By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
Those of us who followed chef Gary Danko from the glorious Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, where he received a James Beard award, through his unsatisfying stint at Viognier, the restaurant atop Draeger's supermarket, arrive at his new, eponymous restaurant feeling that we, as much as he, have earned this.
On the corner on which proud Chez Michel lived and died, Gary Danko now serves superlative California food to a well-to-do crowd of business types and tourists. The restaurant's interior is similar to Chez Michel's, with many tables in a small space bisected by a bar. Wood paneling and louvered shutters will make those accustomed to plush office spaces and conference rooms feel at home, while dim lighting and an abundance of richly upholstered banquettes add an air of romantic sophistication. The staff uniform is an elegant dark suit, and the tablecloths are white. The clientele is also dressed up: There isn't a man without a jacket in sight, a rarity even at restaurants that purport to enforce a jacket-and-tie requirement, and the women are likewise dressed conservatively and well.
It is clear that the management has hotel training. Every detail is taken care of in a way that is subtle, but ostentatious in its completeness. In fact, the service is obsessively prominent -- it feels as though, on those few occasions when no server is at your table, it is because they are all off on different errands for you. But the servers themselves are relaxed and genial. If you attempt to fill your own glass while, say, the captain is in the vicinity, you will be gently chided, and the glass will be graciously but insistently filled for you. (A second offense will add $20 to your bill; try to pour your own a third time and you will be evicted from the restaurant. Just kidding.)
800 N. Point
San Francisco, CA 94109
The menu is set up according to a type of prix fixe plan: You choose whatever you want from the list, which is divided into appetizers, seafood, meat and poultry, and desserts, plus the cheese trolley and a special tableside hot dessert, and charges accrue according to the number of courses. Three courses cost $48, four are $57, and each additional course adds $9 to the bill. Although it is implied that diners will move down the list as dinner progresses, in theory it wouldn't be a problem to start with a selection of cheeses, then the foie gras, then enjoy the licorice ice cream with figs, and another two orders of foie gras for good measure. Let no one prevent you from eating as you desire; this is San Francisco, after all.
Despite assurances that the courses are graduated -- in other words, if you order six courses the portions will be smaller than the same dish would be as part of a three-course meal -- this is only slightly true. Portions are not small, and the eater of six, or even five, courses will find himself faced with quite a lot of food. A five-course tasting menu is available pre-assembled, and the perfect wine pairings can be had for an additional $29. This is definitely a worthwhile investment.
Gary Danko's wine list is large enough to deserve a review of its own, which I can merely excerpt here: "... compelling ... a true story of nature's bounty ... a timeless epic spanning generations and continents." It lists close to a thousand bottles, French and Californian, including a great number of half-bottles, a size pitifully absent from many wine lists. There are also on the order of 20 very good wines available by the glass, or even the half-glass. None of these is inexpensive. It is evident that the restaurant has deep pockets and a good nose, as many of the wines are truly great, with prices to match, and a number of them are quite rare. It is possible to get a decent wine here for under $40, but there aren't many in that price range, and it's hard to say no to that beautiful three-digit bottle gazing moistly out at you.
The food is from the elite luxury division of the well-drilled French/California army. Nearly everything is excellent, prepared with wonderful ingredients and masterful technique. Danko has a particular way with game birds: A warm quail salad is made up almost entirely of pieces of the bird, cooked to a degree of flavorfulness rarely seen. It is served in a small bowl, dressed with a tart pomegranate sauce, which cuts the richness, and a cute little boiled quail egg to give perspective. Duck breast is sautéed very rare -- not long enough to develop a steaky texture -- so its little medallions fairly drip with succulent juice. It is spared the common tart-sweet accompaniment cliché and is instead graced with a wonderfully nutty celery root purée and delicately spicy pear slices. The menu features other birds as well, including a Moroccan-style squab with chermoula, the tangy dressing redolent of lemon, parsley, onion, and cumin, and a very American guinea hen with apples, chestnuts, and spaetzle.
Danko's mastery extends equally to shellfish. His lobster salad is a scintillating balance of flavors and colors, composed on a white plate. It consists of large pieces of rosy lobster meat, slices of avocado, tart pink grapefruit wedges, a copse of pea sprouts, and small sections of artichoke and fennel on the sidelines. A mustard-tarragon dressing unites the disparate elements. There is also a creamily marine-scented lobster and scallop soup, and roast lobster with mushrooms and fresh soybeans. Danko's take on seared scallops is one of the best in the city, judged solely on the quality of the ingredients and the care with which they're handled: The bivalves are plump, fresh, and marvelously tender, and their mildness is offset by olives and artichoke pieces.