4000 Coronado Bay Road, Coronado
The ever-enchanting Mistral (née Azzura Point) has been remade again with a renovated dining room and new chefs. The executive chef for the whole resort property is Marc Ehrler, a hotshot direct from France. The chef de cuisine at Mistral, their fine-dining venue, is Patrick Ponsaty.
When it comes to Chef Patrick, I’m like that ’60s girl-group ballad that runs, “I will follow him/ Wherever he may go…” Ten years back, he was head chef at El Bizcocho, and his cooking knocked my socks off at a time when most San Diego cuisine left all footwear firmly attached. Ate there again a couple of years later — another knockout. I just wanted one more dinner to see if he might really be worthy of five stars, but the evening of my reservation, fires swept through North County, closing the roads. By the time the smoke cleared, the owners of El Biz fired Ponsaty (I don’t know why). He went on to work at La Bastide in Scripps Ranch and then Bernard’O in Rancho Bernardo, where I enjoyed excellent meals. When I interviewed him on the phone, he told me that the owner didn’t set stringent limits on his ingredients. Still, I was glad when I heard he’d be cooking at a resort again, which presumably offers more scope than even a serious bistro.
Mistral’s decor has also been renovated (yet again). They still have the old striped banquettes, but the look is airier, more casual and Mediterranean, and the views of the water are even clearer than before. The venue remains one of the most comfortable and romantic fancy restaurants in this area. Better yet, you need not dress up fancy, nor bring a thick wad of bills. Prices for entrées top out at $29 — meaning, it’s a lightweight splurge rather than a wallet-buster.
The one flaw that evening, in a restaurant known for romantic serenity, was a huge party of 20 hyenas, seated up front near the bar (to keep them somewhat out of the way). Their periodic outbursts of hilarity managed to drown out not only quiet table conversation but the singer-pianist belting ’em out at the bar. There was no pause, not even when the group received their dinners. Yeah, I’m a sourpuss, I’m a spoilsport, but I wish every restaurant had a soundproof purdah room to isolate large parties whose revels disturb the quieter pleasures of fellow diners. But observing this group proved instructive. The need to feed diners like this, who are paying no attention to their finely crafted dinners, explains why some of the food is less venturesome than I’d expect from this chef.
The cocktail list is genuinely creative, with a wide range of fresh flavors, rather than the usual booze-candy and commercial mixes. My Pisco Sour (Peruvian brandy, lemon, egg-white foam) was sourer than the typical tea-time (5:00 p.m.) rendition in Lima, but it grew on me. Emmy’s beautiful blue Mystique (blackberry vodka, Cointreau, blue Curacao) was on the sweeter side but still clean. Michelle’s Lavender Drop (citrus vodka, lemon, muddled lavender) strikes an ideal balance, to my taste. And Jim’s more macho Park Avenue (bourbon, vermouth, Angostura bitters) was fine, too. Lots more temptations on that list. They run $14 each, about the same as most appetizers, but for once you get flavor as well as alcohol for your money.
“This menu’s got Patrick’s name written all over it,” I told my friends. “Every item has a host of garnishes, most of them labor-intensive and matched to the main ingredient.” The extensive organic gardens of the resort also make their presence felt in a new attention to fresh-picked herbs and vegetables. The amuse, for instance, was an architectural arrangement of skewered heirloom cherry tomatoes balanced over a shot-glass of “tomato water,” which I think is the strained liquid surrounding the seeds. It was terrific, like snacking while wandering in a garden.
The most arresting and, let’s face it, awesome starter wasn’t on the menu at all, but a special lovingly described by our excellent waiter, Rick: a foie gras napoleon, layered with eel (yes, eel!), celeriac, and caramelized apples between two sheets of puff pastry. For this invention, Ponsaty won an award for “best appetizer of the year” years ago while he was working in Spain (at one of the top avant-garde restaurants there). I was delighted to discover that the foie gras wasn’t merely sautéed, but a section of a torchon (foie gras poached in a cheesecloth wrapper), lending both solidity and sensuality, with its baby’s-bottom “bite-me!” texture. The eel fell right into line in this odd combination, a taste of salty earthiness as a subtle anchor, which, along with the braised celeriac, established a sober side beneath the riotous sweetness of caramelized apple.
