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San Diego Spotlight : Delicious Meeting of East, West Now at Azzura Point

Another nationally acknowledged chef has come to our shores--which means that there is almost a handful of toque-wearers whose names are recognized beyond the county line.

And while the general rule is that the better chefs linger in a job for only a year or so, we can hope that the style Jeff Tunks has introduced in the main dining room at the new Loews Coronado Bay Resort in Coronado Cays will have staying power.

Tunks has been associated with several highly regarded establishments back East, particularly the River Club in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. That club is so well liked for Tunks’ introduction of what he describes as “Asian-influenced new American cuisine” that even congressmen pay to dine there. That same Asian-influenced cuisine, which in San Diego we would style “Pacific Rim,” sets the tone for the menu at Azzura Point, the hotel’s upscale, seafood-oriented restaurant.

Pacific Rim cooking is sufficiently new and sufficiently ill-defined that it really can be anything you want it to be, as long as it somehow combines Oriental and Western themes or ingredients. In the case of Tunks’ Azzura Point menu, the interpretation seems primarily to be Eastern flavors assembled according to French tradition--with a few digressions into the equally ill-defined Southwestern and California styles--which truly could be said to offer diners the best of both worlds. Virtually every item sampled in the course of two dinners was excellent.

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The room, on the second floor of the building and situated with a nighttime view (only dinner is served) that encompasses the lights across San Diego Bay as well as a broadside look at the Coronado Bridge, makes an especially charming setting for Tunks’ menu. Loews somehow managed to build a hotel with an old-fashioned feel to it, and there is something of Cape Cod to Azzura Point, perhaps best emphasized by the wicker chairs padded with cushions upholstered in a faded floral print, and tabletops carefully crafted to look like weather-worn painted wood. Potted flowering plants bloom everywhere.

The menu emphasizes seafood nearly to the point of making life difficult for those who will not or cannot eat anything that spent its formative years submerged. There are two neutral salads that contain neither fish nor flesh, an appetizer of beef carpaccio dressed with white truffle oil and one chicken and one veal entree, but otherwise the menu lists seafood from soup (a soup of grilled sweet corn garnished with Dungeness crab) to nuts (sauteed salmon with a crust of toasted macadamias and ginger).

Entree prices are relatively low for a luxury hotel dining room, mostly in the $18 range and dropping as low as $15 for the crab ravioli with jicama-tomatillo relish. But those prices are made up for by appetizers, which start at $4.50 but mostly run closer to the high of $9.75 (for alderwood smoked wild salmon with dill oil and a salad of fennel shavings), and by desserts, which cost a flat $6.50 each. But nonetheless, by exercising restraint it is possible to taste Tunks’ cuisine without spending more than at many a nondescript establishment.

The kitchen sends out a tiny complimentary “taste” in advance of the meal; the French like to call these savory lagniappes amuse gueule , and the mouthful in question recently was a triangle of phyllo, crisp from the oven, around a filling of crab, goat cheese and spinach. This was something of a deluxe spanakopita , and it made a good impression.

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Starters sampled from the standing list included the grilled corn soup, a rich blend of flavors, generously studded with chunks of crab and dressed up with a swirl of spicy tomato relish. The salad of assorted specialty greens garnished with tomato-basil chutney and fritters of fresh goat cheese, while somewhat tame compared to other offerings, was undeniably novel and enjoyable. Moving up the scale, one found the day’s special soup, a very French lobster bisque that concealed soft won tons filled with minced, still-crunchy asparagus (a fine idea) and, at the top, a mille feuille of ahi sashimi (which is to say, raw tuna) layered with squares of fried won ton dough and a mixture of the suavely acidic French sour cream called creme fraiche and the hot Japanese horseradish called wasabi . As with all sashimi, a pile of pickled ginger slices garnished the plate. A more successful Franco-Japanese union would be difficult to imagine.

Entrees, like appetizers, are characterized both by unusual flavor combinations and by skillful cooking. A serving of seared sea scallops had absolutely nothing added to them in the way of sauce or flavoring, and they tasted so wonderfully like scallops that their austerity became a virtue. By way of compensation, the plate was centered by fleshy, luscious Portabella mushrooms, filled with pistachios, drizzled with a chervil and truffle-flavored oil and cooked to a toothsome stage. Every bit as good were the “tri-coastal” crab cakes (the coasts in question presumably the Chesapeake, Pacific and Mediterranean, which sounds like the name of an improbable railroad), fat mounds of pure crab dusted with just enough crumbs to crisp them, and served on a strong mustard-tarragon sauce.

Stir-fried prawns, fat and juicy, also looked attractive; piled on a tangle of theoretically crisp but factually rubbery Oriental noodles, they benefited from the spicy Thai peanut sauce and the delicious papaya-cilantro chutney. And for meat, the grilled veal chop not only breathed the musky aroma of the Gorgonzola-rosemary butter that glazed it, but enjoyed the company of a superb, and superbly imaginative, fried cake made of forest mushroom risotto.

The dessert tray includes an intensely chocolate mousse cake flavored with bourbon, a sweetly tangy lemon tart with blackberry sauce and an East-West creme brulee flavored with orange and ginger. A complimentary plate of truffles and cookies arrives moments ahead of the check.

AZZURA POINT

Loews Coronado Bay Resort, 4000

Coronado Bay Road

424-4000

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Dinner 6 to 11 p.m. nightly

Entrees cost $15 to $23.50; dinner for

two, including a glass of wine each, tax

and tip, about $50 to $90

Credit cards accepted


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