956 Broadway Circle, Downtown San Diego
Last week’s search for great soups brought me to Dobson’s famed mussel bisque and thence to their website, where I discovered a well-kept secret, their 25th-anniversary special of a three-course prix fixe (weekdays, 3:00–7:00 p.m.) for $25. Well, everybody’s been to Dobson’s except me, so two nights later, I was sipping mussel bisque. Great mussel bisque, at that.
The website revealed more secrets. Scanning the menu provided an “aha!” moment, revealing the likely secret to Dobson’s longevity: The place strikes me as a San Diego version of New Orleans’ legendary Galatoire’s (second-oldest there, after Antoine’s), still a favorite of that city’s movers and shakers, especially at Friday lunch — exactly like Dobson’s. Both menus are packed with the luxurious traditional comfort foods of their respective regions at surprisingly reasonable prices, unless you go for the “power-elite” high-end steaks and chops.
After taking a gander at the popular bar (and the handsome silver-haired bartender who greeted us warmly), I hated to leave it behind to drag myself and my kvetching knees up the steep stairway to the dining room. (While there are only a few tables at the bar, and they’re hugely popular, you can reserve them for dinner; for groups of more than four, they’ll move two together for you. Whatever size group, just call a few days ahead — and totally forget about Fridays for any meal. The bar’s booked solid.)
The dining room is cozy, quiet, and carpeted, with bistro chairs of bent wood with a little padding and smallish four-top tables with classic white tablecloths. Even when a party of eight took the table beside ours, their conversation didn’t disturb us, either because they were civilized or because the carpeting makes everyone seem to be so.
The house bread is thick and peasant, served in slabs with salted butter. The bisque (which showed up on every table) is a production number. The bowl is topped with an airy crust of buttery puff pastry. The server ceremoniously breaks a small hole in it and pours a shot of cream sherry into the creamy liquid, which is thickened by nothing more than a slight reduction of the cream itself (that is, no sludgy flour). A few mussel meats float in each bowl. “I haven’t eaten here in years,” said posse-regular the Lynnester, “but last time, I remember a lot more mussels.” “I do, too,” said Mark. “But the mussel flavor is still very clear and distinct.” “Maybe they do a special version for the bargain prix-fixe,” I suggested, half in jest, “with fewer mussels.” (They may add a few more mussels from now on, per the owner.)
The rest of the appetizer menu looks like a hit parade of temptations. I’d love to work my way through it from start to finish. Chicken-liver mousse proved light and buttery but a tad grainy and homespun, arriving with grilled slabs of peasant bread, cornichons (small, tart French pickles typically served with charcuterie in their homeland), and capers — very down-home if you’re French.
Fried oyster salad is a mega-hit, the year’s first candidate for next year’s “best of.” The small oysters (only four, but who’s counting?) are puffy in an ethereal batter, cozying up to smoky bacon, avocado slices, and tender lettuce leaves dressed in a creamy cucumber dressing. It’s one of those simple dishes that works precisely. (On this dish, too, Dobson may add another couple of oysters in the future, per our exchanged emails.)
If those oysters weren’t enough to evoke New Orleans, the crab hash will. A large, near-flat patty, crusted over with bread crumbs, looks like a mutant crab cake, but inside it’s gooey and creamy, spiked by diced red peppers and the sweetness of corn kernels. It comes with a ramekin of sharp, pink remoulade sauce to play with. Man, this really took me back to “the Quarter,” even if I can’t remember where I might’ve eaten this specific dish — it’s the mind-set! (Have to admit, I liked this better than did my tablemates, who — omigod! — never even heard of Galatoire’s.)
If you’d rather graze than go on to entrées, the practice, Paul Dobson assured me, is common here among the pretheater crowd. At a neighboring table, diners were enjoying their beautiful cheese plate. Appetizer grilled lamb chops with white bean arugula salad offers a meaty hit before performances. For those who skip the bisque, steamed black mussels in curry sauce are bound to be good, too, what with the rapid mussel turnover keeping the bivalves fresh. Oysters on the half-shell go for just $22 per dozen (or a pricier $14 for six). There’s also a carpaccio of house-cured smoked salmon with a potato salad and a wild-mushroom ragout with Spanish blue cheese on crostini with balsamic, plus the usual chic salads of roasted beets, mixed greens, and Caesar.
After our appetizers, we regretted having to move on to entrées because we’d already eaten enough and enjoyed enough pleasure for an entire dinner. My plan was to order two meals from the budget menu and two from the more affordable realms of the à la carte menu. The prix-fixe menu offered three choices: smoked chicken pasta in cream sauce, wild salmon piccata, and a small rib-eye steak.