The on-menu appetizers take the opposite tack. Rigorously light enough to be a line of divine diet food, they tantalize rather than satiate. They include several interesting vegetable salads, plus one with Dungeness crab that sorely tempted me.
Our favorite was ahi tuna tartare, which is getting to be a bore on local menus except when the best chefs bring some imagination to it. The neat inch-high rectangle of chopped raw red tuna came with a quietly spectacular aspic of sliced cucumbers, a single Kumamoto oyster meat in the center. (I thought aspics were extinct, except for those ghastly Jell-O molds that some Americans inflict on each other at holiday dinners — but this dish proves that aspic is still a valid culinary art form.) Garnishes included fresh-picked herb salad, delicious even if naked of dressing, dill crème fraîche, and a sweet orange tuile cracker. It was all intensely bright and clean, a spa weekend in a few bites.
Maine lobster consommé is the opposite of a bisque — a thin, savory broth infused with more fresh garden herbs, with a couple of lobster mousseline dumplings afloat (that is, lobster bound with egg whites). This literally fits the definition of “appetizer,” making you hungrier for whatever’s next.
Steamed Santa Barbara blue prawns proved frustrating — I couldn’t make any sense of it. The prawns (in split-open shells, with long spidery legs reaching out all over the garnishes) are large, undressed, bland, and, this evening, a little overcooked. They came with cigars of black truffle ricotta cheese cannelloni, artichoke leaves, baby fennel stalks, and a slick of tasty “sauce vierge” (which seemed a salty, lemony version of extra-virgin olive oil). A lot of playful ingredients, but none seemed to work well with the others. I wished I’d opted instead for that Dungeness crab salad or the endive salad with lardons and black truffle vinaigrette or, especially, for the roasted jumbo asparagus with morels.
When we were ordering wines, Rick disclosed that the restaurant is in the midst of shedding its old wine list and replacing it; if we happened to choose a discontinued wine, the staff would find an equivalent. For our appetizers, first choice was a Paso Robles Viognier — vanished! There was no sommelier on the floor that evening...not a good sign, as it was a Friday. I advised Rick to look among the French bottlings for a substitute, and soon he brought us two to sample from open bar-bottles, a Sauvignon, and a Macon-Villages Chardonnay. The Macon had it! Like the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats,” it was “clean as country water…wild as mountain dew.” This oak-free Chard was wonderful with our appetizers and subsequent seafood choices. For our entrées, we presented the difficult-to-match test of one meat, one fowl, two fish. Rick suggested the E. Guigal Côte du Rhône Rosé. I’ve rarely tried rosé since the rise of pink zin made that genre anathema. This, however, was pure fun, a light, picnicky quaff to go with just about anything.
An entrée of sautéed wild sea bass was also pure fun, thanks to playful garnishes, each sweet in a different way: a fizzy “orange blossom mousse,” the heavier sweetness of carrot-orange emulsion, and a garnish of braised endive sweetened with lavender honey. Not a shred of this remained after making its round of the Clean Plate Club.
We were tempted by a citrus-steamed Alaskan halibut (with black mussels and a zucchini flower in lemon verbena broth) but succumbed to the lure of another special: halibut cheeks with lentils. In Asia, fish cheeks are highly regarded for their tenderness and fine flavor, but you usually find them made from smaller species and end up chopsticking your way around a large, sharp-edged curvy bone to reach the precious morsels of flesh. Halibut, however, ranges from large to huge. Here, the cheek-meat was chopped into chunks rubbed with some flavorful form of paprika, mingling with savory lentils, chopped carrots, and seasonings — tasty, and no bones about it.
