Gary Danko serves a fine meal. Is that damning with faint praise? This was the question that hovered over our table and followed us home. After less than two years in full operation, former SF Ritz-Carlton superchef Gary Danko's place (at the location in North Point formerly held by Michael's) has earned stellar reviews from locals and visitors and climbed its way into most San Francisco "top five" lists. It sets a high level of expectation and it delivers, solidly. Is it fair to expect even more?
We scored reservations for Saturday evening, 9:30pm, just days before. It's no mean feat: Gary Danko is booked solid for a month and Saturday nights are full for the next three. This is what happens when you spend fifteen minutes on the phone chatting cheese with the reservations clerk--a cancellation popped up as we talked Roquefort. Burke and I ate lightly that day, slipped into our summer suits and arrived with four minutes to spare. The decor put me in mind of our recent spectacular Paris experience at Guy Savoy: here too were clean panels of rich wood, steel and wood veneers setting a sleek but not cold tone, accents provided by contemporary art piled with paint, texture and color their subject. The layout wasn't good for traffic, with two small dining rooms split by a dividing wall, a small bar, the entrance and the main path to the kitchens. The staff had developed a system of tapping each other on the back in passing, which proves they were working around the limitations of the space and its occasionally narrow flow.
With no space for a waiting area, we found ourselves underfoot for ten minutes as our table was prepared. As always, we struck up a conversation with other diners. "He had the quail and I had the squab," offered a jaunty couple at the bar as they nibbled their cheese course. "Or did I have the squab? Honey, did you have the quail? They were both delicious. And afterwards you must have the Tazmanian blue, it's perfect!" Burke and I had come to Gary Danko for his cheese cart, so we weren't about to pass up advice like this. The crowd was generally quite young, most couples in their thirties, like this pair. As Burke talked with them, I weaved between the waiters until I spotted the cheese cart and their brand new (installed that morning) cheese fridge. Lots of Spanish cheeses, I noted. File for later.
Our table sported a set of square plates, which seems all the rage these days. First up was an amuse bouche, a tiny square of toast under foie, a sprig of herb and a sliver of fresh fig, on a square plate painted with balsamic. Fresh and yummy, with a good texture and a great fig flavor, foie paired with fruit sweetness is infallible. We were glancing over our menus and deciding to go a la carte (over the years we've found the tasting menus, though often glorious, don't always show a restaurant to its best advantage), when the sommelier came by. It was a bit odd to pick the wines first. It made us decide fast what we wanted for dinner and kept us from asking the advice of our server. We settled on two half bottles: a Chassagne-Montrachet for the two fish courses, and a lovely French red for the game and cheese courses (a lovely Rhone whose name we've forgotten, forgive us). When our waiter did come by, I asked him if Gary Danko was cooking this evening, but it seems the maestro had gone home an hour before.
Burke began with the duck prosciutto with melon and fig, which he found delicious. The honeydew was sliced paper-thin, the figs we already knew were fresh and sweet, and the prosciutto added just the right saltiness. It wasn't a very imaginative opener, these are pairings well within the repertoire, but nicely done. I took the advice of a friend and went with the risotto, chock full of lobster and rock shrimp meat and finished with tomato and rosemary-infused oil. This was quite lovely, with a slightly wilder, more firm grain of rice that announced its cereal qualities without sacrificing a good creamy texture. A lesser risotto can be so creamy it crosses into gummy, but not this time. That mixture of hearty rice and delicate seafood made it the plate of the evening for me.
I wasn't as thrilled with my next course, a medallion of salmon crusted on top with horseradish and served on dilled cucumbers and a bechamel of carrots. The gentle lemon beurre blanc on the plate couldn't disguise its shortcomings: the salmon was dry and had a slightly fishy aroma, the horseradish crust was also dry and lacked the punch I anticipated. The vegetables were better, and I can't fault the presentation, but I had hoped for more. Perhaps the flaw lies in the demands of the dish: crusting the horseradish might make it difficult to control the temperature of the fish, making it quick to dry out. Still, a master chef should be able to handle this. Burke was happier with his seared Maine scallops with summer vegetables and cauliflower potato puree, but I was struck by the presentation, which was derivative. I'd seen the exact plating a year and a half ago over at Postrio (another San Francisco landmark, in the Wolfgang Puck school). That's hardly enough to disqualify the dish, which was delicious and delicate, but it left me wondering.
Next came the only outright fumble of the evening. We waited a shocking forty minutes for our next course, and when it arrived, though mine was freshly assembled, Burke's sauce had a skin on it. This is a kitchen error: both dishes were probably ready at the same time, and disaster befell one. The other was put under a heat lamp or kept in a warming oven while they rebuilt the first. We understand things like this happen. I can think of a dozen ways to recover, none of which require the customer to wait without any contact with the staff for forty minutes. Perhaps they could have told us there'd be a delay? Ask us if we'd like anything in the meantime? Offer an apology? And to serve a dish that's been warming in the oven isn't treason, but doing so without comment makes us wonder if we were expected to notice. As it turns out, sauce skin or no, Burke's Moroccan spiced squab with chermoula and orange-cumin carrot was meaty, hearty, exotic and very appealing, while my roast quail stuffed with morels, leeks and pine nuts on a potato galette was flavorful and expertly cooked. I'd even say it was worth the wait, had the wait not been such a vacuum. As it turns out, this long delay cost the restaurant some revenue. We were all set to order port with our desserts, or some other digestif, but we knew now there'd be no time, if we wanted to be home (an hour's drive) at a sane hour.
