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The Grand Cafe Dishes Up Some Grand Fare

When it comes to attracting local trade to downtown’s new Embassy Suites hotel, Barnetts Grand Cafe may prove to be the tail that wags the dog.

Unlike traditional hotels that draw locals with such typical magnets as grand lobbies and ballrooms, the Embassy Suites is essentially private and businesslike, and offers San Diegans but one reason to cross its threshold--the dining room.

From a business point of view, Barnetts is the result of two complementary needs reacting in mutual fulfillment. Since hotel dining rooms often lose money and are a nuisance to manage, this Holiday Inns subsidiary chain has no desire to be in the restaurant business.

Barnetts’ parent company, Restaurants Unlimited of Seattle, has, on the other hand, no desire to build restaurants, but does find it profitable to operate in leased quarters and has an arrangement with the Embassy Suites chain. Barnetts’ general demeanor reflects, although distantly and in quite a toned-down manner, its parent’s one-time penchant for theme restaurants. The menu is somewhat unfocused and veers occasionally toward the something-for-everyone approach, as witnessed by the appetizer of fried mozzarella with a side of marinara sauce served for dipping. The lights burn rather too brightly, and, because the booths march in such disciplined rows, one gets the sense of an expensively decorated coffee shop; at the end of dinner one evening, a guest was moved to comment that “the food is better than the surroundings.”

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New and Trendy

And that the food is enjoyable, after all, is the important point. Although the menu at times has the feel of a compendium of all things new and trendy, it does offer a fairly serious selection of good things to eat, and, best of all, the kitchen seems staffed with souls who are not averse to giving quality raw materials the sort of careful attention they should get.

Daily specials, including fish (usually Alaskan halibut and salmon taken in Washington State waters), oysters and soup, appear on a menu insert. The standing appetizer list works its way through a selection of what are essentially finger foods that could easily double as bar snacks, and, although this is not an encouraging trend, there are a couple of very likable offerings.

One of these is the increasingly ubiquitous coconut prawns, or large shrimp sheathed in crisply fried coats of coconut-beer batter. These are not served with the usual sweet-sour sauce, but with “Cajun-marmalade,” as the menu styles it, a concoction that hints strongly that the menu was designed by a consultant rather than a chef. But, because this pepper-heated orange marmalade does bring the already sweet shrimp to a rather glad and giddy climax, it is impossible to dislike it.

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The “hot Dungeness crab appetizer,” which really could have a more elegant name (“crab ambrosia?”), is even better. This succulent casserole of crab, a creamy Parmesan sauce and tender artichoke hearts is wonderfully rich, and is perfect when slathered on bites of the hot, homemade focaccia bread that accompanies it and other dishes. ( Focaccia , a trendy loaf that can be found at several other local restaurant tables, is fairly coarse and dry, and is attractively seasoned with olive oil and strong herbs.)

Salads Also Do Well

Besides the inevitable onion soup, the menu offers a daily choice; a recent, highly spiced North African lentil soup was spiked with much fresh basil and came off very well indeed. The salads also do well, with a simple toss of fresh greens dressed with fancy Maytag blue cheese (nicely aged and with a subtle bite, from historic Maytag, Iowa) bested only by the Broadway pea salad. Essentially an old-fashioned Sunday-supper sort of dish, the pea salad here is modernized by the addition of water chestnuts, pea pods and bits of bacon. It is interesting and different, but, because peas become monotonous after a bit, this might be a good dish to share.

Everybody serves pasta these days, often in ways that Italians would find unrecognizable, and so does Barnetts. The vermicelli with pancetta (Italian bacon) is pristine and interesting, and consists merely of pasta topped with bacon, soft-cooked onions and gremolata , a Milanese flavoring agent of minced parsley, garlic and lemon peel. The sauce used in the fettuccine bolognese (tomatoes, chopped beef, crumbled Italian sausage, cream, garlic) also is nicely put together, but a serious error is made here by placing it atop red pepper pasta, which is at best unlovable and, in this instance, utterly overwhelms the sauce.

One finds better comfort among the meat and fish. A filet of king salmon, simply grilled to a nice finish and moistened with an unassuming butter sauce, was quite beyond reproach. Another seafood listing that sounded good but went unsampled was the “roasted garlic prawns,” or large shrimp, split, basted with garlic butter and oven-roasted in the shell.

The grilled lamb in an herb crust would have made a better appearance had its crust been more neatly applied, but the herbal flavors came through glowingly and the meat, cut like a hefty filet of beef, was unusually tender. A slice of traditional prime rib, roasted in a covering of rock salt, was equally tender, but the kitchen sent out a wildly rare slice when medium-rare had been requested; the server did rectify the situation somewhat. A nice touch was the pile of freshly shredded horseradish, a milder condiment than might be supposed, that garnished the plate. Marinated veal filet, grilled over mesquite and then sliced and arranged under a stew of onions, capers and mixed peppers, was unusual and satisfying.

‘Oven-Fried’ Potatoes

Plates arrive with a standard garnish of “oven-fried” potatoes and the day’s vegetable. The potatoes, cut like french fries and dusted with grated cheese and herbs, are a good idea, except that the topping browns well before the potatoes are cooked through. Al dente potatoes thus far have failed to become trendy. The vegetable one time was Brussels sprouts; it has always seemed that these little cannonballs could suit only very tolerant or very intolerant people, but they in any case should be tender; these were quite hard.

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There is no way to quibble with the desserts, which are uniformly excellent. The burnt cream ( creme brulee ) is the ultimate custard, a blend of eggs and cream with a browned sugar crust. The chocolate sundae features an impossibly rich fudge of cream, chocolate, butter and triple sec, and the brandy ice, accurately described by the waiter as an adult milkshake, is simply a creamy blend of vanilla ice cream, Kahlua, brandy and creme de cacao. It is served in a beer glass and is good to the last drop.

BARNETTS GRAND CAFE

Embassy Suites Hotel, 601 Pacific Highway

544-1122

Lunch and dinner daily.

Credit cards accepted.

Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $35 to $75.


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