I bonded with Grand America chef and Texas ex Phillip Yates over chili. You may have seen his excellent recipe in the Jan/Feb issue of Salt Lake magazine. So when he asked me to come check out the hotel's Land & Sea Saturday nights, of course I obliged - you gotta trust a man with a good chili recipe, right?

Even though - like a lot of Salt Lakers - the Grand America has always struck me as grandiose and intimidating, a citadel that would require storming more than a home away from home.

Luxury hotels don't have to be that way - I've spent time at the Plaza in New York and the Savoy in London, for example, and they seem to have that all-comers- welcome attitude that is true hospitality. And lord knows Chef Dean Fearing, clumping around in his cowboys boots serving BBQ and playing in a country rock band on the grounds, made the Mansion on Turtle Creek a counter-intuitively homey place.

So why not Grand America?

Certainly the lobby on Saturday night was anything but stuffy - it was full of happy people sipping drinks while they listened to the Joshua Payne trio. Nice wines by the glass. Comfy chairs. Friendly servers.

But the test would come in the Garden Room, still, oddly, the only restaurant in this immense hotel, and one that from the looks of it was designed as a breakfast/brunch/ladies' lunch spot.

I don't know how else to explain all that gazebo latticework.

And I might as well add that every time I enter that dining room I flash on Hunter S. Thompson as played by Johnny Depp in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas when he walks into Circus Circus and the patterned carpet starts to move. It seems entirely possible that those flowered vines might start twining around my ankles...

But the overwhelming decor is tamed by the folks who run the place: General manager Ali Raafati is one of the most gracious men in the city, Chef Yates is so unpretentious he served chili in the hotel lobby a couple of weeks ago and publicity manager Ashley Bollinger has none of the Teflon coating her job description usually requires.

So forget the carpet. Keep your eyes on the plate. Because good stuff is happening there. We started with an amuse of cruda on a tortilla chip, then headed to the buffet for the rest of our apps - crab puffs, steak satay, shrimp and hearts of romaine bundled up in a Parmesan crisp. Cute, but not overwhelming. Then again, unlike most Utahns, I am still NOT a buffet fan.

However, back at the table, we ordered flights and one land and one sea entree. A brick of salmon had the top skin peeled back with a bunch of micro-greens tucked under the flap. The skin had been cooked till crispy, and the whole thing surrounded with opal basil vanilla nage, making it deliciously wine-friendly.

A giant Ballard Farms pork chop was cooked until petal pink inside, glazed with a cider reduction and garnished with a delicate apple chip.

Entrees come with family-style sides: a gratin of creamed fresh spinach, crescents of local butternut squash with candied pecans and green and yellow string beans with pancetta and blistered cherry tomatoes - all, actually, fantastic.

As was dessert - hot, sugared, raspberry sauce stuffed beignets. OMG.

So. Don't be deceived by appearances - Grand America is NOT your grandmother's idea of a good time.