“It’s a baby lesson,” Ellen Burke Van Slyke says of the new Spice Market mini-menu she introduced recently at Mistral restaurant in Coronado, Calif. Her goal is to have her guests “wake up and taste the spice” and then maybe—all in the interests of pedagogy of course—to “play with their food.” Burke Van Slyke is the food and beverage director at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort. When Loews relocated her here a year ago from her previous posting at the award-winning Ventana Room in Tucson, Ariz., re-educating diners was part of her mandate.
The Coronado Loews sits on its own little island with a long stretch of state beach on one side and San Diego Bay on the other. It is surrounded by swaying palms and Pacific breezes.
Yet, when the new director arrived, the formal dining room seemed to have been airdropped from Las Vegas, the windows swathed in gold brocade draperies as if to shut out the shimmering light. The menu was similarly ponderous, with plenty of foie gras and lots of caviar but little identity.
“One evening,” she says, “I said, ‘Let’s pull those damn draperies down and see what’s underneath.’”
What she revealed was an expanse of windows overlooking the bay with San Diego sparkling in the distance.
“That’s what this room is about,” she says, “it’s about this incredible view, it should be about the light coming in.”AT A GLANCE
Location: Loews Coronado Bay Resort & SpaSeats: 120Food and beverage manager: Ellen Burke Van SlykeChef de cuisine: Martin T. BatisRestaurant manager: Michael GraichenWine director and sommelier: Kurt KirschenmanCheck average: $40 to $46, not including alcoholBest-selling appetizer: stuffed artichoke heartBest-selling entrée: tenderloin au poivreBest-selling dessert: tarte TatinWorst seller: duck consommé
Accordingly, she transformed the menu to reflect the location, with a focus on the cuisine of the Mediterranean. The fact that San Diego, despite its Mediterranean climate, has a surprising dearth of southern French restaurants was not lost on her. The name Mistral refers to the wind that seasonally blows across Provence.
What’s more, the resort already had an established herb garden that could give the menu a home-grown focus, so naturally the new menu was all about herbs. The hotel’s aromatic plot provides lemon verbena for the shrimp sauce, tarragon for the vinaigrette and even the ginger for the ginger ice cream. And though the garden provides a great deal to the menu, the restaurant returns the favor: Organic kitchen waste is all composted and used on the hotel grounds.
Yet after a year of herbs, Burke Van Slyke was looking for a way to inject new life into the menu.
So why spice?
“Spice is so hot,” she says. “Our guests had learned all about herbs this past year. We hadn’t done spice yet.”
The lesson in seasoning comes in the form of an appetizer, so as not to be too intimidating. Three foods come with three condiments reflecting the flavors of Europe, Asia and Africa, each presented in a demitasse spoon.
“We wanted to keep things simple,” chef Martin T. Batis says, describing the three flavors that go from simple to complex.
First, a little ribbon of creamy mashed potatoes is flanked by Normandy fleur de sel. Then a nest of market greens—whatever the chef has picked up at the Coronado farmers market that day—with a poached egg in the center is accompanied by crushed Sichuan pepper.
“The Sichuan gives a nice numbing sensation,” Batis says.Spice Market Menu
Star Anise Seasonal Sparkler 12
FLAVORS TO BEGIN…
Roasted tomato soup with onions, garlic and honey balsamic with peppered crouton and Parmigiano-Reggiano 9
Artichoke heart stuffed with artichoke, Parmigiano-Reggiano, gremolata sauce and crispy pancetta 14
Pâté de campagne of pork, veal, chicken, pistachios with Dijon mustard, and cornichons 10
FLAVORS FROM THE GARDEN…
farmer’s market arugula, asparagus, avocado, and summer citrus vinaigrette 11
Spinach, Asian pears, five spice caramelized walnuts and poire William vinaigrette 10
San Danielle prosciutto, melon pearls, panna cotta, melon gelee and watercress 13
FLAVORS OF THE MAIN COURSE…
Sun-dried tomato penne, roasted eggplant, cherry tomatoes, basil and toasted pine nuts tossed with Parmigiano-Reggiano 19
Risi e bisi risotto, English peas, morel mushrooms, asparagus and organic egg 22
Seared mano de leon scallops, spinach ricotta agnolotti, pesto sauce 29
Summer solstice–Baja white shrimp with angel hair, light vermouth cream, baby summer squash, corn and heirloom tomato–lemon verbena sauce 24
14-ounce Kansas City New York steak with braised greens and potatoes Lyonnaise 38
Lamb rack rubbed with cumin and smoked sea salt, roasted garlic, fava beans, pomme puree, natural lamb jus 36
Classic roasted tarragon free-range chicken, potatoes confit and Brussels sprouts 23
Finally, a single baby lamb chop is paired with a berbere spice mix. The Ethiopian seasoning comes from New York chef Marcus Samuelsson’s family recipe. For pupils seeking a little enrichment, they can order a spice-inflected aperitif too. In this, a whole star anise floats in a cocktail of sparkling wine, orange and peach liqueur.
The emphasis on spices is slowly seeping into the rest of the menu as well: into lamb rubbed with cumin, carpaccio liberally sprinkled with Malabar pepper and a salad laced with five-spice powder.
So is this new focus on spice education working?
“People have driven across the bridge just to try it out,” Burke Van Slyke says.