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Island Time

by Amy Finley | Photography by Andrea Bricco | Riviera San Diego magazine | November 26, 2013

In a city where, famously, you can get anywhere in about 20 minutes, Coronado is an outlier, the bridge and a watery span of bay multiplying the perception of distance like the island were a shimmering mirage... so far, far away.

Let’s get real. Actual travel time from downtown to Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge on Orange Avenue, the island’s main drag? About 20 minutes. But as we settle into a soft banquette under the Edison bulbs and Noguchi-inspired lamps, along with warning us that the resto is already down to its last three orders of baked brie (it sells out nightly), our server confides that it’s hard to get non-islander San Diegans to make the trip over, though in December, a trip to see the tree at The Del is a time-honored tradition. He even outs his foodie aunt, who still hasn’t come in to dine.

There’s really only one thing to say to that: It’s her loss.

Some time this month the blistered shishito peppers that are sprinkled with tangy green curry salt will disappear from Leroy’s farm-fare menu: As sun exposure wanes, they get too spicy. But the same brightness enlivens the octopus I can’t stop thinking about. It’s braised and then smoked over hickory wood until it takes on the fatty melting smoothness of, say, smoked albacore. It’s a little aggressive: Executive Chef JC Colón could take it down a notch and not lose the essence of the Tijuana smoked marlin he was riffing on. (Colón grew up in Chula Vista, attended the French Culinary Institute in NYC and in S.D., cooked at Cucina Urbana and Kensington Grill before coming to Leroy’s earlier this year.) But Colón should never change the garlicky, lemony shell bean and peppadew pepper salad that balances out all that velvety richness.

His Mary’s chicken, too, is a hit. The presentation varies from week to week as Colón surveys the seasonal scene: Our bird arrived on a tangle of green beans with pea tendrils and baby turnips. What stays the same is perfectly crisped skin and flavorfully moist meat, plus a slick of Julian-cider-and-demi-glace pan sauce that should be licked clean from the plate. It’s a solid dish. Devoid of flash but not of flair, and something you’d happily eat again and again. It’s also a perfect example of what makes Leroy’s a much-needed addition to Coronado: Until now, it’s been a neighborhood without a real any-night-of-the-week neighborhood restaurant.

Now, to be honest, Leroy’s isn’t the most exciting restaurant on the block. Much about it is familiar, from the earthy palette of its design—reclaimed wood on the walls, chalkboards, cork tabletops, bare bulbs and exposed ductwork overhead—to the craft beer on tap and the designer mac and cheese, and gourmet burger on the menu. It’s of a type. But we’re not living through an exciting food moment right now in S.D. I like to think of it as a pregnant pause. You’ve heard of the Mannerists? They were the guys who came after the Renaissance masters, the technicians who created in the genre of their predecessors without adding anything exactly new to the scene. That’s sort of S.D.’s culinary world at the moment. But if Leroy’s is of a type, it’s an exemplary version of it. That gourmet burger? It’s a juicy custom grind of short rib and brisket topped with house pickles and smoky bacon jam, and they serve some 700 a week. Yes, with truffled fries.

Our server also revealed this little tidbit: Island regulars have only just returned from their self-imposed summer exile, reclaiming their beloved haunt from Coronado’s abundant tourists. For Colón, this means a relief from the kinetic drudgery imposed by high volume on a small kitchen and a break from bland Midwestern palates. Among other menu tweaks, he’s recently added braised oxtail over ricotta gnocchi (for me, more chewy than the potato-pillowy that they should be) and diver scallops with sweet sultana raisins and salty caper berries. If these aren’t
wildly imaginative dishes, they are, again, really well-executed.

At the end of the day, you can read a lot into the menu’s most popular dish, the poke tacos: fried wonton skins stuffed with ahi, Napa slaw and spicy crème. They hardly challenge the kitchen, which boasts veterans from both The Grand Del Mar and A.R. Valentien, including Blue Ridge Hospitality Group’s consulting chef, Tim Kolanko, who was previously Jeff Jackson’s right-hand man at The Lodge. (Blue Ridge, founded by an islander, owns Leroy’s, plus several other casual establishments on Coronado.) But the tacos are accessible and addictive, two worthy attributes.

Since that octopus exhibited covert brilliance, my suspicion is that a lot of artistry is currently lying dormant at Leroy’s—waiting it out and doing solid cooking during this Mannerist moment when sameness rules. Criticism? Hardly. I just want more. These guys could do it!

And mirage-like, the future just sometimes seems so far, far away.