When a friend from New York, in town for two weeks of work, called and asked if I'd take her to Coronado for the day, I have to admit that I groaned inwardly just a bit. I've been out there only a handful of times in all my years in San Diego, and past experiences involving traffic gridlock, scads of tourists and--most saddening to a girl who thinks with her stomach--a bunch of very disappointing meals put me off the place. Why travel over the bridge when there are endless beaches and good food close to home?
After I hung up, though, I took a moment to check my mainland snobbery and recognize that to visitors, the island must seem like an idyllic, pure distillation of the California lifestyle. Besides, my friend had barely seen the sun or had any time off since she'd been in town, so I steeled myself and swung by to pick her up. We were running late, so instead of taking the ferry that putters from the Broadway pier across the harbor to the Coronado landing, we zipped across the bridge. As we drove, my friend, accustomed to the concrete skyline of Manhattan, oohed and aahed over the view of the bay dotted with sailboats. And when I snuck a peek, I wasn't too cool to admit that the water was a really unbelievable shade of blue.
The most important question when discussing an unfamiliar neighborhood is: 'Where's the delicious food at?' And more than a few people I've asked about Coronado mentioned Tartine, a European-style café located on a wide, quiet street running along the water, facing downtown San Diego. Our first bit of fortune came when, ready with a fistful of change to feed the parking meter, I dropped in one single quarter and found that it bought an hour of parking.
We sat at a bistro table on the café's patio and found it populated with more locals than tourists--that seemed like a good sign, too. Through the glass doors of the restaurant we could see a gleaming dessert case and counter stacked with incredible-looking cakes and pastries, so when the menu arrived, we refrained from ordering too much food lest we not have enough room for lots of sweets later.
We ordered the tomato soup fortified with cooked rice that had a bright, fresh flavor and decided to try a tartine--basically a French open-face sandwich--since they're the café's namesake. We chose the gorgonzola tartine topped with sliced pears, gorgonzola cheese and buttery mache lettuce leaves lightly dressed with vinaigrette. The sweet and savory combination was tasty, but the homemade bread--the primary element of the dish--had none of the golden hue or crispy crust of a traditional baguette. Better in color and flavor was the epi loaf, a length of connected rolls that was crunchy outside and moist within and came with smooth, rich duck-liver pate and a mesclun side salad.
My friend was anxious to get to the beach, so we popped inside to get a few desserts (OK, OK, two boxes of desserts) to take with us. I looked longingly at the board displaying the homemade frozen treats--the cantaloupe sorbet sounded particularly tempting--but we chose some less melt-prone sweets, including a chocolate loaf cake, coconut pound cake, an oatmeal-honey cookie, a vanilla mascarpone cheesecake and a slice of chocolate coconut cream pie. Did I mention that neither of us had eaten much for breakfast or lunch? We drove to the other side of the island and walked with our dessert haul along Coronado's wide stretch of beach until we found a nice spot to perch. Armed with plastic forks, we dug into the cakes, which, although promising at first glance, didn't come through with much flavor. Both were pretty bland, tasting more of barely sweetened cream than any of their other ingredients. The chocolate loaf cake was a little dry, but the coconut pound cake rewarded us with buttery, tender richness. The oatmeal-honey cookie was dense but pleasantly chewy and sweet.
Though we struck out a little with the desserts, we weren't necessarily disappointed with our choices at Tartine. It was the best meal I've had on the island, and to be able to end our day on one of the most beautiful beaches was just about perfect. Plus, everything tastes better when you're sitting barefoot in the sand.
Tartine, 1106 First St. in Coronado. 619-435-4323 or www.tartinecoronado.com.