The à la carte entrées run from inexpensive pastas to slightly expensive seafoods to the high end (where we didn’t venture) of meaty fare: two steaks, a pork chop, a tempting mustard-coated rack of lamb, and at the top of the price list, a veal chop for $39. (I’ve given up ordering veal chops without seeing their résumés. Don’t want abused little cow-babies held in bondage and fed on gruel. Aside from the bad karma, they taste bland.)
An acquaintance of Lynne’s who joined us that evening dislikes all seafoods, so we chose the pasta and steak from the prix-fixe, while from the regular menu we ordered sea scallops (a must-have for me, as a vital test for the kitchen) and roast “Bistro Chicken.” (With a different companion, this last would have been replaced by the sea bass with corn, pancetta, and saffron aioli.)
Unexpected bad news: The protein in our “smoked chicken pasta” consisted of half-inch cubes of sawdust-dry salmon, sea bass, and scallops, and mushy shrimp, dotted with a few mushrooms and clumps of dark greenery, and the sauce was a heavy red tomato sauce, not a cream sauce. (Think Olive Garden or bottled supermarket spaghetti sauces.) “Uh, this doesn’t seem to be smoked chicken pasta,” Lynne told our waitress. Whoops! The kitchen had sent out that evening’s special of seafood pasta, the waitress apologetically explained. (Seems they didn’t make the chicken version that night, as she didn’t offer to replace it.) “Tastes like leftovers,” said Mark after she left. “Yeah, like the ‘final solution’ to all my seafoody doggy bags,” I said, “except that I do a much lighter tomato sauce for seafood pastas and barely warm the seafood to keep it tender.” It was one of the “specials” that Anthony Bourdain warns against ordering — the Wednesday-night “Let’s use up all of Monday’s seafood, a fresh shipment’s coming in tomorrow” ploy.” *
Well, it did reveal something about Dobson’s: If you’re accustomed to real Italian food (not checkered-tablecloth Italian), steer clear of pastas with tomato sauce, stay with the cream sauces. But at the end of the evening, without our bitching about the substitution, the house comped us to one of our $25 meals. Very nice, a class act. You can see why restaurateur “Pablo” Dobson is a well-respected man about town.
I ordered the six-ounce boneless rib eye very rare. It was a thin half-inch slab of meat, difficult to cook rare and hence merely pink (not red) in the center. But its sauce, involving melted blue cheese and mushroom gravy, was delicious, and the mashed potatoes underneath were the good old-fashioned kind made with butter and milk. A couple of baby carrots and asparagus spears provided the cameo appearances of the vegetable world.
The sautéed sea scallops from the regular menu were cooked precisely right, to that magic second when they border between opalescent and opaque. I couldn’t discern pedigrees and life stories by the flavor, but at the least, they are good dry-pack scallops, no icky potassium-preservative bath in their past. They came with caramelized onions, spinach, oven-dried tomato, and “herb verde sauce.” The seafood lovers in our group concurred that the tart green sauce is too harsh for delicate scallops. Not awful, but not optimum. (Hey, Pablo, consider pesto!)
Bistro Chicken is half a roast chicken with black figs, thyme, and a Marsala glaze (with more mashed potatoes and casual veggies). The garnishes are charming, but the chicken is cooked well done — that is, dry...even the dark meat. Well, that’s how most Americans think they like it, especially after being terrorized by the USDA with its exaggerated specifications for “done.” It is not, by any means, French bistro chicken, which is typically cooked about ten degrees less. (I haven’t heard anything about 50 million Frenchmen dropping dead over their chicken.) I did appreciate the fact that the dark portion included my favorite morsel, the “pope’s nose” (aka the fatty little tail-piece).
The wine list was easy to negotiate to find affordable quaffs. They were out of the Paso Robles Chard I wanted, but the waitress suggested Dobson’s house Chardonnay blend (just $28), and it was crisp, clean, undistinguished, but totally pleasant. Then they were out of the Côte de Rhône I ordered, so I gambled on an organic blend from Yorkville Cellars in Mendocino called “Hi-Rollr” ($30), a blend of Malbec, Petit Syrah, and Cabernet. It was delish, with resiny undertones backing a smooth, food-friendly quaff.