No matter, it was time for the cheese course, and that was why we had come to Gary Danko in the first place. Aside from the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton, where Danko had been before, this was reputedly the only cheese cart in the city. After three weeks in France, Burke and I were quite addicted to cheese carts and the treasures they bear. We sampled a Puligmy St. Pierre, a Capri Classie Blue (a darn strong goat), Perial de Brebis, the Ossau Iraty and a Blue d'Auvergne. I also had a "vintage" 1997 Quebec cheddar that had the right spice and the right texture, though I'm not certain there's a future for "vintage" cheddars (I admit giggling slightly). All these were good cheeses, though our server wasn't schooled in how to eat in the proper order, and his advice left us stranded. If you don't go from milder cheeses to stronger, the milder will appear to have no flavor, and that happened to us.
The winning cheese, unquestionably, was that Tazmanian blue, "Roaring 40s"--powerful, rich with character, a hidden sweetness and even a sensation of butterscotch. It was so good we asked for another slice each. It was perfect with our red, it married well to the grapes and stood on its own . You know a blue is right when it's a tingle on the tongue but doesn't overwhelm. It would have gone even better with the right bread, say a slightly fruity loaf, or a slightly sour dark, but they'd ran out and had to give us Italian.
Burke was in a fig mood still, so for his dessert he had the roasted caramelized figs with port and licorice root ice cream, nicely done indeed. The figs were more sweet than nutty (which makes sense for high summer), and the ice cream was a good counterpoint, as was the nougatine on which it was scooped. I went for the chocolate souffle with two sauces (creme anglaise and chocolate). A word about souffles: a chocolate souffle is an important tool for a high-scale operation, since they're considerably more stable than other souffles. You know a place is being daring when they abandon chocolate and attempt a plain souffle, letting the sauce (usually with a sabayon base) do the talking. I know all about this, so I wasn't expecting a lighter-than-air souffle, and I was right on target. It lacked that "evaporate on the lips" quality of a top-flight souffle, but the flavor was good and the structure well-developed. The sauces, however, contributed nothing. The creme anglaise was flat, the chocolate without flavor, and both were too thin, sinking to the bottom without distinction.
As we finished our coffee and petit-fours (which were uniformly excellent--I wish my souffle had the chocolate flavor of those bon-bons), the question that had formed over dinner floated above our heads. How do we sum up our meal at Gary Danko? None of the dishes were failures, and you can't condemn a place for one extended wait and a bit of sauce skin. We were introduced to some new flavors, but the menu didn't take many chances. The service was friendly (if a bit young: everyone was under 30, it seemed) and eager to help. I requested a menu and a pen, so we could jot down the names of the cheeses. Michael, our waiter, was quick to help and made us feel at home.
Those menus contained a vital clue, however. They were signed. At first we were delighted, of course--we were reminded of Guy Savoy in Paris, dashing after us in his kitchen whites to present us each a separately signed menu, made out to our names. But who signed this menu "Gary Danko"? We've no reason to believe he didn't sign them, but when were they signed? Did he sit down one afternoon and sign a score, with instructions to pass them out to anyone who asked? Again, this is hardly high treason. It's thoughtful, in fact, and generous to part with a signed menu. But the gesture struck both Burke and I as strange, and gave us a light to cast upon the meal. This was a dinner that knew it set high expectations, and met them. And that's all. The obvious care, attention to detail, artistry, selection, everything that goes into a class-A operation, was at our disposal and offered to us as an experience, and we enjoyed it and left.
Is it fair to ask for more? Is it fair to demand "magic"? Guy Savoy, in Paris, was magic. We've had magic at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on Van Ness, we have it routinely at Le Pot au Feu, a small French brasserie in Menlo Park (and they don't even change their menu). French Laundry dripped with magic, and for years it was our standard for a great meal. In a recent review, I tried to capture the magic of finding a Baskin Robbins ice cream place in a strip mall on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale, open past midnight. Neither of us could define this "magic" (and we tried to, the whole car ride home), but we know it has something to do with reaching for more. It can't be measured in thoughtfulness, apparently, the staff at Gary Danko was quite thoughtful, down to the signed menus. Whatever it was, I fear Gary Danko didn't have it, and that's a difficult thing to admit, since the flavor of everything on every plate was perfectly acceptable. We recently ate at Wolfgang Puck's second restaurant, the Los Angeles mainstay Chinois on Main. Heavy with faded '80s decor, cramped and loud, the room buzzed with energy and our server was instantly family. We felt that "magic" before we'd even hung up our coats.
I can keep listing examples, but it's no use. We got what we paid for, with courtesy and a smile, and if that's not enough perhaps the fault lies with our own expectations. But mood, tone, service as an art, these are the things we crave when we dine out, just as much as we seek food artistry. We cannot but recommend Gary Danko, his cheese cart and his staff, his food and his decor. But we probably won't return.
800 North Point at Hyde
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: (415) 749-2026
A Burke and Wells review.