Sunday, February 15, 2009
Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco CA
Going into my much anticipated visit to San Francisco, Restaurant Gary Danko was #2 on my “Great expectations” list; behind only The French Laundry. Arriving earlier in the day after an overly long (and twice delayed) flight from Ohio and having spent some time browsing /eating the Ferry Plaza, myself and my traveling companions got checked into our hotel around 5:30, changed into fancier digs, and made our way down the sloped streets of rainy San Francisco to famous GD-clad building on the corner of North Point Street. A gracious valet greeted us on the corner and escorted the three of us under umbrella through the front doors. Entering the lobby we were instantly met by the boisterous bar and the brightly colored purple, pink, and red orchids and roses remaining from the previous day’s Valentine’s Dinner. Checking in under our 2-months-to-the-date reservation we were quickly led to our corner table in the main dining room and given water and a wine list to peruse.
After approximately 5 minutes of taking in the restaurant’s beauty one of our four waitresses for the evening arrived to present menus and explain the brilliant concept that any section could be ordered as a main or appetizer portion and that sizes of each dish would be dictated by the number of courses ordered – I’ve never seen this done at a restaurant and must say the concept is wonderful. Feeling a little full from our earlier eating my mother and aunt each selected the three course menu while I opted for the full 5 course experience. While some restaurants are hesitant to allow more courses for one person than the others, this was never even a question at Gary Danko and the timing was perfect for all involved.
Shortly after our orders were placed, a small amuse of Butternut Squash soup with Bacon, Vanilla, and Meyer Lemon was delivered along with a wonderfully hearty whole wheat sourdough and sweet salted butter. The soup can only be summed up with one word and that is spectacular. Creamy and sweet, yet tart and salty with the crispy bacon offering a sharp contrast to the silky puree – without a doubt the best soup of the trip to San Francisco/Napa/LA/San Diego and if it were a menu item as opposed to an amuse it would be a must-have.
Amuse completed our ornate pewter charger plates were removed and shortly replaced with our first course. For myself, course one consisted of Danko’s highly regarded Foie Gras, this evening featuring Seared Sonoma Foie Gras with Caramelized Red Onions and Fuji Apples. While not the greatest presentation of foie I’ve ever experienced (see One Market, Eleven Madison Park, BoMA, Aqua, and TFL) this was certainly a great presentation with a sizeable piece of perfectly seared foie with wonderful compliments of potent and sweet.
For my aunt’s first course, Lobster Salad with Persimmons, Pistachios, Chestnut Mousse and Pomegranate Seeds was selected any may have been the best dish of the evening. Wonderfully poached lobster offset with crunchy salty pistachios and creamy sweet mousse – everything in the dish just worked like the individual pieces of a symphony all summing up to something greater than the individual pieces involved. The final first course dish, selected by my mother, was Dungeness Crab Salad with Winter Citrus, Avocado and Meyer Lemon-Chive Vinaigrette. Another winning salad, but not on par with the Lobster salad – while my mother loved it (and stated it bested the crab/grapefruit/avocado salad at Ferry Plaza Seafood by miles) I simply found the dish too citrusy for my palate.
Being the glutton of the group, the next two dishes arrived individually for myself while my mother and aunt sipped their ice tea and commented on how loud our (quite inebriated) neighbors were. Dish two was Roast Maine Lobster with Potato Purée, Blood Oranges, Edamame Beans and Basil – a dish similarly ordered by my aunt as her “main course.” Another perfectly poached piece of lobster was placed back in its shell and perched atop a creamy potato puree heavily touched with butter and sharply accented with fresh sliced blood oranges and succulent edamame boiled in what I can only assume was a combination of orange and basil. Flawless flavors and hefty in portion the dish shined for me until my aunt received her main course portion with nearly twice as much lobster – jealousy would have surely ensued had the next two courses not been equally fantastic.
