location > 326 Broadway, downtown
phone > 619-744-2077
chef > Andreas Nieto
NEVER MOCK TURTLE SOUP. Just spoon it up and be grateful that U.S. Grant Hotel executive chef Andreas Nieto had the good sense to return mock turtle to the Grant Grill menu several months after the landmark eatery reopened in October.
“Mock turtle soup no more?” was a question posed by returning power lunchers when they scanned the menu at the revived, vastly changed dining room. Now priced at an impressive $10 a bowl, this true classic of San Diego cuisine originally was made with sea turtle (no, there is no such animal as a “mock turtle”). When laws protecting these critters were enacted, a particularly able Grant Grill chef concocted a taste-alike recipe brewed from such diverse ingredients as diced beef tongue and hardboiled eggs, clam stock, root vegetables and tomato paste. It’s an irresistible soup, and given that the Grant Grill has held a place of pride in this town for more than 50 years, this heady potage doubles as a tasty portal to local history.
First-time visitors to the new Grant Grill likely will find it more international than local in tone, since it recalls grand dining rooms in luxury hotels around the world. On the other hand, habitués of the old room may find the changes in the landscape shocking and almost Bolshevist, since the clamorous kitchen now is hidden from view, and many of the choice booths where deals were made are quite, quite gone. But once you grow accustomed to the new look, Grant Grill seems very much a lovely haven of privilege, almost a relaxed San Diego version of the Savoy Grill in London (it’s a stretch, but there are similarities).
The space now opens to the repositioned bar, and the nearness of young sophisticates libating on chic leather chairs around tables set with silver candlesticks and extravagant floral arrangements gives the Grill a five-star international character. Above the bar, dramatic lanterns drop down in a high arc and are a pleasure to behold.
In the dining room——a trio of spaces delineated by sculptured metal partitions etched in Art Moderne curlicues——the tables lack candlesticks but boast ripe red roses in glass vases brushed with gold leaf. The dark woods that have characterized hotel grill rooms since at least the 1890s are present in profusion, but overall, the room is lighter in both appearance and mood.
The hotel’s new proprietors, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation (Starwood Hotels operates the property as part of its Luxury Collection), have taken pains to localize the grill in certain ways. Servers repeat the phrase “Welcome to the Grant Grill” so frequently and graciously that one is lulled into the role of most honored guest.
More subtly, the chief server may recommend the Native white-corn soup ($11) because “it’s traditional,” although it certainly is not a Grant Grill tradition. The “Native” in the title refers to the Native Americans who own the hotel, and this vegetarian soup of roasted white corn drizzled with toasted coriander seed oil is absolutely satisfying. The sage-flavored fry bread that accompanies a prime short rib ($38) with braised red cabbage and truffled potatoes makes another local reference.
Otherwise, the menu largely reflects chef Nieto’s contemporary-international leanings, which range from a very French appetizer of seared Hudson Valley foie gras with caramelized fruit ($23) to a luxurious, double-thick pork chop ($32) grilled with a lavender-maple glaze, bedded on sweet corn purée and accompanied by a rich, rich, rich little casserole of macaroni enrobed in white Cheddar cheese from Sonoma County.
THE PRICES PUT GRANT GRILL in the special occasion/expense account category, but numerous extras provide a return on the investment. The menu opens with a sextet of specialty martinis priced at a most impressive $14 each; these and similar drinks are served from shakers, however, which means the pleasure of a second pour. At dinner, bread takes the form of focaccia, served in its copper baking dish, sprinkled with herbs and beautifully hot, fresh and crusty. Lift out a wedge and the light green streak at the bottom indicates the extra-virgin olive oil that gives the bread a particularly fine, “made here this moment” character.
Chef Nieto seems exceptionally gifted with creations cooked in a soup pot, and his remarkable Pacific bouillabaisse ($16) made with Baja shrimp, clams and line-caught halibut boasts the most wonderfully fragrant and full-bodied broth. Another fine starter is the locally made, hand-pulled burrata mozzarella paired with juicy tomatoes and drizzled with a truffled balsamic vinegar glaze ($14).
The chef does something odd in his presentation of the day’s oysters (market price), which range in a precise formation down a long rectangular plate. These were plump, briny beauties, to be sure, but in addition to a cup of the mignonette dip (red vinegar with chopped shallots and cracked pepper) usually offered with oysters, the plate bears a dish of horseradish-tinged mustard. Try it if you like——but the mustard’s effect is to completely mask any oyster flavor.
Seafood entrées tend to the lighter, and Nieto presents such fine, imaginative combinations as seared local snapper accented with sharp Spanish serrano ham and succulent razor clams from the Pacific Northwest ($28). Garnishes as well as precise cooking define such plates as jumbo day-boat scallops with Fuji apple and black truffles ($29) and grilled sea bass with baby fennel and yellow beets, both of which nicely hone the rich flavors of the fish ($28).
Meat dishes are more substantial, notably a roasted Colorado lamb rack with tiny glazed vegetables and Pinot Noir sauce ($38) and a sautéed beef filet served with bone marrow, which makes a buttery sauce, and a creamy purée of celery root and potatoes ($38).
Some desserts also are prepared to order, and the wait for the apple tart ($8), baked to order in a miniature skillet and drizzled with caramel sauce, seems just a slender fragment of time when this fragile triumph arrives.
The Grant Grill serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily at the U.S. Grant Hotel, 326 Broadway in downtown San Diego. Reservations are suggested; telephone 619-744-2077.