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.)