99 Years of Seduction

Grant Grill

326 Broadway, Downtown San Diego




The U.S. Grant Hotel, completed in October 1910, is one of the city’s grandest old hotels. Its signature restaurant, the Grant Grill, is equally historic. For its first 90-some years, it was a clubby, old-fashioned chophouse with paintings of hunting scenes on the wall, perfumed with the cigar smoke of the city’s movers and shakers — politicians and big businessmen making deals under the lunch table. (Shocked?) Their tabletops were likely to be laden with beef Wellington, huge veal chops, plate-filling steaks, ponds of heavy brown sauces — espagnole, sauce madère, périgourdine, et al. So masculine was the room that females were not even allowed to lunch there until 1969, when several locally prominent women staged a sit-in. (You can’t play ball with the big boys if you can’t lunch with them; two female mayors soon followed.) In the evening, the atmosphere mellowed romantically, as those who could afford it wooed their ladies over dazzling dinners and winsome wines before proffering proposals or propositions.

Eventually, under the neglectful ownership of Wyndham Hotels, both hotel and restaurant started to show signs of genteel rot. Then the Sycuan tribe bought and renovated the rooms and the Grill, spiffing up the premises until the Grant could qualify as a prestigious Starwood Resort.

Last time I ate at there, shortly after the renovation and reopening in October 2006, I looked around at my fellow diners, and there at the next table was a man who had done me wrong (details not forthcoming): “Dr. Evil” was smarmily wooing a blonde who, judging by her skimpy clothes-to-expose, seemed highly unlikely to be his wife. (Grant Grill is no place for secret trysts — you never know who might be there watching.) Other tables included older couples quietly celebrating anniversaries, younger couples courting, and probably some conventioneers (aren’t there always?).

The garb was formal for a weeknight — suits, date-dresses. The Grill’s renovation had sacrificed none of its romantic resonances. There was a new chef at the time, a Euro-style guy who thought he could teach San Diegans how to eat. He was wrong, and he’s also gone; his food was not all that seductive. The new young waiters didn’t compare to the pre-renovation staff of tuxedoed elderly gentlemen, who made you feel their greatest pleasure was to give you pleasure.

Returning three years later for Restaurant Week, after learning that they have a hot new chef, I noticed more long-sleeved shirts than suits, more “day-to-dinner” dresses than date-night décolleté (perhaps more a sign of changing times than the week’s budget menu). I ate with three friends — the prix-fixe offered three choices for each course, but a fourth wheel would let us roll smoothly into a few à la carte selections.

None of us is a politician, corporate mogul, or otherwise mover-and-shaker (except when dancing). Just as in the pre-renovation era of those courtly old waiters, our adept, mature waitress made my posse feel completely comfortable. The vibes were as fine as the food and decor.

We were seated in a lounge area. Like the adjoining dining room, there are mahogany-paneled walls and vanilla real-leather furniture (chairs, banquettes), but also a large light fixture that allows you to see your food. Michelle, an interior decorator, savored every detail.

The current chef is Michigan-born Mark Kropczynski, who trained at the Culinary Institute of New York and has headed several major hotel restaurants, including Rancho Santa Fe. His chef de cuisine, Chris Kurz, previously worked at the Lodge at Torrey Pines and the late Prince of Wales at the Hotel Del. They’re both dedicated to the local ethos of seasonal cuisine made with mainly local products. If your heart’s set on beef Wellington, go to Rainwater’s.

I don’t like reviewing based on a Restaurant Week dinner if the menu is atypical (as in, a bunch of cheap stuff) and the dining room is uncharacteristically jammed. But here, the room was a scant, right-sized weeknight crowd, and the menu was reasonably akin to the normal choices. This would be a difficult review in any event, because the seasonal menu changes so frequently, I’d have to revisit six times over the course of a year to do it justice. I’d love that — but you do the best you can with the budget you’ve got.

Dinner began off-key with an amuse of a spoonful of fresh fruit salad topped with a slice of rare filet mignon. “The charring on the beef wipes out the fruit flavors,” said Michelle, to general agreement. But the house bread was delicious — soft, warm, fresh. Served along with the butter was a lovable spoonful of kosher salt to sprinkle on top.

