Malibu Adobe, 23410 Civic Center Way, Malibu, (213) 456-2021. Lunch Tuesday through Sunday; dinner daily. Full bar. Street parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$70.
The Malibu Adobe is a name operation. Ali MacGraw designed it. Names like Alan Ladd Jr., Bob Newhart and Stacy Keach invested in it. It has a name kitchen: Jonathan Waxman, the Michael's veteran who now has a string of restaurants in New York and London, consulted on the menu. The chef comes from the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M., which opened last summer after one of the longer drum rolls in history. (What was it? Three years from announcement to opening, making it a name restaurant long before it served a single meal.) Chef Jeff Starr himself became a sort of name when he came to the Malibu Adobe--he may have set some sort of speed record for leaving a famous restaurant as a sous-chef to head his own kitchen.
Names must dine here too, but don't look around--just keep talking (and keep talking loud enough to be heard in this rather busy, chatty place). Remember, Malibu Beach is casual. Mr. oatmeal jacket with leather elbow patches, meet Ms. puffy down vest with the dark glasses parked on her forehead. Ms. frosted jeans and nutria jacket, meet Mr. ratty hooded sweat shirt with the gold Rolex. Just don't anybody stare.
However, it's cool to check out the Ali MacGraw decor, which turns out to be quite nice in a spare, deserty sort of way. The walls are whitewashed adobe with roughly peeled blonde logs for the beams and rafters in the high ceiling. The bleached skeletons of a Joshua tree and a saguaro cactus, I suppose, stand at the reception area for a Georgia O'Keeffe touch. It's all saved from an excess of good taste by the fuzzy candid shots of Malibu surfers on the walls (in tasteful blonde wood frames), and the result is a pleasantly relaxing environment.
The menu, as you'd expect from its Coyote Cafe roots, is Mexican with California touches. Like many of the appetizers, the vinegary scallops in a little radicchio cup with sweet pepper chunks and jicama come with a characteristic California salad of sweet, marvelously fresh lettuces in a sharp lemony vinaigrette, sometimes with little peppery toasted almond chips scattered on top. Even familiar Mexican dishes have unusual touches in the California manner. The quesadilla with "spicy carnitas and Jack cheese" is actually plainer than you'd guess, the carnitas having been minced so fine the filling is a uniform mush, but the rather dubious-sounding quesadilla with wild mushrooms, goat cheese and pine nuts is not a ghastly hybrid but a true inspiration. With its peculiarly satisfying combination of faintly funky flavors, it might be the best thing on the menu--it works so well you could sell it on street corners. The nondescript sour tomatillo sauce that comes with the carnitas quesadilla is not enough to save it, but the sour cream and guacamole that come with this one are beside the point.
At lunch one day, I had three flautas , two filled with chicken and a third (made with a blue corn tortilla of a shade verging on violet) filled with carnitas , that came in a bland sauce that must have been made from tomatillos. And the sweet, barely spicy "pineapple Anaheim chili salsa" on an oyster appetizer struck me as exoticism for exoticism's sake. Otherwise, though, this is a remarkably good menu. Smoked pork loin with ancho-almond salsa is a few slices of citrus-marinated pork, well browned on one side, topped with a mound of a nutty, moderately hot sauce that hints faintly of Indonesia. The roughly ingratiating salsa negra that comes with the rib eye steak is chunks of dried hot pepper skin and onion browned almost black.
And what fish! Wonderful ahiahi, exquisite fresh grilled tuna with a sour and sneakily hot green pepper sauce, mahi-mahi in nice tender chunks with an elusive flavor from cinnamon in the breading flour. Even quail, so often boring, is pretty good here (though some will always say not worth the considerable trouble of eating such a tiny bird), the skin redolent of cinnamon and clove. Everything comes with plain black beans topped with sour cream and an appealing crunchy and faintly sweet vegetable hash of corn, squashes, onions and red peppers that is crunchy and faintly sweet.
Nobody goes to a Mexican restaurant for the desserts, but the Malibu Adobe could be an exception. The most exotic dessert is flan de cajeta , a sort of pie consisting of a thick brownish layer of caramel-flavored custard topped with whipped cream and toasted coconut chips. The bourbon chocolate cake looks like a sort of wedge-shaped brownie, but it's full of powerful, grainy bitter chocolate with a bit of whipped creme fraiche on the side. Even the more conventional desserts like a very sour lemon pie with strawberry puree or a cake consisting of not much but strawberries and whipped cream are remarkably good. Bravo, Malibu.