A critical taste of the city’s flagship fine dining experience reveals a sense of San Diego’s culinary history
Posted Thursday, August 18, 2011, 03:38AM
San Diego, CA 92101
It all started with mock turtle soup. I’d always wanted to try the classic dish, a signature menu item at the Grant Grill since the restaurant first opened in 1951, after learning about the role it played in the Grill’s history. Six ladies sat down to an historic mock turtle soup lunch in 1969, which doesn’t sound particularly remarkable except for the fact that for almost two decades prior, the Grant Grill had strictly enforced a policy that kept the restaurant off limits to women until 3 p.m., after which time women were permitted to enter, but only if accompanied by a man.
The restaurant eventually did away with its antiquated practice, though it took a few years and a few more protest lunches. But one of those original mock turtle soup-eating women was a food critic for a local paper, so it seemed like an appropriate way to begin my first Grant Grill meal.
The thick, tomato-based soup, which gets a finishing tableside pour of sherry, is hearty and loaded with finely diced short rib, beef cheek, and tongue, which, all combined, are meant to approximate the texture of turtle. Having never had the real thing, I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but I can say that the soup tastes intensely beefy and maybe a little like victory.
In 2003, The US Grant was purchased by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, who gave the hotel—which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year—a glitzy overhaul, taking it from stately and stuffy to elegantly sleek. The Grant Grill’s décor is now more accessible, but the setting still lends itself to power lunches and dinners, with prices that are, especially on the wine list, expense-account steep. But for a fine dining restaurant, the portions here are almost excessively generous.
A tasting menu, ranging from three to five courses and starting at $40 is a good way to sample without getting overstuffed. Selections change weekly but always include both a seafood and a meat option; a summer visit yielded a slightly over-seared square of local halibut over a succotash of sweet corn and tomatoes, and braised lamb tossed with fresh pasta. The rest of the menu is refreshed quarterly by the chef de cuisine, Chris Kurth, who takes his cue from the seasonal produce that comes in from local farms and the hotel’s mezzanine rooftop garden, a beautifully terraced oasis full of edible plants that’s unfortunately only visible to hotel guests whose rooms look onto it.
An appetizer of Dungeness crab risotto, folded with capers and toasted pine nuts, was so ample it could have easily subbed as a main course. It was tasty in a comfort-food way, and extra creamy from the addition of crème fraîche, but its texture was too thick and set to be considered real-deal risotto, which should puddle loosely on a plate and have distinct, toothsome rice grains.
The risotto can be ordered as a starchy side dish as well, though don’t miss the duck confit potatoes, a simple yet devastating combo of roasted, buttery-fleshed fingerlings and savory shards of duck leg meat still glistening with duck fat. It does the current trend of duck-fat fries one better, and makes me wish that the kitchen would add an entrée featuring duck confit to the menu.
Another successful dish, Niman Ranch pork cheeks cooked until fall-apart tender, was almost overpowered by an abundance of chopped smoky bacon, but brought back from the tipping point by the tempering sweetness of Medjool dates and poached apples. And a roasted vegetable platter, sometimes ho-hum, had enough variety and other points of interest—pleasantly chewy barley, poached cherry tomatoes, and pistachio oil—to distract us from the meaty plates on the table.
The formal dining room, with its consistently warm and attentive service, is separated from the more casual, and infinitely more happening, Grant Grill Lounge by just a low wall. In the bar, there is music offered—usually a DJ or a live band—Thursday through Saturday and a steal of a happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. daily. (That’s when I first had those duck confit-gilded potatoes.)
Though the beer selection is woefully weak—a short list of bottles, and only one local among them—the cocktails are can’t-miss, and the hotel’s garden provides inspiration for the bar too; Grant Grill’s mixologist Jeff Josenhans, one of the most well-regarded pros in town, uses its bounty as a starting point for his ‘Tails from the Patch menu. His Rooftop Garden Tour muddles vodka with fresh tarragon, fennel, tomatoes, and white peach purée, and the decadent-tasting yet sugar-free Super Seasonal Skinny, based on caraway-infused rye, is sweetened with anise-flavored Stevia syrup and frothed with egg white.
In Prohibition days, The US Grant used to operate a secret underground speakeasy, serving spirits smuggled in through a downtown tunnel that connected to the port; in October, the hotel will resurrect the boozy hideaway for one night only, celebrating with the classic cocktails and jazz music of the era. Although some things here have changed with the times, and thankfully for the better, it’s nice to know that places such as these—steeped in history—still exist in San Diego.