Unjust desserts

Rating a restaurant can be hard. It is difficult to give a restaurant a rating that encompasses not just the food but also the ambience and the service. The line between good and very good and excellent can be somewhat murky. Some would argue that it is not fair to hold Sacramento to the same standard as, say, San Francisco. The small-town argument does Sacramento a disservice, though. Excellent food does not depend on a locale, but on the skills of the chef.

What warrants a four-star rating, anyway? Excellence. A cheap rib joint can earn four stars if the food is the best of its type, the service is good and the ambience is friendly. Few restaurants are flawless all the time, though. If an experience at a restaurant can be classified mostly as a knockout, with a minor misstep here or there, that’s a four-star rating. And maybe a higher and not completely fair standard is applied to haute cuisine. But, if a restaurant is striving for a higher plane (with prices to match), it deserves a more stringent look.

That brings me to the Esquire Grill. I spent at least an hour hashing over a recent meal there with my husband, and neither of us was able to give the restaurant better than a qualified four-star rating.

The Esquire Grill is nestled inside the Sheraton Grand Hotel in an enviable location right across from the convention center and a block from the Memorial Auditorium. It’s the perfect place for a meal before a show or for after-theater drinks. The interior marries high-tech concrete and steel with rich wood accents to create an inviting space.

The grill’s menu, designed by Kurt Spataro, offers clever takes on American classics, including a Cobb salad and macaroni and cheese. Side dishes are listed separately and range in price from $2.75 to $3.75. At least the restaurant makes it clear that if you want green beans with your meat, you will have to pay. An appetizer of house-smoked salmon ($8) was served with a ball of cream cheese infused with herbs, and toasted rounds of bread. The portions of thinly sliced fish were generous but still left us wanting more. The rich flavor of the salmon was perfectly accented by a dusting of capers and red onions.

The meal continued on a high point with the entrees. My husband’s spit-roasted prime rib ($22.50) was tender and flavorful. The horseradish sauce that accompanied the beef lacked much of a bite, however. Our friendly and attentive waiter recommended the pork rib chops ($16.75), and I was not disappointed.

Pork chops are a generational thing for those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. My family ate them probably once a week, smothered in tomato sauce and baked in a covered skillet for hours. The Esquire Grill’s pork chops bear little resemblance to the pork chops of my youth. These morsels, which came from Niman Ranch, were coated in a cider glaze, grilled, and served with applesauce and buttermilk onion rings. This is an awesome dish, and only my husband’s steely gaze kept me from picking up the bones to gnaw at any remaining shreds of flesh.

Entrees come with potatoes—french-fried, mashed or baked. The mashed were superlative, probably because they contained an unhealthy quantity of butter. They were not over-whipped but retained some lumps, all the better to convey the essence of potatoes. The french fries also were good and were served with house-made ketchup that earned a rave review from both the kid and his dad.

The desserts ($6.50) we sampled were a serious disappointment, however. A crème brûlée was accompanied by two chocolate meringues that tasted as if they had had some serious refrigerator time. The custard itself was undistinguished and was marred by an incompletely caramelized crust. A peach and blackberry cobbler was similarly uninspired, with a topping of lackluster vanilla ice cream.

Is it fair to downgrade a restaurant’s rating because its desserts are sub-par? Certainly, for some diners, dessert is an afterthought. At the Esquire Grill, that’s the way they are treated. But a four-star rating should reflect the entire experience from start to finish, from the quality of the service to the cleanliness of the silverware. The Esquire Grill, to borrow my husband’s metaphor, started strongly at the gate but stumbled at the finish.