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.