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Seared scallops with tomatoes, olives, pancetta and polenta

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by Kersten Wehde | Photo: Andrea Bricco | Riviera San Diego magazine | February 21, 2013

When the new Horton Plaza Park—a 1.5-acre expanse that will include an urban plaza and amphitheater—is completed next year, restoring a long-neglected downtown parcel to the grassy glory it enjoyed 100 years ago, it’s fitting that the historic US Grant will have a front-row seat across Broadway. Having recently celebrated its own centennial, the city’s original grand dame ably embodies the often parallel roles of wizened sophisticate and hip innovator, and, as is often the case with still-relevant hospitality icons these days, much of the credit goes to the drinks.

To say that boutique spirit specialist Jeff Josenhans’ dynamic cocktail program at Grant Grill is one of the city’s finest is no understatement. Much has been written in these pages about his 100-day-aged Centennial Manhattan, his bottle-conditioned Cocktails Sur Lie (oh, that Mule!) and his seemingly insatiable yen to raise the bar on classy alcohol consumption. And his latest showcase, a citrus-themed platform, is reason enough to reiterate the praise.
“The Batida!” our server announces as she delivers a foamy tangerine concoction requiring several minutes of concentrated muddling. It tastes like a coconut-heavy orange Creamsicle spiked with Captain Morgan, and not in a bad way. Of this season’s cocktails, the Tropical Tangerine Batida is the least interesting—only because the other two are so terrific. The Holiday in Cambodia, with Buddha’s hand-infused Rémy Martin V, Kaffir lime, palm sugar and jasmine water, is a lemony revelation, and the Garden Kumquat Fizz (Ballast Point vodka, Cointreau Noir, bittersweet Calisaya liqueur) is a pleasingly piquant punch in the face thanks to the liberal use of kumquats sourced from the Grant’s own rooftop.

Citrus is also well represented in Chef de Cuisine Chris Kurth’s contemporary menus. The dessertlike pork belly pastrami, served with aerated green tea and crunchy granola, benefits from an aromatic infusion of Kaffir lime custard, while the beautiful molasses-cured duck breast, full of the kinds of detail that are meant to call attention to a chef’s artful eye, pops with bergamot orange. Kurth’s talents shine especially bright in his dual scallop preparations on the lounge and dinner menus. The latter, served with a hint of smoky, Veracruz styling (charred tomatoes, green olives, pancetta and a creamy cloud of polenta), are expertly seared. And the lighter lounge scallops come with a miso glaze, lobster jus, sweet potato puree and a crispy sheet of dehydrated herb meringue that melts on the tongue.

Served with delicious smoked chicken, apples, arugula, goat cheese and heirloom tomatoes, the grilled whole wheat flatbread is a hearty, casual snack that’s easily shared, though on the night we have it, the bread itself is strangely chewy, like reheated nachos. A better option, especially for a late-night treat, is the polenta chorizo ragu, which comes with two fried eggs and silky burrata that stretches like a rubber band. The hamachi starter arrives with horseradish cream, shaved fennel, white soy and a bit of radish flower. It’s clean and simple, but at $18, it’s a meager portion—on a dare, I could fit the whole dish in my mouth at once. And bacon-wrapped duck pâté with tart cherry preserves is a decadent starter, but I find myself (gauchely?) wishing for some toast—brioche, baguette, a Wheat Thin, anything—to cut the richness.

I’ve always adored the sumptuous Grand Lobby, with its soaring ceilings, marble floors and plush blue sofas fit for Marie Antoinette’s updated parlor. The glamour of Grant Grill follows suit. Most everything about the dining room (wood paneling, crisp white linens, creamy banquettes) coos elegance befitting a sexagenarian icon that’s undergone a few tasteful facelifts for relevancy. And Grant Grill Lounge is a lesson in trend-eschewing modernity, aside from the flimsy silver stools. The one design element of the art deco-leaning lounge I could really do without is the TV (thankfully muted) above the liquor. In a hotel bar, guests may have the expectation of watching NBA Coast to Coast without walking 50 feet to Yard House, but on a busy night, it seems like a modern concession to the ADD-suffering patron.

No matter—elegance is still paramount throughout the hotel, just as it has been since the Taft presidency. From the jazzy chanteuse belting out Bessie Smith to the extraordinary cocktails and very good food, few in San Diego are nailing the contemporary-timeless angle quite like the Grant Grill. May it reign another 100 years.

Grant Grill
326 Broadway, San Diego, 619.744.2077, grantgrill.com

Hours
Lounge, Sun.-Thu., 4-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 4pm-midnight
Restaurant, dinner nightly from 5:30 till 10pm (Sun.-Thu.) or 10:30pm (Fri.-Sat.)

Who’s There
The local politburo, downtown’s upper-crust creative class, amateur ballroom dancers, hotel guests

Where to Sit
Those desiring the high-low mix can order from the dinner menu in the lounge, but the volume is more appropriate for conversation in the dining room, where there are fewer sports fans.

What to Wear
Compensate for the casual SDCC crowd by taking inspiration from any number of references: Gatsby, Gangster Squad, the Draper family…

What It Costs
Starters, $12-$18; entrées, $24-$45; desserts, $10