Beauty and the Bistro

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Posted December 23, 2009 in Eats

Hidden away in historic downtown Chino is Owen’s Bistro, a fantastically accessible, five-star dining experience that doesn’t leave one feeling empty despite its modest prices. It’s run by the accolade-rich, husband-wife duo of James and Denise Kelly (James robbing finer dining establishments of the coveted Southern California Restaurant Writers 2008 Chef of the Year Award while Denise taking the 2009 Maitre d’ of the Year) and is one of Chino’s best kept secrets. Here in his little enclave, Chef Kelly competes in a sphere of his own making (take that Charlie Trotter!) and romance can blossom because of its economic chicness.

 

Lights strung about the old courtyard twinkle on this cold December night as young Owen and his grandfatherly caretaker steadily kick the ball back and forth, back and forth to the beat of stilled fountains. Just beyond the door, in a small but quaint dining room of exposed red brink, ductwork and concrete floors, sits several tables of diners, wine glasses raised and clinking, conversing in hushed tones while secretly stealing glances at neighboring tables of food. It’s a wistfulness that diners are not loathe to vocalize, as “Boy, I wish I got what was on his plate!” will be repeated table after table.

 

Chef Kelly, who does much of the shopping and food selection himself, offers a rotating, seasonal three-course prix fixe menu at a modest $22.50 per person ($20 additional when paired with wine). On the evening of my visit, I opt for the prosciutto-wrapped asparagus with lemon aioli as the starter and pork tenderloin medallions as my entrée, although I immediately bemoan my selection when the neighboring table receives its “Camping Trip” salmon—a luscious, perfectly seared piece of flesh that cooks atop a hot river stone and evokes memories of fragrant evergreen forests. The rack of lamb that arrives at another table rivals the salmon in delectability—a tender, six-bone thing of beauty that seems to be baa-ing its deliciousness across the dining room to fellow meat eaters.

 

When the prosciutto-wrapped asparagus arrives at the table, I am a bit surprised as the four tender stalks of asparagus are not wrapped by what I thought would be crisped prosciutto (which stands in a separate mound on the side), but by the rather flavorfully thick lemon aioli, topped by a flaky crumbs of egg and tidy squares of melt-in-your-mouth sourdough croutons. 

 

Quite appropriately, the starter sets the mood for the sous-vide pork tenderloin medallions, which arrive as three perfectly executed towers of perfection atop thin sheets of sautéed zucchini and a pleasingly spicy molé sauce, finished by generous slices of avocado and crispy strips of flatbread. The pork tenderloin, cooked at low temperatures in a vacuum-sealed airtight bag, is mostly unadulterated—the heavier molé accomplishes its task of flavoring up the meat nicely. 

 

The finale was a chocolate torte—a rich slice of velvety smooth, yet surprisingly light, chocolate topped by a dollop of sweetened cream with hints of cocoa. I had sampled several of their desserts in times past, including an unusual form of Bananas Foster, but the chocolate torte is easily one of Chef Kelly’s best.

 

There is no doubt that Denise, ever the attentive hostess who doubles up as waitress, runs the show amongst the guests as she makes sure guests stay relaxed by continually pouring glassfuls of wine. As hard as I tried to ferret out some slight or attitude, I’d have to say that the latest accolades hasn’t made the pair rest on their laurels—if anything, their successes have inspired them to push the proverbial envelope to even loftier heights—and that’s a good thing for their fans.

 

Owen’s Bistro, 5210 D St., Chino; (909) 628-0452, www.owensbistro.com. Wed-Sat, 5-10PM. AE, M, V.


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