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.