Review: Guard and Grace looks lovely, but faces some hard realities
Guard and Grace
Danielle Lirette Modern steak at modern steakhouse Guard and Grace
1801 California Street
I knew I'd need a steak knife for dinner at Guard and Grace, the steakhouse that Troy Guard opened in March in the bottom of 1801 California Street, a newly renovated 54-story building downtown. I just didn't know it would be for dessert.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Guard and Grace
But the shiny spoons the server had given us weren't sharp enough to make headway in a mud pie that must've been pulled from the deepest recesses of the freezer. We hacked. We pressed. We wiggled our spoons back and forth. We even moved the plate away in case a hunk of espresso ice cream became dislodged through our efforts and flew across the table. No dice. So we gave the pie a rest, and eventually managed to pry off enough ice cream to dip it in the caramel and Madagascar chocolate sauces we'd been enjoying plain. Still, the Oreo crust refused to yield, and in disappointment, we asked for our check.
Danielle Lirette The stunning interior of Guard and Grace.
I wouldn't have predicted such a snafu at Guard and Grace, a restaurant with the kind of pricing that promises the best of everything to justify the tab. Then again, I wouldn't have predicted many of the oversights we experienced on that and other visits.
Named for the restaurateur and his four-year-old daughter, Guard and Grace is the sixth enterprise from Guard, a Hawaiian-born, internationally trained chef who'd worked in several kitchens around town but whose breakout moment came with the opening of TAG. When that restaurant debuted in a two-story spot carved out of Larimer Square in 2009, Guard made the most of the location by putting out plates so inventive (hiramasa with Pop Rocks?) that people were willing to eat them anywhere, even underground.
This time, Guard has no need to atone for an awkward space. Guard and Grace sweeps elegantly across more than 8,500 square feet, with a series of increasingly private (though noisy), mood-lit spaces that do as much to advance Guard's interpretation of what he calls a "modern steakhouse" as the menu itself. Gone are the red leather chairs and windowless, clubby dining rooms that characterized the meat temples of yore. Tall windows frame cityscapes and bathe the bar and lounge, situated closest to the door, with natural light. If you come for cocktails and to cheer on a team, either after work or because you've walked over from the Marriott, this is where you'll likely stay, perched on gray cubes and stools to enjoy selections from a menu of starters as sprawling as the room itself, including oysters, crab legs, charcuterie, flatbread, salads and more than a dozen small plates.
Come for dinner, though, and you might be led deeper into the restaurant -- to a raised, six-person booth with a bird's-eye view of the striking space, or an intimate, two-top booth upholstered in classy herringbone, or the charcoal leather banquette that borders the kitchen. Lighting is dim; votives flicker. This is where steaks are delivered, where deals or relationships are celebrated, where the charms of the restaurant are supposed to sweep you off your feet.
Danielle Lirette The wan chai salad ($8).
But sometimes things fall flat. When a hostess walked us through an empty dining room to the farthest table in the house, the one so far back it's in the main traffic pattern and in full view of the bright lights of the back kitchen, my guest, an older gentleman with the kind of gray hair that usually brings out the best in people, whispered, "What is she trying to do, get rid of the worst table first?" The server who arrived minutes later, looking sharp in his dark pants and gray striped apron, didn't help matters by assuming my companion wanted olives with his Gibson, a drink known for its onion garnish.
There were moments when we enjoyed the attentiveness we'd expected. As late afternoon succumbed to evening, we watched members of the forty-strong front-of-house team meticulously line up tables, using a taut white string as a level. Water glasses were refilled after what seemed like every sip. Bottles of white were whisked out to encourage me to stray from my habitual New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; I discovered a fine Falanghina.
But the server who delivered it also admitted that the wines were too cold to fully appreciate. That was after he'd been interrupted by a runner impatient to deliver warm potato brioche buns; despite his rush, they came too late for the party, arriving long after we'd finished our appetizers. Another night, a runner delivered entrees to the wrong person -- understandable with a party of twelve, less so with a party of two. I've watched guests dodge fast-striding staff, as if the diners were a disruption in the dining room. Servers neglected to tell us of specials until after we'd placed our orders, inaccurately described levels of doneness (sticking to a definition of medium rare as having a cool center), and failed to inquire about preferred cooking methods (1,800-degree broiler or wood-fired grill). And no one asked why we'd left some plates nearly untouched -- or why we were hacking at that mud pie.
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