Our two prix-fixes included desserts. Given the fine puff pastry atop the bisque, I hoped for a tarte tatin choice. Instead, we passed up the “famous” crème brûlée (I think crème brûlée’s time has come and gone) to try what they call “Bananas Foster” and a cappuccino brownie. Well, don’t even begin to dream about NOLA-style Bananas Foster. This one’s a banana strudel, with layers of thick, leaden pastry sandwiching weighty banana filling — with, yes, a slick of caramel sauce and a mound of vanilla ice cream, sole connections to its NOLA namesake. (It’s really an unforgivable misnomer.) The brownie was pleasant, with nuts alongside and more vanilla ice cream on top. Lynne tried the house’s signature fancy coffee dessert called “huevo,” a variation of cappuccino with vanilla liqueur. It was okay. I got through the dessert ordeal with an espresso, but not a great one — simple, flat, rather bitter, no crema on top, but drinkable.
So, after ten years, I’ve finally eaten at Dobson’s. I guess I must be a San Diegan now. It turned out to be not at all intimidating, and less expensive than I anticipated — and very good, too, except that if I return, I’ll probably work my way through the rest of the appetizers and not bother with entrées (except maybe the sea bass, or the lamb rack if I’m meat-hungry). It’s easy to see how Dobson’s made it to 25 years while all around it, more venturesome restaurants are biting the dust. This is food that San Diegans really like. And, mostly, I like it, too.
*Casual Leftover Seafood Pasta in Garlicky Tomato Sauce: Somebody’s bound to ask how, so let’s cut to the chase. This is an informal recipe, depending on what’s on hand. It’s sized to feed two and takes under a half an hour. If the non-virgin olive oil in your pantry doesn’t taste like anything, use extra-virgin.
Start pasta water heating. Chop about a tablespoon of garlic (not too fine) and a shallot or scallion, and sauté in a medium skillet over low heat in a flavorful olive oil until translucent. (Mashing in an anchovy or three with a fork will add subtle seafood undertones and salt.) Stir in a 14-ounce can of tomatoes (favorite: Muir Glen fire-roasted tomatoes; otherwise, S&W Italian tomatoes, whole or chopped, but not finely diced). If tomatoes are whole, squish them into the skillet with your hands; if chopped, just dump ’em in. Stir in about 1/2 tablespoon fine-chopped fresh Italian parsley and a waft of fresh or dried basil with a splash of dry white wine (maybe 1/4 cup) if you have an open bottle.
Increase heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until tomatoes have reduced to a light sauce, about 20 minutes. (It shouldn’t be as thick as canned tomato sauce, but still coarse, with visible tomato pieces.) Taste about halfway through and add a pinch of sugar if tomatoes taste too acidic. (Meanwhile, cook pasta.) When pasta is done, lower heat on sauce, add leftover seafoods, and cook gently just to warm them. Just before serving, correct seasonings to taste with fresh-ground black pepper and, if needed, salt, and stir in about a tablespoon of minced fresh basil, if you have it, and toss with drained pasta immediately. (To make this with raw medium shrimps and/or crabs or coarsely chopped fish, stir in the seafood when the sauce is nearly thickened, let it cook in the sauce, stirring and checking done-ness frequently. For whole clams, add a pinch of oregano to sauce at the start. Add clams when sauce is thickened and keep cooking until clams open; grind in some extra black pepper.)
Errata: In the “Year’s Best,” there were two errors, mea culpa. The Argentine restaurant cited for second-best happy hour is Puerto La Boca (India Street at Hawthorn) rather than Puerto Alegre, although those tapas certainly made my boca very alegre. And Chilango’s, too briefly back from the dead, is dead again.
- 3.5 stars
- (Very Good to Excellent)
956 Broadway Circle, downtown, 619-231-6771, dobsonsrestaurant.com.
HOURS: Lunch weekdays, 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m.; dinner, Monday–Wednesday 3:00–10:00 p.m.; Thursday–Saturday until 11:00 p.m., later after theater.
PRICES: Dinner starters and salads, $9–$14; pasta entrées, $16–$18; protein entrées, $21–$39; desserts, $6–$10. Three-course early-bird prix fixe, $25. Lunch sandwiches, $11–$13, other lunch prices similar to dinner.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: California-continental comfort food, a bit retro but not stodgy. Mainly affordable wine list (with some higher “treats”). Full bar.
PICK HITS: Mussel bisque; fried oyster salad; chicken-liver pâté; crab hash; scallop entrée. Good bets: sautéed sea bass, mustard-crusted lamb rack; linguine with clams.
NEED TO KNOW: Steep staircase to dining room. First-floor bar tables accessible and reservable for lunch or dinner but impossible for Friday lunch or dinner. (For Friday power-lunches, bar tables require one-month reservation.) Local “power-crowd” on Fridays, business-casual regular people at dinner (pre- and post-theater crowds may be dressy). Garage next door ($10); inexpensive garage at Horton Plaza across the street.