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Grand Expectations

The Grand Café Enrolls a Star Chef

Entering the Grand Café's enormous and elegant dining room is like walking onto the set of a flapper fantasy set in 1920s Paris, except for the fact that few of the clean-cut, plainclothes patrons live up to the glamour and style of the place. All the same, it's a grandiose, gorgeous San Francisco landmark, and the food is great, so when you've got to dress up and impress, the Grand Café is a beautiful place to have dinner. For the passerby, the casual café in the front of the building offers a fancy bar menu, as well as plenty of stares from businessmen killing time over Irish coffee. Why killing time? Perhaps they are staying on business at the Kimpton Group's lovely Hotel Monaco, to which the Grand Café is attached.

The dining room's French-American comfort food menu is delicious and accessible, a credit to Chef Victor Scargle, who comes to the Grand after working the notoriously esoteric menus of Charles Condy enterprises like Aqua, San Francisco's zen seafood heaven, Pisces, the South Bay equivalent, and Aqua Las Vegas. You'll find standards like mussels and frites and steak frites alongside more Californian fare like braised pork, polenta souffle and sauteed John Dory.

Scargle's sauteed Dayboat scallops with black Mission fig puree, chestnut sauce and balsamic syrup, which hearkens back to his Aqua and Pisces days, is one of the most delicious starters in town, although at 12 dollars for three scallops, you'd better be on an expense account, baby.

If you're an oyster fan, the Grand Café doesn't disappoint. Presented on rock salt like a good raw six-pack should be ($10), the fresh little buddies come with a pleasingly astringent red wine mignonette. Merci beaucoup, yes, I will have some Champagne with that!

We weren't stunned by the entrees we tried (how often are you stunned by entrees, really), but they were delicious, hearty and well-conceived. The roasted lamb rack ($25), recommended by our terrific waiter, sported deliciously crispy edges and a creepily rare middle. Alongside this relatively standard dish, we tried Scargle's salmon en croute ($20), a pastry-wrapped, mushroom duxelle-laden treat set atop a bed of the most delicious swiss chard ever, christened with horseradish beurre blanc.

Okay, this faux Wellington approach really works if it's done delicately, but this particular incarnation was a bit on the heavy-handed side, which was also our feeling regarding Pastry Chef Mimi Young's warm custard filled bugnes (do they mean beignets?), the most celebrated dessert in the house ($7). What we did love from this alum of JOHNFRANK and The Lodge at Pebble Beach was her incredible selection of house made ice creams and sorbets ($6). Grapefruit-Campari, blood orange and key lime sorbets came accompanied by a truly heavenly fresh mint granita. Although the granita was stellar, we were pretty taken with the cashew toffee brittle ice cream as well; it's a dairyrific dream.

All in all, the cuisine at the Grand Café is delicious, although few dishes made our heads spin with visions of finely architected, ethereal scrumminess. Still, it's an incredibly elegant space, the wine list and cocktail bar are stocked with all the best (try the Chartreuse after dinner), the tables are spacious, and the service is top-notch, at least on a weeknight. Oh, and the shoestring frites are tremendous!

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