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Chez Loma French Bistro

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.

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.

“About 60 to 70 percent of the menu comes from the previous menus, which go back 30 years, even before Ken. We added the rack of lamb, and a pork dish that’s off the menu right now, and we run weekend specials. We like to keep the nuts and bolts of the menu and do creative things on the weekends, when we know the crowds are going to be a little fuller.”

The Sjostrands quickly learned, once they settled in, that in its final years Chez Loma had problems with both food and service, which they took steps to correct. “Our staff is all new, and our quality control is good,” says Carolyn. “We make the dishes correctly, and we make them more often. The desserts are made four days a week now. I heard that for a while they were just awful. We get our seafood in four to five times a week. We don’t order in huge quantities. Same with produce, we get it in five to six days a week. We’ll just 86 anything that’s not up to par. We’d rather tell you we don’t have it than to have you get it and not like it.”

Chez Loma French Bistro

* (Very Good)

1132 Loma Avenue (at Orange Avenue), Coronado, 619-435-0661, chezloma.com

HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday, 5:00–to about 9:30 p.m.

PRICES: Soups and salads, $8–10; appetizers, $12–15; entrées, $23–$36; desserts, $7–13. Early-bird three-course prix fixe (5:00–6:00 p.m. and all night Tuesdays), $25; other three-course prix-fixe menus, $38 and $45.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Classic French bourgeois cuisine, including authentic, non-clichéd bistro choices. Adventurous wine list at modest markups, with strength in regional French bottlings at all price ranges; plenty by the glass, plus interesting flights. Full bar.

PICK HITS: Normandy-style onion soup; roast duck; salmon with horseradish crust; sirloin steak; gingerbread.

NEED TO KNOW: Reservations urged, especially Tuesdays and weekends. Half-price wines (on bottles under $90) on Wednesdays. Quiet atmosphere, dressy-casual. Ground-floor dining room is wheelchair accessible, specify when reserving. No serious vegetarian options.

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Comments

alweiss Feb. 9, 2008 @ 12:20 p.m.

At the end of your review of Chez Loma in Coronado (Jan. 23, 2008), you said, "No serious vegetarian options." Well, I sent them an email asking:

Read the review in this week's Reader and am looking forward to coming over. However, I have one small problem: my wife is a Vegan. (She's not a fanatic and will make exception for things like the cheese in the Caesar salad or the egg in the Creme Caramel.) The problem is the Entrée. What might you be able to do for her on a Tuesday evening?

They responded:

We do have a vegetarian option that we can cook, usually a risotto with grilled veggies, balsamic drizzle, goat cheese etc.  We have served it to our vegetarians and they are fine with it.

Just thought you might like to know and pass along.

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