The Restaurant Week starters were all quite good. The table favorite was country pork pâté with pears, pistachios, pickled onions, and frisée. (Doomed to become leftover frisée, as usual. Hey, this is America — we eat arugula! Only pretentious Francophiles actually eat this other stuff.) Michelle’s palate was acute that night, picking out subtle hints of cinnamon and nutmeg in the pâté mixture.

A warm stone-fruit salad was garnished with almonds, wild arugula, and “Iowa white lardo” — that Mario Batali fad made from pork fatback, here served in delicate ribbons draped over the peaches. Interesting, but it’s a weird setting for pork fat. I want to taste the stuff in a more natural context.

Smoked albacore was disappointing — the usual seared-on-the-edge number, nicely garnished with various beans and tender leeks. But I’d hoped for the much smokier fish you’d find, for instance, in the fish market on the Ensenada waterfront. Lacking deep smoke, it’s just another seared-ahi yawn.

The shibboleth of the à la carte menu since 1493 (when Columbus landed in San Diego and the Kumeyaay greeters from Sycuan said, “Here, have some soup”) is mock-turtle soup. (I’ve eaten real sea-turtle stew at a mediocre restaurant in Panama City long ago, and the meat tastes like canned dark-meat chicken or swamp/Cajun-braised alligator belly.) The mock-turtle meat is tender minced beef tongue in a gentle tomato-spiked clam-and-meat stock, garnished with minced veggies, sherry poured in at serving. “You know, this just tastes like a good, smooth minestrone,” said Fred. Nice, but none of us could imagine how this became an enduring “signature dish,” except for nostalgia’s sake. (Maybe they used to make it with the authentic mock-turtle meat that inspired Lewis Carroll’s “soup of the evening, beautiful soup.”) Big plus for service: four soup spoons, without our having to ask for them.

For our à la carte entrée, we picked Maine lobster ($36) served over braised dark greens with uni (sea urchin), goat-cheese ravioli, oyster mushrooms, and daubs of whole-grain mustard, along with poufs of some loose white cheese so angelically soft and mild it must have been made from the milk of a virgin goat. The sea urchin was nowhere evident; perhaps it was incorporated into the ravioli filling, tragically obscured by thick, undercooked pasta skins. The lobster pieces were so sensuous that at first bite I closed my eyes and purred aloud, until my tablemates teased me about the feline sound effects. The meaty, slickety oyster mushrooms mirrored the lobster’s texture. “But do you think this comes all together?” asked Samurai Jim. Well, no — it seemed scattered, mainly the fault of the chewy ravioli skins that, instead of unifying, insisted on upstaging all their plate-mates, like a Shakespearean clown showing up raucously drunk for his bit part in Hamlet.

Our favorite prix-fixe entrée was California white sea bass, cooked tender (automatically — no pleading!), accompanied by sweet roasted local tomatoes that tasted like golden plums, plus sweet corn flecked with bacony little chunks of speck (Austrian prosciutto). The fish was garnished with a subtle, coral-colored sauce that we couldn’t nail down (not even Michelle), but it drew everything together.

With Maple Leaf duck breast, the quacker was okay — properly rare, garnished with fresh peach slices, succulent grapes, tasty roasted bites of “Onaway potatoes” (whatever they are) and meaty chanterelle wild mushrooms. But I don’t really love those mass-raised Maple Leaf ducks (the usual fare in San Diego restaurants), having been spoiled by flavorful little Petaluma-grown fresh Muscovies at my local groceries and Cantonese roasteries back up north.

Estancia-brand grass-fed flat-iron steak also came as deeply rare as it should. Grass-fed cattle get more exercise than their penned-up cousins, and this cut is from the chuck (the well-muscled front shoulder). It called for real steak knives (not provided), not wimpy entrée knives. That is, it wasn’t the tenderest. The flavor was disappointing until we thought of sprinkling the meat with loose salt from the butter plate, which perked it right up. We loved the accompanying capers and sweet-pepper relish and suave Bordelaise (a classic red wine–butter reduction sauce for steaks). Onion-bread pudding was a touch overcooked, mere minutes past the optimal gooey moistness you want with a steak.

