronado, appearances mean little. The fact that I’d never seen a review tended to score against it. Did the silence mean it wasn’t good enough to merit the ink? A net search found lots of blog raves for the breakfasts but no mention of dinners. Then, last month, my buddy Samurai Jim and I were heading down to a sublime dinner at Mistral on the Silver Strand and we passed it again. “Somebody or other,” he said, “told me that place was pretty good.” Well, okay! With a willing fellow guinea pig and a vague rumor of quality, there was impetus enough to at last satisfy my curiosity.
The carpeted dining room is small but visually expanded by means of many mirrors. (Including the patio, the restaurant seats about 50.) Tables are topped with white linen covered with paper, chairs are plain wood, and place settings include a full complement of silverware — even spoons! (How rare is that, lately?) A delicious soundtrack of ’40s and ’50s jazz (Billie Holiday, Ellington, Sinatra) plays softly. “I wish more restaurants would play this sort of music,” said Jim, who’s not an aging Boomer who grew up with it, but a Gen Xer. “It’s real music, played live in nightclubs and not patched together electronically in the studios, like so much new stuff.”
Our hostess, Laurie, the wife of chef-owner Jerry Tovar, was so warmly hospitable and wryly humorous, we began to feel like dinner guests at a friend’s house. (Meanwhile, our friends, Fred and Patty, were stuck in rush-hour traffic.) “Don’t worry,” said Laurie, “once the warm bread and the wine hit the table, people always show up immediately.” The bread, a soft white French loaf, was hot on arrival and deliciously salty, the butter ample and spreadable, while our first-course wine was an inexpensive Salmon Creek Chardonnay, a lightweight but pleasant food-wine, good for picnics or as “fridge-wine.” (Tovar is currently doing lots of tastings; a revamped summer wine menu will include more interesting choices, including Viogniers and Fumé Blancs, maybe even a picknicky Vouvray.) As predicted, as soon as the bottle was uncorked, our friends appeared. Patty recognized the place — some years back, she and her mother had stayed at the hotel for a few days.
Since entrées come with soup or salad, the appetizer list is perfunctory, though Tovar plans to expand it with the introduction of a happy hour from 5:00–6:00 p.m. this summer. Current choices include a fine smoked-salmon carpaccio with tomatoes (cottony), pickled peppers, and chopped lettuce. The Norwegian cold-smoked salmon proved rich and silky, way above average, as were the plump, juicy capers strewn over it. Crab cakes, heavily breaded with crisp panko, were surrounded with thick, tangy-sweet citrus chutney sauce. “The crab cake is ordinary,” said Fred, “but this sauce makes it ‘fun food.’ ”
Learning that we’d be sharing family-style, Laurie arranged for each of us to receive a plate with a small bowl of soup surrounded by salad. The French onion soup was the classic, sweet from caramelization of the onions and topped with a large crouton coated with melting cheese. I considered it standard-issue, but Jim, a fledgling cook, found the deep caramelization of the onions inspirational. The soup du jour, black bean, was thin and boring. We had no problem with substituting a Caesar salad for the “salad Maison,” except that it was a minimalist Caesar — maybe Julius’s runty little brother Irving. The lettuce was chopped, not in leaves, scattered with lashings of shaved Parmesan but lacking croutons, and I rather doubt that the amiable dressing included anchovy, much less egg. (I don’t know whether the regular Caesar, which costs more than the house salad, includes the missing elements.)
The entrée menu rotates through the kitchen’s repertoire, while a chalkboard lists the evening’s specials, many of which are slight variations on off-rotation regular entrées. We were tempted by the menu’s slow-roasted pork roast with Port sauce, but this is a small restaurant, nearly empty that night, indicating that the pork was probably roasted ahead of time and would have to be reheated; it might end up more done than any of us would like. The wine-braised lamb shank (one of the most popular entrées with the regulars, Tovar later told me) sounded good, but on a balmy spring night too heavy for my appetite. Instead, we chose three specials and one simple regular entrée that would be cooked to order.
Enter the duck breast, with a thick blueberry sauce. The sauce was too sweet for me (not for my companions, though, who loved it), but the sautéed duck meat was shockingly good. Instead of the usual flat slabs, it was served rolled thick, as though cut from a whole duck, and was moist and tender all through, the way duck should be and so seldom is, even at better restaurants. It’s the same Maple Leaf frozen breast that most places use; the difference seems to be the rapid sauté that keeps the flesh rosy, with a rich, deep-ducky flavor.
Shrimp Pietro offers the irresistible match of large shrimp wrapped in bacon, with a pinkish cognac cream sauce. “This is almost perfect,” said Jim, “but they should be using better bacon — applewood-smoked, or better yet, maple bacon. Those fruity-smoked flavors would just make this dish.” He nailed that one! (And since Crown Bistro is best known for breakfasts, no problem using up the rest of the premium bacon.) All entrée plates include two thick slices of roast potato, along with a swirl of inconsequential pasta, and the spuds dipped in the sauce are a treat. Cream sauces may seem a little old-fashioned now, but I admit I’m a pushover for a good one like this, made by quick reduction rather than the stupid addition of flour. You can also get more hot bread for sopping it — no problem.