May 27 2016 04:38 PM

One part Belgian Lion, one part Ocean Beach

Tunaville bowl
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

It is the Little Lion Cafe & Bar (1424 Sunset Cliffs Blvd.). It is in Ocean Beach and it is heir to a legend. It's one part tasty, one part funky, totally charming and, yet, perhaps not quite sure exactly what it is.

The Little Lion's owners are Anne-Marie, Dominique and Jacqueline Coulon, granddaughters of Don and Anne-Marie Coulon, long-time proprietors of the great and late-lamented Belgian Lion. Based on Don Coulon's classic training, the restaurant featured French regional specialties and his contemporary variations on those dishes.

But as much of an influence on the Coulon sisters as the Belgian Lion must have been, so was its location: Ocean Beach. OB is not exactly the toniest, most upscale of San Diego neighborhoods. Rather, it's known for funkiness, hippiness and the earthiest of the crunchy. Both influences are evident at Little Lion.

It is with a side dish that Little Lion pays direct homage to its ancestor: the Belgian Lion Potatoes. It's a fitting tribute. No one does "French" fries better than the Belgians and no one in San Diego has ever done them better than the Belgian Lion. The Little Lion gets it right: perfectly fried triangular wedges of potato—golden crisp on the outside, supple in—with dipping sauces of a rich, garlicky aioli and a tomato compote.

One of the best dishes on the daytime menu is the croque monsieur, a classic Gallic take on grilled ham and cheese with a béchamel sauce. Little Lion's version is served open-face with a tempting swipe of Dijon mustard, quick pickles and a side salad. For the decadent there's an optional poached egg. Be decadent.

Its Crab Caesar salad was less successful. It's competent but no more: good salad ingredients perfectly dressed. The problem was the undressed crab on a too-hard block of bread and the fact that while the crab played well with the avocado, the two seemed like a separate entity from the rest of the salad.

From chia seed pudding and a house-made granola to a "Buddha Bowl," much of Little Lion's menu speaks OB, not French. Perhaps the best bet in that direction is the Superfood Bowl featuring quinoa, black beans, avocado, seasonal vegetables and flax seeds. The runny yolk of a poached egg and a lemon vinaigrette ties it all together.

But it is the Tunaville Bowl that comes closest to integrating the Belgian Lion heritage with the OB location. Little Lion's take on a Niçoise salad, the Tunaville features wonderful lettuce, canned tuna, tomato, olives and hard-boiled egg from the original. White beans, while non-classic, make sense. But it is the unexpected addition of farro—an ancient wheat strain—that surprises and gives this variation on a classic such an OB feel. Remarkably and counter-intuitively, the farro does not feel remotely out of place.

Not everything at the Little Lion feels as integrated as the Tunaville. There remains a duality. But both sides are good, tasty and happy in and of themselves. And when they do come together, the Little Lion succeeds on its own terms, not those of its Belgian forebear.


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