Course three for myself was Seared Sea Scallops with Parsnip Purée, Maitake Mushrooms and Sauce Maréchal – another experiment in contrasting textures and flavors and another masterpiece from Chef Danko. While the scallop was single, the size was impressive and the preparation miraculous. Lightly seared outside, nearly raw inside – everything a scallop should aspire to be. The compliment of crisply fried mushrooms with hints of bacon and sage and cheese combined beautifully with the creamy root vegetables. A “heavier” and more woodsy flavor than the previous dishes (lacking citrus) the scallop proved a wonderful transition to my main course.
For my main “fourth course” I selected the Guinea Hen Breast with Braised Leg, Black Truffle Gnocchi, Brussels Sprouts, Apples and Pancetta while my aunt enjoyed the previously mentioned Roast Main Lobster and my mother chose the Risotto with Lobster, Rock Shrimp, Butternut Squash and Porcini Mushrooms.
Gnocchi (my favorite pasta by far) with Black Truffles? Be still my heart. Add on Guinea Hen, Pancetta, Apples, and fresh sprouts – can’t miss, right? Perfectly cooked, salty yet sweet, my only regret was that only 3 gnocchi were present and the truffle was undetectable while the braised leg was served as a confuit beneath the breast and actually overwhelmed some of the more subtle nuances of the dish. While not a “bad” dish by any means, certainly the worst of the meal. My mother’s risotto, on the other hand, was rivaled only by my aunt’s lobster salad for dish-of-the night. Lacking the cheese or butter that so often weighs down risotto, this simple presentation utilized pureed squash and chopped mushroom in olive oil to form the creamy base and the flavor of the seafood truly dominated all other aspects of the dish in a fresh and wonderful manner that seemed impossibly light yet incredibly satisfying – without a doubt the best risotto I’ve ever experienced, even better than the version at Alex which I previously found incomparable.
With savory dishes complete, we moved onto the sweet courses and were once again most impressed. For myself, Danko’s famous Baked Chocolate Soufflé with Two Sauces (Belgian Dark and Creme Anglaise) was selected and absolutely lived up to the hype. Not overly sweet, nor overly “bittersweet” despite the dark chocolate, the fluffy texture was truly marvelous and the flavor sublime.
For my mother, another meyer lemon dish and another winner - Lemon Soufflé Cake with Crème Fraîche Panna Cotta and Pomegranate Sorbet was once again impossibly light yet refreshingly potent – a dish that could have been served as either a palate cleanser or a dessert and exactly what mom loves in a dessert – smiles all around.
For my Aunt, a lover of all things crème brulee, the Trio of Crème Brûlée with Cookies (chocolate, caramel, vanilla) was selected and much to my delight she was unable to finish the dish which left me the opportunity to further indulge my sweet tooth. While the vanilla was relatively bland, the caramel was one of the best crème brulees I’ve ever experienced and the chocolate was so dense and flavorful that it was almost moreso a cake than a crème brulee – the cookies were good too, especially the short bread/snickerdoodle.
Completely full, we were next brought a beautiful tray of mignardises that included an airy crème fraiche macaroon, peanut/raisin brittle, boysenberry financier, raspberry lemon tarte, mini chocolate devils food cake, tiramisu truffle, and candied orange peel. Each was sampled in tiny portions and all were delicious, particularly the devils food cake.
Feeling quite full, I was next presented with the extremely reasonable bill while my mother and aunt were presented with a large take-hope chocolate devils food cake, a box of chocolate and caramel truffles, and a long stem red rose each. Being the giving sorts they are, I was allowed to sample all of the above at breakfast the following morning and the devils food cake was the same as the mignardise –except stuffed with creamy cheesecake. At my request I the waitress also liberated one of the paper menus from the menu holder and walked it back to the kitchen where chef Danko autographed it and placed it in a protective gold envelope.
All told, Gary Danko is a wonderful experience worthy of its status and difficult reservation. Service was flawless and the customizable tasting and affordable prices are truly remarkable. If one were to utter a single complaint about the restaurant, it would simply be the loudness of the bar and some of the patrons, but this certainly isn’t the fault of the restaurant – just the fault of too much wine. Another complaint, for me, is that I didn't have enough room left to experience the cheese cart which looked sublime. For the pricepoint, Gary Danko just might be the best dining experience in San Francisco – it isn’t every day that you can get treated like the most important guest in the house for less than $100 per person.