Two weeks ago I was in San Francisco on business. I knew that Gary Danko was reputed to be the best restaurant in the city (Zagat: 28, food rating, second only to The French Laundry at 29 which is the West Coast version of The Inn at Little Washington.). I also knew that the 60 seat dining room was almost impossible to get into. They accept reservations two months to the day and usually book up within the first hour. Perhaps, I was told, by the end of the day-two months in advance-if it was a weekday.
And I was by myself deciding that I wanted to go at 4:00PM on the same afternoon!
I found out that Gary Danko has eight bar seats and they serve dinner at them, including their tasting menus. But it was first come, first serve for these seats.
The restaurant opened at 5:30 that Sunday and I showed up at 5:20 to a line already about 30 long to get in. When they let us in six of the bar seats filled up immediately but there WAS one available for me-right in front of a column which somewhat restricted the available counter space! Incredible, I was going to have an $84.00 tasting menu and a bottle of wine off of a list were most of the red wines were north of $100.00. (The markup was about 150 to 200%.) All in a cramped space that would force the bartender to keep my decanted bottle on a shelf about knee high behind the bar.
He set up the three couples next to me at the bar first. In fact he spent about ten minutes doing this before he even got to me. I actually had begun to think that this might not have been one of my better ideas. I also noticed that by 5:45 the dining room amazingly was full without an empty seat. I expected a long wait for food when I was finally able to order.
In short I actually thought that this was going to be one of the more miserable, disappointing incredibly overpriced meals that I had ever had. It seemed like it was going to be over $200.00 for myself alone but certainly I would have a story about "dinner for one" at the bar of S. F.'s best restaurant and what looked like a very bad idea.
Well, sometimes things aren't what they seem.
Gary Danko's tasting menu allowed diners to have a three, four, or five course meal with even an option for six courses including dessert. For the first course approximately ten were listed with the same number for others. There were probably thirty or so courses to fashion a customized tasting menu from. A cheese course was also available and the cheese cart looked like the equal of anything I had seen in Europe.
I ordered a bottle of '98 L'ecole 41 Apogee (an excellent Merlot blend that retails for about $38) that opened a conversation between myself and the couple sitting next to me. They were both really into wine (he had a 500 bottle cellar), he was a serious cook having been a finalist in several contests (I was a finalist in a promotion called "the best Italian cook in D. C." at Maggiano's several years ago) and they had just come back from Spain where they had been to El Raco de con Fabes, the Michelin three star outside of Barcelona which my wife and I consider the best we have ever been to.
We hit it off.
At some point we discovered that we each had ordered the six course tasting menu (including dessert) and all fifteen savories were different.
They liked to share.
So do I.
Well, over the space of about three hours and a half hours sitting at the bar we shared all fifteen courses, three bottles of wine, several glasses of twenty year old port and even a bottle of Aspirin that his wife thoughtfully carried with her! A number of the dishes (most of which were generous enough for at least six bites) the kitchen thoughtfully portioned before they were served. The bartender turned out to be wonderful and an excellent, considerate server who also had a great deal of pride in the restaurant and thoughtfully steered us towards several dishes and even gave us a few samples.
By the end of the evening, including two extra desserts (we couldn't make up our mind so we had "two more for the bar") there were a total of exactly twenty courses. Not counting several additional "tastes" provided by the bartender. I believe we probably had at least a taste of almost everything on the menu or at least close to it.
I don't remember a lot of the food. I do remember how many aspirin I took in the hotel that night: four.
Several of the dishes were truly extraordinary: an absolutely wonderful lobster/mesclun salad with a citrus viniagrette, an incredible lamb roast, superb foie gras, fresh scallop served in its shell-perhaps four, if not five dishes that would be among the best of their kind anywhere.
Some of the courses were disappointing. The risotto tasted baked rather than stirred, lacking the texture found in the best in Italy as well as an intense depth of flavor, the desserts actually were rather weak overall, nowhere near as good as, say, Citronelle.
In fact we agreed that overall El Raco was better. One of them had also been to Citronelle only several weeks before and thought that the prix fixe meal he had at its chef's table might have been as good. I agreed.
But because of them and their curiosity about a bottle of Washington state wine we started a conversation that led to one of the best dining experiences of my life. Sitting on a cramped bar stool.
Gary Danko's dining room looked intimate and inviting, a stylish retreat of sorts. But I doubt if the experience would have been nearly as good even if I had been able to sit in it.
I thank them both for a great meal and memory. I only wish that my wife had been there to share.
Sometimes a meal can be influenced by more than just the food.