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.