9700 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla
Adobe is the finale of this summer's series search for "view" restaurants with serious food. It doesn't have an ocean view but is situated in a plush resort, an oasis of Southwestern serenity amidst the corporate architecture of UCSD and various science and technology institutes. Mary Jo and I, meeting Sam and Keith for dinner, caught glimpses of paradisiacal scenery on the long trek from the self-parking lot to the restaurant. Then we realized we were hopelessly lost, and Mary Jo called Sam, who was standing at the restaurant reception desk on her cell. A shuttle tram showed up to rescue us. A cask of rum (better yet, well-chilled Chardonnay) hanging from the driver's neck would have been nice but wasn't strictly necessary.
I was hoping for scenic surroundings of rural greenery. "I came to Casablanca for the waters," said Bogie. "But Monsieur, this is the desert," answered Claude Raines. "I was mistaken," Bogie retorted. Estancia is indeed peaceful, in a Southwestern desert mode, but the only view from the restaurant is the patio dining area of Mustangs and Burros, the casual dining spot next to Adobe, and then more resort buildings in the background. A view? I was mistaken. But I did get one thing right -- Jesse Frost, formerly at the Hotel Del's late, exalted Prince of Wales, presides over the kitchen here. That alone made it worth a visit, since the Prince's food was reputedly fabulous right to the end of its days.
The dining room is handsomely Spanish Colonial with tall, shapely wooden chairs and such graces as wrought-iron stands for hanging your purse or your fedora. But the weeknight of our visit, staff seemed sparse. (They were coping with numerous banquets and conferences in the private dining rooms.) Our waiter was bouncy and friendly but absent for long stretches -- and over the course of the meal, there were occasions to wonder whether the kitchen was operating with all hands on deck. Actually, they weren't. Along with all the catering events to distract the staff, the chef himself had taken off that evening for a special occasion.
The dinner menu is relatively brief -- seven appetizers, eight entrées, five totally optional veggie sides (since all entrées come with vegetable and starch garnishes). But the prices for fine cuisine are comparatively gentle. During my tour of view restaurants, I've grown accustomed to seeing plump green dollar signs floating over the wine-dark sea (typical entrées around $35, steaks $40 on up). Here, the average entrée is about $26, a New York strip steak is $28, and the menu tops out at $31 (for a half-rack of Colorado lamb that would likely cost $18 raw and untrimmed if you could even find the equivalent quality at the supermarket). Given the classy ingredients and the chef's obvious talent, it's rather a bargain and has duly become the "neighborhood restaurant" for the gene splicers and brain surgeons working across the street.
We began with the house lobster bisque -- a slightly unconventional treat, with the sharp bite of chipotle chiles and an herbal undertone of "epazote pesto" from the Mexican-born chef, who smoothly incorporates lively Latin flavors into the French--New England comfort classic. Even though there's no lobster on the regular menu (to provide "spare parts" for the broth), plenty of purchased lobster bodies obviously went into it, lending a solid bass note of crustacean flavor.
Sautéed diver scallops "Marmitako" (based on a Spanish Basque tuna stew of that name) were bedecked with tasty smoked piquillo peppers and fried caper berries and came with a little tart filled with onion and tender chopped Florence fennel. A pair of freshwater langoustines, resembling swollen crayfish, arrived in a pool of "stone ground pistou," a rich, complex basil broth garnished with a squash blossom stuffed with succulent ratatouille. (No, the chef hasn't seen the movie.) The langoustines were tender but torturous for those at the table unaccustomed to making quick work of crawfish. (Dainty Midwesterner Mary Jo suffered at having to break them apart with her hands.) And although each element of the dish was dramatic, I'm not sure that they had much to say to each other. They were like Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, and King Lear all speaking their soliloquies at once on a single stage.
Our waiter's fave-rave salad of marinated beets with baby arugula, candied pistachios, and "molten Brie" (a coated, heated hunk) was pleasant -- but less so for a group eating family-style by rotating the plates at the smallish four-top table. Once the Brie cooled a bit, it remained soft, but its "molten" fun was gone -- leaving one more baby beet salad with cheese among the local multitudes of its ilk. (At least it wasn't chèvre again.)
Our most rewarding entrée was a moist, oven-roasted hunk of salmon with a pomegranate gastrique thinly glazing the plate. Its top surface wore a quietly spectacular crusting of Fleur De Sel and coarse-ground white Muntok peppercorns. The amount of these seasonings was perfect -- a wake-up call for the palate -- but not overwhelming. The fish was plated over small green French lentils (called Beluga lentils, no relation to sturgeon). There was a bit of cauliflower purée there, too.
Also excellent: Half a rack of Colorado lamb, beautifully rare to our order. Its main garnish was an onion-ring-like puff of "crispy truffle curd," similar to tofu in texture but mysterious in taste. It turned out to be creamy, fine-milled white polenta amended with truffle shavings and truffle oil. Alongside was a strong, tangy shallot-tomato relish. The Greek yogurt listed on the menu with this dish was nowhere detectable. Maybe the day's supply of it landed at one of the nerd-conference dinners.
We were intrigued by the title of a dish called "crispy molten beef short rib." This turned out to be a substantial rectangle of wine-braised beef cooled, boned, and then crusted and flash-fried in panko. During its 12-hour braise, all the fat had melted off and was no doubt skimmed from the sauce. While this improved the healthiness of the dish, it didn't much benefit the flavor. "This is interesting," said Sam, "but I think I finally prefer short ribs served on the bone..." "With more of the fat still on to make it luscious," Keith added.