Slow-cooked Kurobuta pork loin comes stuffed with sweetbreads. Despite the stuffing (which, I felt, got lost amid the platoons of other ingredients), the pork was a tad overcooked — white all through, no blush. The sage-pork reduction imbued the surface with a delicious herbal glaze. Alongside were sausages of bacon-wrapped salsify (a parsnip-like root vegetable with a subtle, oyster-like flavor, hence its nickname “oyster plant”), an inspired combination. All around the plate were the upper thirds of thick carrots and whole white radishes still wearing their green top-knots.
I rarely order chicken, least of all breast, but wanted to see what chef Patrick would do with it. He cooks it sous-vide (slowly poached in a pouch) with a truffled chicken reduction, plated with wild-mushroom fricassee and a potato napoleon. I liked everything but the chicken, which was as dry as ever. Nobody ate much of this, once the potato and mushrooms were gone. Do-over? I’d choose the grilled Colorado double lamb chop with braised lamb shoulder moussaka.
This is where the party of hyenas comes in again. A resort restaurant must make them happy, even if not one is paying the least attention to the food. It also must make out-of-town guests happy, even food-fearing xenophobic Zonies, who want chicken breast well-done, halibut desert-dry, and medium- well beefsteaks. (Let them eat Sheriff Joe Arpaio!) It’s hard to please these people and to please me, too. There are limits to a chef’s freedom here in San Diego that they don’t have in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or other foodie towns where the chef is king and if you don’t like it, well, there’s a pizzeria down the block. So, yes, I’m being too indulgent, too forgiving of a favorite chef. I liked his food best at El Biz, but I liked it better at Bernard’O than I do here — so far. Averaging everything we ate to come up with a star rating, here it totaled a wavery 4.25; but with in-between scores, I look for other factors in the meal, and the lovely ambience and friendly, collaborative service pushed it up a quarter-point. (Oh, golly, Patrick, I’m so sorry! I know you’re still yearning for that 5 stars you nearly got at El Biz. Alas, not yet.)
Dessert lists arrive in dark-brown envelopes tied with jade-green ribbons, like greeting cards. We chose Bisou au Chocolate — a crisp praline wafer glazed with bitter chocolate, topped with brandied cherries and chocolate sorbet. Chocoholic Jim’s craving was fully sated, and the rest of us loved it too, because it’s not icky or heavy. It may have a zillion calories but tastes natural, with the cherries carrying the main thrust of sweetness. Our coffees were delivered as desired, with dessert, including my flawless espresso.
Chef Patrick had been wandering periodically through the dining room all evening. Now we spotted Rick pulling him aside and gesturing toward us. Were we busted as a reviewing party? (Maybe. If so, Ponsaty’s too much of a gentleman to embarrass me with it. Besides, we’d already eaten like anybody else.) Suddenly Rick delivered an extra dessert. “Because you’re such good eaters,” he said, “really enjoying and paying attention to the food, Chef Patrick wanted you to taste these.” The plate included five exquisite chocolate bonbons, each with a different flavor.
I don’t think Ponsaty has fully found his footing here yet, after only a couple of months on-site. Oh, poor pitiful me, I guess I’ll have to drag myself back in a year or so to see how he’s progressed!
- 4.5 stars
- (Excellent to Extraordinary)
Loews Coronado Bay Resort, 4000 Coronado Bay Road, Coronado Silver Strand, 619-424-4000.
HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday 5:30–9:30 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $7–$14; pasta/risotto, $19–$26; entrées, $25–$29; desserts, $7.50.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: French-California with herbs and some veggies organically grown on-site. Creative, interesting cocktails (not sugar-bombs). Wine list in flux, still plenty for any size budget.
PICK HITS: Ahi tuna tartare with cucumber aspic; foie gras Napoleon (special); Maine lobster consommé; sautéed wild sea bass; sweetbread-stuffed Kurobata pork loin; “French kiss” dessert; chocolate bon-bons.
NEED TO KNOW: Valet parking with restaurant validation at porte-cochere. Nice-casual clothing (no glitz). Spectacular view. Few vegetarian choices but kitchen will accommodate dietary restrictions.