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San Diego Spotlight : La Boheme Encore Serves Competent Continental

Dumitru Belu recently added another mildly spicy teaspoon of broth to San Diego’s restaurant melting pot by re-opening La Boheme, the on-again, off-again eatery in the Park Manor hotel near Balboa Park that at times has captured the fleeting fancies of mid-town diners.

This somewhat formal, somewhat fusty dining room has been around for a number of years under several names and managements. Known for a while as the Inn at the Park, it became La Boheme in the early 1980s. The operatic reference was designed to appeal to the pre- and post-theater crowds.

Romanian immigrant Belu, who doubles as proprietor and chef, has written a very safe, Continental-style menu that in its flourishes of bell pepper, pungent cheese and other sharp accents underscores his Balkan beginnings. This is the sort of menu that would be called serviceable rather than exciting, and it would in fact seem most appealing when a reasonably dressy meal in complementary surroundings is desired. La Boheme fits the bill for pre-theater perfectly, but would not even be in the running if the evening’s program specified a night on the town.

The professional, commendable service goes hand-in-glove with the tapestry upholstery on the banquettes, the pink tablecloths (long ago, a hallmark of certain grand dining rooms), and the formally arranged wine display table near the entrance.

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Anyone who dined in a Continental restaurant as long ago as 1960--and perhaps well before that--should recognize the bulk of the menu, especially the appetizer list, which features the inevitable snails and shrimp cocktail. More contemporary, if not significantly more interesting, is a plate of sauteed squid steak fingers. The crab-stuffed mushrooms, which can be almost unsurpassably luxurious when loaded with crab and really well-prepared, had quantity in their favor more than anything else; there were a good dozen mushroom caps on the plate, but the filling was lackluster.

Belu shines in certain limited areas, most notably in the salad department, although the puffy, yeasty, freshly baked Romanian bread is a close runner-up. His Caesar, offered a la carte but also included in the price of entrees as an alternative to the soup du jour , is one of the better examples of this locally ubiquitous salad. (It also rises like a mountain on the plate; Belu seems to believe that the only thing better than a large portion is a very large portion.) The same crisp, peppery romaine is put to even better use in the La Boheme salad, moistened with a pungent dill dressing, topped with a dressy tomato rose (which is to say, a tomato carved and folded to resemble a rose) and lavished with crumbled feta cheese and succulent kalamata olives.

The most contemporary offerings on the entree list are the vegetarian offerings of pasta primavera (here interpreted as fettuccine in white sauce with broccoli, zucchini and yellow squash) and a rotollo of eggplant, in which cheese-stuffed slices of the vegetable are baked under a covering of marinara sauce.

Certain themes repeat among the meat offerings. Both the chicken breast La Boheme and the New York sirloin are finished with a robust garnish of bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and mushrooms bound together with thick brown sauce. The same brown sauce, this time infused with garlic and a mixture of herbs, moistens a likable, grilled-to-order lamb loin that seems one of the restaurant’s most successful dishes. Brown sauce, this time flavored with rather hefty pieces of orange rind and a good deal of orange juice, turns long-roasted duck into that canard of Continental menus, duck a l’orange . While the fresh orange flavor was surprising and pleasing, the bird had an unappealing, over-cooked quality.

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The dish called shrimp scampi went well beyond the usual San Diego meaning of the term, and with some success, because blue cheese and bell peppers added interest to the usual pan sauce of white wine and garlic. The veal scaloppine --served in the floured and butter-crisped style usually known as alla francese --also came off well, although so much buttery sauce filled the plate that it seemed as if a soup spoon should have been offered. The garnish of chopped, boiled potatoes, dull as it may sound, somehow did especially well with this and several other of the sauced meat entrees.

On the seafood side, the menu also offers king salmon poached in herbed liquid and finished with dill sauce, and a fish or two of the day given a similar treatment. Belu is not shy in his use of herbs, and he generally employs them to good effect.

The pastries issue from the restaurant’s oven and are as old fashioned and “Continental” as the rest of the menu. The St. Honore cake, once a great favorite locally when a certain baking company supplied half of the more formal restaurants in the county, is a construction of cream puffs, pastry cream, cake and frosting that sounds good but ultimately seems rather heavy. The lighter, mocha mousse torte is a good, uncomplicated cake of six thin layers, each spread with butter cream. The best sweet, however, arrives gratis with the check; Belu makes dark, bitter, butter-rich truffles and sends one for each guest.

* LA BOHEME: Park Manor Hotel, 3167 5th Ave., San Diego; 296-0057. Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly. Entrees $9.25 to $15.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $35 to $60. Credit cards accepted.

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