As far as the setting is concerned, the Sheraton Grand Cafe is everything its name implies: sleek, spacious, modern and luxurious.
Walking through the palatial, marble-lined hotel lobby, past the waterfall and up the grand staircase, with soothing piano music playing in the background and lush flora surrounding the dining room, you might feel every bit a millionare.
The tony, aqua-peach-maroon color scheme that plays in the dining room plays on the tables as well, down to the pastel-colored flowers decorating the plates. And should you ask for a glass of wine, a selection of half a dozen bottles is proffered from a wicker basket for your inspection.
This, you imagine, will be a splendid event.
But disillusionment creeps in soon after the breadbasket arrives. The dry, flavorless rolls don't do justice to the pretty rosettes of butter. At dinner, I wondered if the rolls had been luncheon leftovers, but at lunch, they tasted every bit of having been kept out since the previous evening.
The list of appetizers is what one might expect from the kitchen of such a glamorous hotel: moist slices of marinated salmon served with a honey-mustard sauce, baked brie with almonds and grapes, vineyard snails and pates (an undistinguished venison pate when we visited) or terrines.
There also are less lofty hors d'oeuvres from which to choose: fresh fruit cocktail, potato skins, and chips and salsa, for instance. Among these was a basket of deep fried vegetables that included zucchini, mushrooms and onion rings in an appealing batter. Yet those fritters were a bit too greasy, and the dipping sauce of sour cream only underscored the appetizer's richness.
Best of all was the she-crab soup, rich and creamy with subtle undertones of crab and a pleasant piquancy.
Main courses run the gamut from sandwiches (Reubens, crab cakes, smoked turkey, roast beef, and tuna) to cold and hot entrees. The steak and Caesar salad was merely a spa cuisine portion of rare beef strips, practically an entire head of romaine lettuce and some pretty ordinary croutons. Its dressing was pleasant, redolent of anchovies, but hidden beneath the greens so that you had to toss the salad yourself -- given the size of the lettuce leaves, this was a nuisance.
Better (and more manageable) was the seafood lasagna, a generous portion of scallops and shrimp, layered between sheets of pasta and served in a light tomato cream sauce.
Some things aren't necessarily good or bad, but merely indifferent. Grilled chicken breast with roasted pepper and garlic sounds like a pleasant mating, but it was just an ordinary (albeit juicy) piece of meat surrounded by a few simply cooked vegetables. It made for a pretty plate, but fell flat in terms of flavor. Equally ordinary were the pork medallions coupled with a tame pesto sauce.
The Grand Cafe is certainly attuned to culinary trends. Chicken pot pie and an "individual deep-dish pizza of the day" appear on the menu alongside the more traditional fish, chicken and steak selections.
The pizza looked wonderful (while not exactly deep-dish), and its crust was puffy and golden, with a good yeasty flavor. Except for the saltiness of the sausage, however, the toppings proved rather vapid.
As for dessert, there are freshly made fruit ices and ice creams, cheesecake, brownies, pie and a grown-up sundae in the form of the liqueur-drenched coffee Kahlua split. Strawberry shortcake was a small mountain of a dessert, bursting with whipped cream and berries, but not with taste -- it was dry and doughy tasting.
Without a doubt, this is one of the city's most elegant cafes, with menu prices that reflect the fact that this is not merely a restaurant, but a hotel restaurant. Yet only occasionally does the food live up to the setting's promise.
Let's just say it's less than grand.