Cozy Mystery

Crown Bistro

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.

Our two red-meat dishes didn’t fare as well, which was mainly an ingredients issue. The “black and bleu” steak (a spin-off of a regular menu steak entrée) offered a New York loin with blackening spices and a scattering of Gorgonzola cheese. It might have been good but for the meat itself. Ordered rare, the steak was thin, so the borders were all well done, the interior closer to rosy medium-rare than true red. The beef itself was quite tough — probably Sysco’s USDA Select, your basic supermarket grade. A pity, because the treatment deserved better meat. The regular menu’s Veal Piccata, with lemon juice and loads of those big, lively capers, also suffered from drab meat.

For a red wine for the entrées, we’d been fiddling around with the list of California Pinot Noirs. But Sideways be damned, I really don’t think the California versions hold a candle to even the least-uppity French Burgundies. Laurie suggested the Mont Pellier Merlot, a fine idea. Not only is Merlot the probable best choice with duck, but I think California vintners do better with it. This proved a tasty, affordable food-wine, nothing memorable, but good drinking for a nice price.

The house signature dessert is Bananas Foster, but it’s nothing like the flamboyant flamed-at-table rendition served at Brennan’s in New Orleans (which claims to have invented it), made with banana liqueur. This lighter version, made with white wine, couldn’t flame unless you sprayed it with propane. You get tender fingers of sautéed banana in a light, not-oversweet sauce topped with a load of whipped cream. Have to admit, I prefer this to the cloying original. The bananas rather than the liqueur get to star here.

Crown Bistro has been open for 18 years. Before leasing it from the hotel, Jerry Tovar cooked at the Town and Country Resort (which also sent him to several hospitality-management courses at Mesa College) and then at Mr. A’s (before Bertrand Hug took it over) — where one of his colleagues was the father of his assistant chef, Lyle Valencia, who cooked our meal so skillfully. While the concierges at Coronado hotels send customers its way, keeping it alive in winter, before the summer invasions of Zonies and other tourists, Coronado residents seem to be keeping it a secret. (It’s won local restaurant polls numerous times, but those polls don’t seem to reach the mainland.)

I found myself liking Crown Bistro very much. The food is good, often better than good, and the service practices could be a lesson to many a higher-end restaurant. Bread is delivered as you read the menu, before you order — trusting that you have not come there to steal a crust and then flee like Jean Valjean. No waiting for icy butter to soften, no begging for extra spoons for a shared soup.

It brings to mind the time before American small towns were surrounded by identical excrescences of strip malls and casual-dining chains along their highway exits. Crown Bistro seems more from the era when those highways were scenic two-lane blacktops and every reasonably prosperous town had its nice restaurant serving Continental cuisine to tables full of appreciative neighbors. Coronado is, of course, a rather special small town. There’s more money there, and more residents who are better-traveled and culinarily sophisticated. At breakfast the bistro is slamming, but at night, when it’s quiet, this little gem recreates an atmosphere of charm, unpretentious grace, and modest, easy pleasure.

Burger Boom
Last year’s fad was upscale sliders. This year, it’s the full-size item, garnished to the max. Is it the recession or just a reversion to the classic American teenage taste for Chuck Berry’s “hamburgers sizzlin’ on the open grill night and day”? Well, you don’t need to hit Route 66 to get your fix — suddenly, everybody’s fixin’ burgers, from a burgeoning of new burger joints to top-end restaurants.

At Avenue 5 in Banker's Hill, every Wednesday from 5:00 p.m. to closing is Bodacious Burgers Night. Accompanied by a crisp salad, truffle fries, and dill pickle spear, each plump burger is made with Bread & Cie challah buns, homemade spreads, and quality cheeses, meats, and seafood. Ranging from $10.75–$15 (plus $2 for each addition, such as avocado, bacon, mushroom, fried onions, fried egg, jalapeño), basic choices include Angus beef, Australian lamb, Scottish salmon, and portobello mushrooms, with a wide variety of toppings that run from Spanish chorizo to Brie cheese.

Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe offers burgers nightly, 6:00–9:30 p.m., Monday–Friday through June. Choices run from USDA Prime cheeseburger to smoked salmon with lemon, horseradish, and leek confit (gimme that!). A full burger meal for $25 includes a small salad or fries and a glass of wine or upscale beer.

Renowned chef Carl Schroeder of Market Restaurant and Bar (and before that, Arterra) has opened his new casual-gourmet city venue, Banker's Hill Bar + Restaurant on the site of the old Modus (2202 Fourth Avenue, 619-231-0222; bankershillsd.com). And guess what one of the biggest draws is? His burger is served on a brioche bun, with aged white cheddar, and you get fries with that, for $13.50.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Wienerschnitzel has introduced a Double Chili Cheeseburger. (I once ate two bites of one of their chili dogs; that’s my review of the chili.) Do these come with a side of Lipitor, an Alka-Seltzer slushee, and perhaps a soupçon of Metformin to deal with that glutinous load of corn syrup?

A more varied entry in that sizzlin’-grill spirit in Hillcrest: At Terra’s summer BBQ ’n’ Blues series, Thursdays 6:00–9:00 p.m., Chef Jeff Rossman features a rotating menu of barbecue on the patio, including chimichurri-grilled skirt steak, St. Louis–style ribs, jerk pork, or hoisin-glazed salmon, accompanied by local blues musicians Robin Henkel and/or Ben Powell. Price is $18 with two side dishes. ■

Crown Bistro
★★1/2 (Good to Very Good)
520 Orange Avenue, Coronado, 619-435-3678; crownbistro.com

HOURS: Breakfast seven days, 8:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; lunch and dinner Monday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m., 5:00–9:00 p.m.
PRICES: Soups, small salads, appetizers, $6–$12; pastas circa $15; entrées, $20–$28; desserts, $6.50. Most prices slightly lower at lunch. Breakfasts, $5.50–$13.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Revolving menu of comfortable Continental (French-Mediterranean) fare with an American accent. Succinct list of mainly affordable California wines, and beers. (Wine list being revamped and expanded for summer.) Corkage $15.
PICK HITS: Smoked salmon carpaccio; duck breast; Shrimp Pietro; Bananas Foster. Popular favorite: braised lamb shank in wine sauce.
NEED TO KNOW: Small, hospitable restaurant fronting a boutique hotel. Heated patio tables available, slightly off-street. Reservations advised at dinner; breakfast reservations taken only for groups of six or more, but call as you leave home to be placed on waiting list for first available table. Dinner entrées come with soup or salad. Happy hours with light bites on patio planned for summer.

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