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."