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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.

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