The Old Is All New

Grant Grill

326 Broadway, Downtown San Diego

The U.S. Grant Hotel, under new ownership by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, has finally reopened after its $52 million renovation, and it's looking magnificent. The lobby is bright and dramatic, with multicolored polished marble floors and small white leather couches beside coffee tables set with handcrafted basketry mats. On the walls around the periphery are small, museum-like exhibits of the arts, crafts, and lifestyles of the Kumeyaay, the original inhabitants of this region, who are now flourishing through their ownership and management of Sycuan Casino.

In October, the venerable Grant Grill also reopened -- and it, too, is changed and freshened. The two dining rooms are separated by a brightly lighted lounge where we spotted several large parties congregating for drinks and dinner, and, one night, an elderly solo diner, face buried in a thick book. One dining room has such "romantic" lighting (by dim chandeliers and candles) that my partner and I found it difficult to read the menu. The other dining room, which abuts the kitchen door, supplements the Victorian lighting with handsome Deco-ish wall-hung lamps that allow you to see what you're ordering and eating. The walls and floors are still the old dark, beautiful hardwood, newly refinished. The chairs and booths are upholstered in white leather, with white damask for the banquettes -- a shift that, for better or worse, rids the rooms of their brown-leather English men's club vibe. The wonderful old waiters in tuxes are gone, and I hope they are well pensioned. (The oil paintings of hunting scenes seem to be gone, too, and good riddance.) Oh yeah, and women are allowed now, even at lunch. Have been since 1969.

It's premature to review Grant Grill such a short time after its reopening, but the holidays are nearly here. We're all looking for places to wine and dine Cousin Shelley from chilly Chicago and Aunt Peggy from poky Peoria, and a gorgeous grill like the Grant is a San Diego showcase. Local curiosity is rampant, too. The dining rooms are packed at prime dinner hours -- with city bigwigs, visiting celebs, socialite charity queens planning their next "events," and, of course, plenty of regular folks. Romantic lighting or no, odds are you'll see or be seen by somebody you know. (At our second dinner, I spotted a doctor from UCSD -- hi, Sean! -- entertaining a pretty blonde colleague at a nearby table.)

In days of yore, the bill of fare combined French haute cuisine with British hotel-grill staples. Even before the renovation, the menu was changing to a less dated style. Now it's thoroughly Southern Californian. No more secret-recipe mock-turtle soup, no more beef Wellington. A classically trained, highly experienced hotel chef, Andreas Nieto, is the new commander of the kitchen. His preparations are simpler and cleaner than the Grill's former Gilded Age fare. The "Slow Food" movement makes itself felt with free-range chicken, naturally raised meats, produce from nearby farms (including Chino), and Pacific seafoods, including locally caught species.

Dinner begins with an amuse-bouche (a bit of ceviche one night, a square of carpaccio another) and with house-made sage bread -- a round, quartered artisan loaf so freshly baked, it arrives still hot in its pan. (One night it was puffy; another, it was heavy and doughy from a few minutes' undercooking.) The butter plate includes tiny rectangular depressions filled with ground pepper and fine-ground Kosher salt, with a strong, pure-salt taste that hits hard but dissipates quickly, leaving no aftertaste. That salt will be strongly present throughout your meal -- it's heavily applied to nearly every dish.

Our best appetizer was a special of foie gras, probably a harbinger of upcoming menus: marshmallow-tender with a glaze of caramelized apple juice, the liver rested atop a mound of flawless risotto and black trumpet mushrooms, with a few slices of apple on the side. "This is the way I like risotto," said my partner. "Soft and creamy, with lots of flavor from the broth." Second-best: hand-pulled burrata mozzarella that the chef makes himself, with a sensuously gooey center that spilled off the fork like Silly Putty. It was surrounded by tangy heirloom tomato slices and microgreens, garnished with balsamic vinegar and a discreet touch of white truffle oil. Another salad worth recommending, even untried, features organic Chino baby lettuce with figs and Sonoma goat cheese that is made to order for this restaurant. We feasted our eyes on it as it was delivered to other tables, wishing we could clone ourselves to taste it.

