The moment you cross the threshold at Dobson's Bar & Restaurant the first thing you see is Paul Dobson. So it was in 1984 and so it seems it always will be. Part maître' d and part schmoozer-in-chief, it's been said (particularly by the restaurant's website) that he "works a room better than Sinatra." Perhaps, though, he works it the way a matador (his prior avocation) works a bullring.
While Dobson's (956 Broadway Circle, Downtown) was once at the top of a very short list of best restaurants in town, by the mid-'90s it was better known as the power-lunch spot. Hit particularly hard by the 2008 economic downturn, Dobson sold his ownership stake earlier this year but maintained his old role.
In walked Chef Martin San Roman, best known for his eight-year run as a celebrity chef on Mexico's Televisa Network, as well as his stints at Candela's in the Gaslamp Quarter and his two highly rated Tijuana restaurants, Tour de France and Rincon San Roman. San Roman—who was BajaMed before there was a BajaMed—brought to Dobson's a new energy and hints of a new direction.
Dobson's most famous dish is the superlative mussel bisque en croute. Made from a lobster, shrimp and mussel stock with white wine, and strained before the addition of five boatloads of cream, the signature of this signature dish is the puff-pastry crust, cracked tableside to allow a glug of sherry. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this dish that a personal trainer can't put right.
The prevailing winds on Dobson's menu blow decidedly French—duck a l'orange, salmon in puff pastry, sea bass with a caper beurre blanc and San Roman's filet mignon with escargot, tomatoes and garlic sauce. Roast swordfish over mashed potatoes with sautéed cucumbers and orange beurre blanc was superb, the sauce lending richness to the meaty swordfish, the surprising texture of cucumbers showing the sautéed vegetable in a different light.
Dobson's is at its best when San Roman's Mexican roots meld with French tradition. A spinach soup with jalapeño and crab puff is a more modern—and Mexfrench—take on the same basic idea at the core of the mussel bisque. It has the same richness as the original but with a light, vibrant spinach flavor replacing the heavy seafood stock. Jalapeño infuses the puff-pastry biscuit with a rich crab filling inside.
Maybe the most complete statement of the restaurant's intentions is the Roasted Breast of Chicken Mexfrench. The dish looks and plays overtly French, the rich sauce and sinful mashed potatoes echoing the richness of the chicken breast's gruyere stuffing, contrasted by the still-crisp vegetables. But what makes the dish is the texture of the chicharrónes, sandwiched with the cheese inside the chicken breast. It forces a reconsideration of a dish that would otherwise be straight-ahead French.
The dish may not exactly be Martin San Roman on a plate—for that, one might go to his Valle de Guadalupe restaurant, La Terrasse San Roman—but it's definitely Martin San Roman and Paul Dobson on a plate.