Review: Guard and Grace looks lovely, but faces some hard realities

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Guard and Grace 1801 California Street 303-293-8500

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.

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.

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.

Keep reading for more on Guard and Grace.

Guard's menu -- as up-to-date with its selection of small plates as it is with its 4- to 22-ounce prime, Angus and grass-fed local beef, dry-aged for 28 days -- deserves better handling than this. But I found the food as inconsistent as the service, perhaps due to the departure of opening chef de cuisine Cory Treadway, who parted ways with Guard and Grace in May.

Coal-roasted figs with fresh ricotta, honey and black-cherry aged balsamic were a delight, especially when paired with a flight of three prosciuttos that offered a rare opportunity to pit origin and aging side by side, debating the merits of the nine-month domestic La Quercia, twelve-month Spanish Serrano and eighteen-month Italian San Danielle. Hawaiian snapper with baby bok choy and warm soy-ginger vinaigrette nearly upstaged the steak -- a high bar considering the knockout flavors of the earthy, grass-fed New York strip. Creamed greens with a blend of spinach and grassy Swiss chard was better than the classic steakhouse version, as was the wan chai salad, a far more interesting option than the traditional wedge, with ribbons of won bok and lacinato kale, peanuts and yellow grape tomatoes. Charred octopus exploded with flavor, with a puckery sauce reminiscent of steak sauce.

But the fingerlings that came with that octopus were a disappointment; although they'd been diced and tossed in duck fat, they were still raw inside. The paper cone that contained an order of fries came inside a mug, so the spuds steamed and quickly grew soggy. And the mashed potatoes needed more salt, butter and dairy; they were so bland we took only a few bites before pushing them aside. They were one of many sides offered in the traditional steakhouse manner (i.e., à la carte); the steaks themselves -- whether the $16 version or a $48 blowout -- came with a single heirloom carrot and a cipollini onion. While such nickel-and-diming has always seemed out of place at an upscale steakhouse, it felt especially so on this otherwise au courant menu.

Also bland was the bison tartare, which needed more oomph than diced apricots could provide, and the smoked-pork flatbread, which should have been sparked by enchilada sauce but instead just tasted like dried-out meat, dough and cilantro. Three sliders, whose beef was listed on the menu as Kobe but was really Wagyu, suffered from a lack of seasoning and a nearly imperceptible layer of cherry-pepper relish. Nor were the steaks always the highlight they should've been. Once, a steak ordered rare came out medium rare instead, something my friend couldn't overlook given the leanness of grass-fed beef and its propensity to toughness when overcooked. Another night, the steak had been left too long under the broiler, giving it a black crust that drowned out the rich marbling of the expensive prime cut.

Dessert menus were slow in coming, and after we finally managed to order, we were rewarded with that rock-hard mud pie and a butterscotch tart that tasted oddly fruity, as if one of the white wines with notes of peach and banana had been added to the filling by mistake.

The past few months have been busy for Guard, who opened Los Chingones and Sugarmill just a few months before Guard and Grace, where he works the line on weekends and checks in daily. He's also putting the finishing touches on Bubu, a new concept for the recently shuttered TAG|Raw Bar space that will open this week, and launching another spot in Lowry. These are considerable distractions -- never mind the challenges inherent in running a venture this size, with a seating capacity of 220 and a back-of-house staff that numbers thirty. Still, it takes perfection, or something very close to it, to justify the kind of tab you'll ring up at Guard and Grace, even without cocktails and wine. And right now the restaurant isn't consistently delivering an experience as classy as its lovely environs.

Select menu items at Guard and Grace: Prosciutto flight $15 Bison tartare $14 Wood-charred octopus $12 Sliders $14 Coal-roasted figs $10 Wan chai salad $8 Smoked-pork flatbread $10 Prime NY strip, 8 oz. $36 Grass-fed NY strip, 4 oz. $18 Hawaiian snapper $34 Mud pie $8 Butterscotch tart $7

Guard and Grace is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, and 5-11 p.m. Saturday. Contact the restaurant at guardandgrace.com.

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