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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

Naomi Wise Oct. 14, 2009 @ 7:38 p.m.

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.

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Naomi Wise Oct. 19, 2009 @ 10:45 p.m.

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.

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SDaniels Oct. 19, 2009 @ 11:19 p.m.

"...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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