FINE & FAMILIAR BALANCE
Dawson’s Steakhouse is not your average hotel restaurant.
WRITTEN BY JORDAN VENEMA
PHOTOS BY RAOUL ORTEGA
Dawson’s Steakhouse executive chef Michael Grande
Celebrating its 30th anniversary in April, Dawson's Steakhouse is a Sacramento institution. Yes, that Dawson's, the restaurant in Sacramento's Hyatt Regency hotel. But don't be mistaken: Dawson's isn't some cookie-cutter steakhouse or hotel restaurant. For customers and employees, Dawson's is more like home.
"They take care of people here," says Carrie Fredricks, who has worked at the Hyatt 11 years, the last three as Dawson's bartender.
"But I'm the new girl," she laughs, adding that about 25 Hyatt employees have been with the hotel since it opened in 1988.
This makes chef Michael Grande the new guy on the block. Though Grande had a brief tenure as the hotel's chef de cuisine from 2013 to 2015, he also has worked in Boston, Scottsdale, and Washington, D.C., during his 11 years with Hyatt. Born and raised in Stony Brook, N.Y., Grande returned to Sacramento in 2016 as Dawson's executive chef. He was drawn by the abundance and accessibility of the region's farms and produce.
"Sacramento now has a huge beer scene, and there's the proximity to Napa, to the coast," he says. "There is just so much great product to work with here that it makes my job easy."
That and, perhaps, the familial atmosphere.
"We've had regulars who've been coming here for 20-plus years, servers who have been working here for 20-plus years and since the hotel has opened," Grande says.
Steak-ing its claim
Though Dawson's is a traditional, upscale steakhouse, chef Grande admits he doesn't shy away from putting his own spin on things while embracing Sacramento's farm-to-fork reputation.
"I never wanted to do just hotel food," he says. "I don't want that stigma, and Dawson's is much more than that. Over the years, the restaurant has built a name for itself, and in the last five years we've brought Dawson's into the next generation. We've focused on farm to fork, and all of our meats are California-pasture raised. We're really putting an emphasis on our local, artisanal goods."
That means Dawson's changes its menu seasonally, though steak remains a staple.
"And the cioppino," Grande adds. Rare for a steakhouse, he admits, "but we're known for it."
Served in an iron bowl with grilled bread, the cioppino is a veritable fisherman's catch of white fish, scallops, lobster tail, and shrimp, and it's bounty enough for two people. With the cioppino, Grande recommends the Dungeness crab cakes, another menu staple, the garnish for which Grande changes regularly.
As it's an upscale establishment, diners may attend Dawson's quarterly wine dinner, which includes a five-course meal prepared by chef Grande.
"We recently sold out the restaurant for Silver Oak Winery," he says. "The winemaker talked about the wines and how they would pair with everything. I did a hay-smoked monkfish, steamed some Whittier mushrooms, and made a killer lobster nage to go with it. Monkfish is a very East-Coast thing — a poor man's lobster."
Real lobster or poor man's lobster, Dawson's maintains a balance between fine and familiar dining. Whether you step in off the street in sandals and shorts or you're a senator in a suit and tie, and whether you're looking for a $3 craft beer during happy hour or a $300 flight of whiskey and champagne, all are accommodated at Dawson's. And that's fine with Grande.
"My approach to cooking is that good food doesn't need to be pretentious," he says. "I like to be playful and have fun with it."
Which might be how an upscale steakhouse in the Hyatt can walk away not once but three times as champion of Sacramento's Burger Battle — as the judge's choice in 2014 and the people's choice in 2015 and 2017.
But the lack of pretense isn't just about appearance; it's also an attitude. As a chef, Grande says he grows by remaining open to the ideas of his staff.
"It's not my way or the highway," Grande says. "My cooks know things that I don't know, and I know things they don't know. So when we come together, we create a new experience."
It's the kind of establishment that cares both about its customers and staff, so much so that Dawson's has retained both for decades.
"We've really cultivated a community feel into the restaurant," he says.
Freelance writer Jordan Venema is a fan of wild stories, impetuous traveling, loud music, and all food ... but mostly of his son, Cassian, the greatest storyteller this side of the Prime Meridian.
2019 L St., Sacramento • 916-321-3600 • Sacramento.regency.hyatt.com/en/hotel/dining/dawsonsrestaurant.html
Dining Room open 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. daily; Bar 4:30 – 10 p.m. Mon. – Fri., 5 – 10 p.m. Sat. – Sun.
Chef Grande adds salt to his cioppino base
Pork chop with chimichurri sauce
The bar at Dawson’s Steakhouse welcomes visitors with a familiar atmosphere and a Wine Spectator award-winning wine list
(courtesy of Michael Grande, executive chef, Dawson's Steakhouse in Sacramento. Serves 1 to 2)
For tomato saffron broth
4 plum tomatoes, diced into ½-inch pieces
2 bulbs fennel, diced
4 cups clam juice
½ cup white wine
1 Spanish onion, diced
1 tablespoon garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 cups tomato juice
1 pinch saffron
Place onions, fennel, and garlic in pot with oil over medium heat and sweat until translucent. Add tomatoes and cook 10 minutes. Add saffron, white wine, clam juice, tomato juice, and orange zest, then simmer 45 minutes.
1, 5- to 6-ounce lobster tail
2 U10 scallops
3 16/20 shrimp
2 ounces white fish
¼ ounce (about 1½ teaspoons) shallot, sliced
1 garlic clove, sliced
3 whole Parisienne potatoes
6 ounces tomato saffron broth
Chopped parsley, for garnish
In sauté pan, sear lobster tail, scallops, fish, and shrimp with oil until brown, then remove. Add garlic and shallots; sweat 3 minutes. Add broth, deglaze pan, then add potatoes and simmer 5 minutes. Add seafood to pan, and simmer until cooked through. Finish with chopped parsley, salt, and pepper to taste. Serve with grilled bread and enjoy.