Native California roasted white corn soup was an engaging, thick purée, its sweetness set off by sharp microgreens afloat in the broth and droplets of toasted coriander seed oil, lending a nutty note and a citric aroma. (It's "native" because the corn is local, not because the Sycuan Band has taken up truck-farming behind the casino.) A Pacific seafood bouillabaisse, served as a starter, was a sort of Reader's Digest rendition of the French seafood soup, abridged and simplified but still true at heart. It included tender mussels, clams, and local halibut, and a few overcooked jumbo shrimp in a thick broth powered by the classic flavorings of Florence fennel, diced tomato, and saffron. Missing, though, was Provence's customary rouille (red pepper aioli) and baguette croutons, a lack I felt keenly. However wonderful the house bread, it's too heavy and herbal to make a good sop for seafood broth.

If those two soups boasted strong, straight-ahead flavors, another evening's special of truffled wild-mushroom soup was the opposite. A creamless tan purée, it tasted of neither mushrooms nor truffles nor any other flavor, except for a hint, perhaps, of flour. Another letdown was the roasted spiced lobster cake, where an excess of salty bread filler obscured the flavor of the sweet local lobster chunks. The garnishes of Maui onion relish and Satsuma tangerine reduction were pleasant but couldn't undo the damage.

The best of our entrées was Arctic char (a species of wild Pacific salmon), ideally done with crisped, charred skin and moist flesh, accompanied by "house-dried pepper-crusted tomatoes" (soft, lush, and intense), leaves and heart-slices of tiny baby artichokes, and four small gnocchi -- one perfect, three on the chewy side.

We loved the lavender-maple glaze on a double-thick pork chop. However -- I asked for the meat medium rare, even specifying 140 degrees, and while our food-hip waiter got the message, the kitchen hotline did not. The chop arrived cooked medium (about 160 degrees) with only a hint of pink at the center, robbing the meat of succulence and flavor. (Come, all ye chefs and grillers and listen to my song: At 140 degrees, USDA-approved pork is safe from any unlikely trichina spores, the life-stage of this parasite that's dangerous to us. If you serve rare beefsteaks or roasts, you can serve medium-rare pork.) The gigantic chop came with a tasty baked-down corn purée and a copper ramekin of macaroni in a thick sauce of mild white Sonoma cheddar brightened with garlic.

A fennel-crusted roast veal chop struck us as a huge slab of nothing. I order veal chops from time to time hoping for the flavor-explosion I once enjoyed at Nancy Oakes's Boulevard in San Francisco -- but Nancy used amazing free-range organic veal. Although naturally raised (Brandt Meats), this was not that. The best thing about the plate was a pile of puffy hand-cut fries, sized for a Yeti's delectation. The veal tasted only of a faint generic meatiness. Even the garnish of whole yellow-foot chanterelle mushrooms seemed devoid of flavor. I began to speculate that Grant Grill's historic kitchen may be haunted by a resident hungry ghost -- perhaps one of the courtly old waiters who has passed on. Unable to eat physically, the ghost wafts around and ectoplasmically sucks the flavor out of random ingredients.

Porcini-crusted jumbo day boat diver scallops were also somewhat lacking. These are Baja scallops, not the customary New Englanders, and for all their double pedigree, they were pale in flavor. Ours were undercooked and a bit rubbery. Prettily presented, the four scallops were lined up on a rectangular glass plate, each resting on a wafer of golden beet and capped with tomato chutney. The plate was aswirl with many-colored unidentified glazes. But something was missing -- one more distinct flavor for contrast. "This plate needs a side of some vegetable or starch, even if it's just fries," said my partner. "It feels more like an overgrown appetizer than an entrée."

But remember, Grant Grill is still a very new restaurant, with an evolving menu, as the chef trains a newly assembled kitchen staff. In mid-December, when his winter menu debuts, he promises to bring more complex preparations to the menu -- but still, nothing too crazy. It will still be Grant Grill.

Desserts, it turns out, are in the "needs more work" stage. We were thinking of ordering the "banana corny dog" because it looked so good when delivered to a nearby booth occupied by an odd couple -- a plump, fortyish blonde in a Levi jacket and jeans canoodling with a fiftyish man in a stuffy business suit. The blonde took a bite of her banana and frowned. After a second bite, she abandoned it. I took that for a food review in mime.

