Adobe El Restaurante
By Robin Kleven Dishon
LATE AUTUMN, POST-SUNSET. A massive outdoor fireplace warms a circle of friends chatting over cocktails and Cabernet. A couple wanders by, hand-in-hand, enchanted by the river song of a fountain. A lone guitarist strums a Spanish tune, surrounded by low brick buildings, Mexican sage and olive trees.
The architecture is old Santa Barbara; the serenity, pure Santa Fe. But this oasis of calm isn’t far from downtown San Diego. Welcome to Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa.
Surrounded by top-notch research, educational and medical facilities, the resort is an island of mellow in this cerebral corridor of town. Open since June, the 10-acre retreat—built on a one-time horse farm—attracts wellheeled locals and out-of-towners with a taste for luxury. And it’s not just the ambience and spa treatments that are drawing attention. Estancia offers some dreamy dining, too.
An upscale indoor/outdoor bar, dubbed Mustangs & Burros, dishes up meal-size appetizers, modish Margaritas and guitar music under the stars. In the main dining room, Adobe El Restaurante, pleasing SoCal/ Mediterranean cuisine is served in an atmosphere that’s low-key and genteel.
Heavy chairs and Mission-style accents add substance to the narrow, highceilinged space. Beyond the doors, a vast courtyard and illuminated fountain create a sense of calm.
The menu changes seasonally, with sous chef Chris Bennett particularly interested in utilizing local produce and fish. (Both Bennett and executive chef Jesse Frost formerly cooked at Prince of Wales Grill in the Hotel del Coronado.) The fruits (and vegetables) of local farmers’ labors first appear in the appetizer lineup, notably in the house salad of flavor- packed heirloom tomatoes, buttery local avocados and lots of frilly greens. They also star in the crudités roti($10), a selection of grilled farm-fresh veggies served au naturel in their skins.
Other worthwhile starters include the chef ’s charcuterie selection ($14), with a peppery chicken terrine competing with smoked duck for best nosh on the platter. At Mustangs & Burros, dip into the Cajun- style take on queso fundido—four cheeses melted together with smoky tasso ham—that’s ample for sharing.
The entrée menu is short but democratic in its selection: poultry, fish, beef, lamb, pasta, vegetarian. The rack of lamb ($32) is pricy, but each precisely trimmed chop is a work of art: rosy rare, gently seasoned, worth picking up and gnawing to the bone. Truffle-scented polenta and parsnip purée make great partners.
Do ask about the catch of the day: One night’s black cod, the shimmery white fillets quickly sizzled in lemon butter and served over tiny brown lentils, was perfection. So was the garnish, a plump tomato filled with warm crabmeat tossed in lemon, pepper and olive oil. The seared sea bass ($24) with fava beans and sweet corn was also cooked with evident care, though we’d pull the tart braised rhubarb from this otherwise charming dish.
Compared to the other entrées, the free-range chicken duet ($22) was plain as a brown wrapper: one braised thigh served au jus with one bacon-wrapped slice of terrine.
Several muy grande side dishes are available for $8, and non-carnivores could assemble a great meal from a couple of these. Kudos to the enormous roasted heirloom tomatoes dusted with Provençal herbs; the devilishly rich risotto stirred with wild mushrooms and mascarpone; and the potatoes in smoked tomato sauce.
For dessert (all are $8), a Valrhona chocolate lava cake adorned with winesoaked berries delivers all the gooey satisfaction we’ve come to expect from the genre. Also on the sweets list: bread-pudding cheesecake, rum-basted bananas and fruit cobbler.
THE WINE LIST IS INVITING and fairly extensive, although its all-American theme is a bit annoying for those of us who expect our sparkling wines to be French. Still, you’ll find more than two dozen Cabernets, 13 Merlots and scores of interesting whites, along with ample choices by the glass. Bottle prices range from $25 (Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc) to $245 (Opus One; no vintage listed); expect to pay around $50 for a memorable bottle. The Bodega wine bar adjacent to the dining room offers a quiet place to sit a spell and sample flights of California wines or a digestif.
With its effortless interplay of indoor and outdoor spaces, desert landscaping and rustic elegance, Estancia epitomizes old California style. Already, residents of the adjacent Blackhorse community and regulars from throughout the county have embraced the resort as a home away from home.
Servers in both bars and the dining room deserve special recognition. This mostly youthful staff is outgoing, sincere and eager to please.
Diners here tend to skew a bit older and dressier, though the demographics include families with small children and groups of casually clad conference attendees. Come one, come all: A little slice of paradise awaits.
Adobe El Restaurante serves lunch and dinner daily at 9700 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla; 858-550-1000; www. estancialajolla.com. Mustangs & Burros and the Bodega Wine Bar & Library also serve daily; check with the resort for specific hours.
Adobe El Restaurante
location: 9700 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla
chef: Jesse Frost