Cafe Looma, a breezy new spot in Newport Beach, is far from perfect, but it has potential for greatness. In fact, a good deal of greatness is already there.
The same could be said about chef Jason McMahan, a graduate of San Francisco's Culinary Academy and former sous chef at Monsoon, a Bay Area restaurant noted for Chinese and Asian dishes prepared from the highest quality ingredients (its owner, Bruce Cost, practically wrote the book on Asian ingredients). McMahan is a big, blond fellow with a brash, erratic talent that reminds me of his near namesake, NFL quarterback Jim McMahon. In fact, one would think the two nearly as difficult to coach.
Cafe Looma's owner, Randi Masotti, has nothing but praise for McMahan, though. She's an old pro who once co-owned the famous Longhi's in Lahaina, Maui, and it is her presence that rules the roost here.
She's taken the former Cafe Lido and turned it into a casual, upbeat place to dine. During the day, when the two dining rooms are flooded with natural sunlight, the high ceilings, white walls and framed watercolors give it the look of a converted beach house. In the evening, it is the odd angles, teal carpet and jet-black chairs that stand out--all offset by the tiger lilies that sit primly atop the tables.
Daytime is actually when the chef is at his best. The left half of the lunch menu is composed of six salads and eight sandwiches, and it's unlikely that you've ever had any of these creations before. The right half contains precisely three pastas, four main courses and two vegetable side dishes. From a look around the dining room, it's obvious that few people get that far.
You're more likely to content yourself with a salad once you have tasted the sensational house bread, a soft egg bread flecked with yellow pepper and surrounded by a mozzarella cheese crust. No one can stop eating it.
McMahan's salads positively steal the show. Grilled tomato with asparagus spears and anchovies in sherry vinaigrette is one inspired combination. It is the asparagus that tastes grilled here; the tomato has been partially chilled. The salty rolled anchovies and dollop of sweet, creamy dressing on each tomato slice balance the dish out nicely.
Hearts of romaine, Gorgonzola, toasted walnuts and red peppers in vinaigrette might be even better. Every component seems integrated: The romaine has been pulled apart so the ingredients can mingle, and the powerful cheese is used with authority.
The sandwiches show a truly daffy imagination--then you discover that the ideas actually work. Who would think to order grilled New York steak with cucumbers, cream cheese, mushrooms and Dijon mustard on a baguette? It's an oily sandwich, true, but one that is destined to be a signature. The mustard cuts right through all the richness, and the cucumbers, cut to look like pieces of celery, are surprisingly refreshing.
Shrimp pita with tomatoes, Napa cabbage and diced papaya sounds dicey itself, but the components are blended so skillfully you think you are eating the world's best shrimp taco. Even the most traditional sandwich here, grilled ham with Gouda cheese and marinated onion, has a twist. It's served on grilled multigrain bread and packed with good ham and too much cheese, and the pungent semisweet onions make it distinctive.
The dinner menu has the same good salads, but a few added pastas and several chicken, veal and beef dishes replace the sandwiches. Rock shrimp risotto with spinach, peppers, tomato and basil is just about flawless. It's a huge dish of grainy, perfectly cooked arborio rice loaded with fresh-tasting plump shrimp, which the vegetables and herbs highlight splendidly.
But then you run into a dish that has a huge flaw--such as fazzoletti di seta (literally, "silk handkerchiefs"). This consists of red pasta sheets inundated with oily pesto and melted Asiago cheese, and it's unappetizingly rich. You can barely eat a second bite.
McMahan is full of terrific ideas, but he's occasionally stymied by this tendency to overwhelm. Blame it on youth. New York steak is prepared with a garlic rosemary crust and served on a tomato concasse, for example, and the flavored bread crumbs that make up the crust all but extinguish the taste of the meat. Tiger prawns sauteed with oyster mushrooms and tomatoes has the same problem. It's a dish generous with top-quality ingredients--too generous. I nearly forgot I was eating shrimp.
It would be better to go for a dish such as the delightful ahi tuna in a light crust of macadamia nuts and sun-dried tomatoes; it's as subtle as some of the other dishes are overbearing. A fine veal scaloppine with lemon, capers and shaved Parmesan puts those in most local Italian restaurants to shame (McMahan also did a local apprenticeship at Antonello), and there are wonderful side vegetable dishes to complement it. (Especially good is green beans Provencal with garlic, olive oil and bread crumbs, in which the bread crumbs soar.)
Desserts get an unqualified rave. They are the handiwork of Eric Lee, a gifted pastry maker who once worked at the Pacific Club. Lee overwhelms you with things such as warm sour cherry cobbler topped with a thick, sweet biscuit dough; an ethereal raspberry Napoleon tiered with crackly, buttery cookies, and a light German chocolate cake enrobed with an intense frosting made from toasted coconut.
Sometimes overwhelming is good, a sentiment bound to become a popular one at this cheerful addition to the Newport Beach scene.
Cafe Looma is moderately priced. Salads are $4.75 to $6.95. Sandwiches are $5.50 to $8.50. Pastas are $8.50 to $9.95. Main courses are $11.50 to $15.95. Desserts are $4.50.
* CAFE LOOMA
* 2900 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach.
* (714) 673-2900.
* Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, till 11 p.m. Saturday.
* American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.