It’s the wine list, more than the menu, that consigns Grant Grill to special-occasion status. I spotted only a few under-$40 bottles. We began with the reliable Ferrari-Carano Sauvignon Blanc ($45, $7–$10 higher than normal restaurant price). The sommelier helped us choose a red for our radically divided entrées (lobster and bass, versus duck and beef). The “chocolate-y” White Oak Merlot ($51) proved a smooth, bipartisan red, flirting most with the duck as merlots like to do. If you’re going in heavy for beef, the list includes a tannic, full-bodied Qupé fake-Rhône for about the same price.

For dessert, a lively melon consommé with lemon-verbena sorbet was like a passing glimpse of Fairyland, here for a minute, then — whoosh! — vanishing to unearthly realms. Roasted apple-frangipani tart with brown-sugar ice cream included candied walnuts with a secret that only Michelle picked out — a tiny lash of cayenne in the coating. Marble bundt cake with toffee and cinnamon mousse was also light, if more substantial. By now, my main craving was for espresso, and it was great espresso, rich and balanced with a full-bodied mouth-feel like hot chocolate — best espresso this year, and my real dessert.

I base ratings about 90 percent on food. The previous two times I’ve eaten at Grant Grill (’04 and ’06, before and after renovation), I loved the place — but after several days of digesting my impressions rated it “Very Good” or “Very Good to Excellent,” same as now. The grand decor leads you to expect sublime cooking (on a par with, say, the Ritz Carlton, the Savoy, the Plaza Athenée, the Hotel Mamounia, et al.). The flawless service, comfort, and luxury seduce you into enjoying the meal as if the food actually were that wonderful. But a few days later, you realize it was, however delicious, a bit less. It’s not the Don Juan of restaurants (a woman-hating bad guy) but the Casanova — the lover who loved to give pleasure.

“So — would you come back?” I asked my friends. “If I could afford it, I’d eat here every month,” said Fred, “if only to track the seasonal changes in the menu.” Michelle said, “I love the feel of the place as well as the food. The whole atmosphere is so enjoyable — it’s beautiful and luxurious but not snooty.” And Jim said, “Our waitress made us feel like we belonged here.” That’s saying a big, tasty mouthful.

Grant Grill

  • 3.5 stars
  • (Very Good to Excellent)

326 Broadway, downtown, 619-744-2017, 744-2077, grantgrill.com
HOURS: Breakfast and brunch through dinner daily, 6:30 a.m.–closing (circa 10:00 p.m. weeknights, later weekends; bar-lounge open after hours with light eats).
PRICES: Dinner starters, $10–$24; entrées, $28–$46. Corkage, $25 per bottle.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: California-continental cuisine, mingling luxury traditions with seasonal, fresh local flavors. Long, awesome wine list but almost no bottles under $45; plenty by the glass and half-bottle at equivalent or higher prices. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Seasonal menu with frequent changes; seafood well treated. Try mock-turtle soup, just to say you’ve tasted it.
NEED TO KNOW: Rating based mainly on prix-fixe Restaurant Week dinner, which appears reasonably representative of regular menu. Validated valet parking $9 (garage on Third Avenue side). Outdoor seating available. Great “special occasion” and business-meal destination, with deluxe decor, highly competent friendly service. Business-casual clothes or day-to-dinner dress on weeknights.

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Comments

Last week S. Daniels requested a fish recipe. Just got around to it. Copper River Salmon with Morels is posted on last week's comments.

This was signed, sealed and delivered before the good reader comment from an Istrian about "speck" (see Cucina Urbana comments.) It's not really Austrian prosciutto (different part of the pig, not the same way of making it) but it does taste similar.

"...a lively melon consommé with lemon-verbena sorbet was like a like a passing glimpse of Fairyland, here for a minute, then — whoosh! — vanishing to unearthly realms. Roasted apple-frangipani tart with brown-sugar ice cream included candied walnuts with a secret that only Michelle picked out — a tiny lash of cayenne in the coating."

Mmm. Sounds delish, if just for these holiday-sounding desserts; but it is hard to imagine going without first hearing Kingsley McClaren intone "Come to the Grauhhnnt Grill" on old KFSD. :)

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