The ribs came with creamy mashed potatoes, pearl onions, and "garbanzo fries" -- aka panisse, a marvelous peasant delicacy from Provence. (They look like French fries but are made from chick-pea flour.) They were delightful -- if not quite as instantly addictive as chef Philippe Verpiand's more flavorful version at Cavaillon. (Verpiand himself is from Provence, so he grew up with panisse and is a master at them. I don't know what he does differently.)
Last and least that evening was the Paella Estancia -- no fault of the recipe, just the lapse of a distracted line-chef while the head chef was absent. Paella has enough wild variations in Spain and Latin America that I have no firm preconceptions about what it should be. Frost's version, which he discovered while cooking in restaurants in Spain, is moister than most, with a dark, zesty lobster broth cloaking the rice. The insuperable obstacle that night was that all the seafood species -- mussels, bass, prawns, bay scallops -- were overcooked till tough and shrunken, rather than being properly introduced into the dish during the last minutes before serving. Only the Spanish sausage slices survived to tell the tale.
A dessert sampler platter ($24) lets you choose any four desserts. For a group, it's a great deal, because Adobe's desserts are terrific. Avocado sorbet proves rich and interesting, while raspberry sorbet sings with fruit flavor. Valrhona molten chocolate cake with fresh berries is the chocoholic's dream. Mascarpone cheesecake is more of a custard -- light and gooey, barely holding together. Best of all, although it looks the most modest, is a little pastry puff of apple, with the texture of a brioche. The sampler also provides wonderful cookies -- pink meringues sandwiching berry jam and fudgy bittersweet chocolate bites. (Chef Frost was fortunate to have worked, post-culinary school, with a rigorously trained French-born chef who -- unlike most American chefs -- handles desserts with the same aplomb as other courses. Currently, there's no specialized pastry chef.)
Adobe is a charming restaurant with delightful food, but it's somewhat hampered by the need to serve too many masters simultaneously -- dedicated diners like us, hotel guests (including small fry), plus conferences, weddings, banquets, etc. (This often occurs at hotel restaurants, but here the problem seems more pronounced. Perhaps that goes with the lower-than-expected food tabs.) It does an admirable job of compromising between the varying needs of food-fearers and forthright foodies -- but it's still a balancing act. I think what we have here is a four-star chef stooping to conquer a lot of eaters who might prefer comfortable, uncreative two-star fare. I'd certainly go back -- the chef is doing interesting work. But I suspect that the diversity of the clientele puts a bit of a chill on Frost's potential daring.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I'm originally from Mexico City and lived there until I was six," says chef Jesse Frost. "And then we moved to Saint Louis, stayed there until I was in high school, moved to San Diego, and then I went to school in San Francisco at the CCA, the California Culinary Academy. I was in San Francisco for four years, and I worked at La Folie [note: one of SF's top French restaurants, whose chef-owner, Roland Passot, has played a role in training numerous top chefs, including George's Trey Foshee]. Then I went to a restaurant called Bistro Chapeau, opened by Roland's former maître d', and I was opening chef for that.
"I moved back down to San Diego because family members were having babies and I wanted to be an uncle. I worked at El Bizcocho as sous-chef, and then I was chef de cuisine at Prince of Wales and came here to be executive chef at Estancia. And I did short stints cooking in France and Spain.
"What started me toward becoming a chef? My father was in marketing, and he traveled in Russia, China, Japan, and he was a very good cook himself. He'd do dishes that you'd be hard-pressed to find in the Midwest. We were eating Hungarian goulash and chicken satays with peanut sauce. It just really intrigued me. We lived on a small farm where we grew our own vegetables -- I was around that kind of atmosphere where the food is locally grown, fresh, organic, making family meals together with stuff we had on our farm. I'd worked a bit in pizza shops before I went to CCA, nothing heavy, but I did know what I was getting into when I decided to become a chef. I don't know why I didn't change my mind. I was either going to go into visual conceptual art or I was going to be a chef.
"At Adobe, I have to be a little careful because Mustangs and Burros is only open in the evenings. So it's a three-meal-a-day restaurant, and we have to cater to both sophisticated diners and to a family of five that just wants to grab a quick bite. We have to be able to satisfy many palates while keeping it interesting and fresh for us to produce it. I have the freedom to buy pretty much everything that I would like to, but I have to keep in consideration our clientele. Estancia La Jolla is a conference center first; it drives 64 percent of our business. We also do a lot of weddings and catering. So we're busy as hell. We also have room service, and the wine bar and bodega, and our gastro-pub Mustangs and Burros, with a very comfortable atmosphere. Adobe itself makes up the smallest portion of what we do here. So the majority of my experience is in fine dining, and here it's limitless. You have people looking for something special, but you also have families from out of town, and then the corporate segment, which wants more of a structured meal program.
"When I came back to San Diego, I found that local farms had expanded a lot into providing produce for restaurants. I feel very fortunate to live and work in San Diego. I like to keep things honest. The task put to the chef is to find the best ingredients you can and undermanipulate them as much as possible. When I see these crazy concoctions at some places, I always ask myself, 'What are they trying to hide?' If you buy a carrot, you want it to taste like a carrot. That's what Roland [Passot of La Folie] taught me -- that old school of the Lyonnaise style of French cooking. If you put on a braised rabbit leg, you want it to taste like braised rabbit leg. What I do is to take that foundation and put some little twist on it to make it interesting."