San Francisco’s Grand Cafe

Grilled rainbow trout
Grilled rainbow trout

by Tiffany Maleshefski

Though Grand Café continues to be a stalwart French restaurant that’s been around since 1995, consistency hasn’t really been one of its strong points. Located inside the Hotel Monaco San Francisco, the eatery has seen an impressive roster of venerable chefs lead its kitchen, including Victor Scargle, Mauro Pando, Denis Soriano and Paul Arenstam. Despite their efforts, the restaurant has experienced a steady pattern of highs and lows.

Its newest chef, Alicia Jenish, who worked under Loretta Keller at Bizou and opened LarkCreekSteak, is the latest to throw her toque into the ring, with the stated goal of taking the Grand Café’s menu and “transforming it into something [that] is lighter, healthier, and distinctly San Franciscan.”

Now before anyone gets excited that the Grand Café can be a dieting girl’s best friend, what Jenish means is that she’s using sauces that are less rich and rustic and, therefore, lighter in texture and color.

A great example are the Mussels Trifecta: locally-sourced mussels that are steamed three different ways. Her winter version of this dish includes a broth of hard cider and cream, vegetable jus and aioli, and cilantro and chorizo. The standout in this bunch is definitely the mussels steamed in hard cider. The opposing flavors of tart and creamy are incredible. Jenish changes up the trifecta dish regularly, and is just about to make the broths more citrus-based.

Grilled rainbow trout, sourced from a nearby farm that keeps the fish on a strictly vegan diet, is phenomenal. It’s not oily, just moist and delicate. There’s a subtle sweetness that is no doubt partly due to the brown butter vinaigrette. The only thing that feels out of place in this dish is the awkward bouquet of crisped Serrano ham. It just doesn’t blend well and it’s hard to figure out what it’s supposed to add.

Jenish has also finessed one of the menu’s longtime staples, the cassoulet, adding quail confit stuffed with Toulouse sausage and pork belly confit. The beans she has chosen are also larger than what’s found in most cassoulets. This is an entrée that can be tough to make a dent in. It’s not only heavy, but the starchiness of the beans can get overwhelming and make the dish somewhat monochromatic. The first few bites are delightful, but it quickly becomes too much.

And that last bit is especially important when you have profiteroles filled with ice cream and caramel and chocolate sauce to finish off the meal. Miraculously, even the most overfed diner will find room for these.

Jenish has made a strong start at a restaurant that has needed a refresh for quite some time. Items like the black kale salad (brined overnight to reduce some of the braising green’s bitterness) with apples, toasted walnuts and bleu cheese are subtly innovative and very memorable in spite of their simplicity.

So far, the young chef is managing to make a mark on a restaurant that has been handled by major industry heavyweights. This might be the kind of change Grand Café needs to pull itself back onto the city’s A-list.

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You can click on each photo to enlarge to see dishes from the Grand Café restaurant menu.

Grand Cafe on Urbanspoon

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