We decided instead on the warm mini-donuts, remembering the airy little ones served as a mignardise at the end of a dinner at A.R. Valentien. Those at Grant Grill were more like cinnamon-coated "donut holes" made from a heavy batter and as firm and dense as those from a cop-stop donut shop. They came with nice mocha ice cream and vanilla whipped cream. Next time, we tried a "trio of dessert shots." One of the trio (the mocha) was MIA; the other two were raspberry and strawberry (subbing for the advertised passionfruit). The raspberries were very tart, so let that guide you if you're tempted by the "raspberry stack" dessert. When our waiter noticed that we'd eaten little of this offering, he apologetically told us that it was an "experimental" dish. I suspect this experiment will be aborted long before you read this.

If the menu is now at least partly "Slow Food," so is the serving pace, especially on busy evenings. There are plenty of staff, and they're attentive, but the kitchen isn't up to speed yet. Once the room fills up, the wait between courses can stretch to half an hour. In the season of entertaining guests and out-of-town relatives, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, so long as there's plenty of family gossip to catch up on. As for the food -- the small technical flaws we encountered are bound to improve over time, but for the moment, the menu is still conservative. There is nothing there to shock anyone, not even Aunt Peggy from Peoria. Given the impressive surroundings and the great glimpse of old-time San Diego, Grant Grill is an excellent destination for holiday dining, if you don't mind that the food is cautious. It may eventually become more of a destination for culinary high-divers, but give it a few more months to develop its kitchen staff and grow into its surroundings.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Andreas Nieto is a third-generation hotel chef, following his father and grandfather. "When I was 15 and I got my learner's permit, I decided I wanted to buy a Mustang. My father told me that if I wanted a car, I had to start earning money for it, so I went to work for him at the hotel restaurant in Dallas where he was working. Before that, I'd never even been there. And the restaurant kitchen was so magical to me, I fell in love with it and have never wanted to do anything else. I was so fascinated, I even forgot about the car."

By the time he completed high school, Nieto was already a working line chef, but his father advised him that if he wanted to get anywhere in the future, he'd better have formal schooling in cooking. He entered a classic three-year apprenticeship program under the auspices of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), cooking in hotels all over America, France, and Switzerland, learning all facets of culinary technique. Since then, he's been executive chef at such respected Los Angeles destinations as the Beverly Hills Hotel (home of the Polo Lounge) and the Century Plaza, supervising their hotel restaurants.

When he was offered the job at Grant Grill, the kitchen wasn't ready for him, so he prepared for the job by eating all over town. "It's true that San Diego is a less sophisticated food town than Los Angeles," he observed. "With all the wonderful local farms, I found that most of the restaurants here are not even using local produce, they're still buying from Sysco. And sometimes you see very complicated dishes, seven or eight things on a plate, so you can't even understand what the plate is about -- meanwhile, the mashed potatoes arrive cold. What I stress with my staff is ingredients, freshness, and classic technique, with the dishes served promptly and at the proper temperature. The aim is to give diners a pleasurable, memorable experience...I want to have high-quality ingredients, and I like to have just a few clear flavors on each plate, every element complementing each other and contributing to the whole.

"What we're doing at Grant Grill is using almost entirely local ingredients. That's what we mean when we say 'native' on the menu -- it means locally grown or caught and cooked according to local traditions. The scallops we use -- I went out on the boats in Baja with the people who dive for the scallops, and I buy these directly from them. I have a sous-chef who came from the Lodge at Torrey Pines [A.R. Valentien] who knows all the local farmers, and we buy from them, and we go up to Chino as well." (Ed. note: Chino Farms doesn't deliver, except by air to Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Several other local North County organic/sustainable farms have banded together to deliver directly to restaurants in the city and surrounding areas, instead of selling to a jobber who trucks it up to Los Angeles for subsequent re-importation back to San Diego.)

The opening menu, he agreed, is conservative -- not so much to humor San Diego's notoriously cautious tastes as to train a newly assembled kitchen staff. "I change my menu with the seasons, and on December 15, we'll start the new winter menu. I'll be introducing more complex, sophisticated dishes then. I'm hoping to become a force in San Diego for really sophisticated cooking."

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