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by Karen Solomon on Apr 23, 2006
The award-winning Restaurant Gary Danko isn't breaking news, nor is it hip for that matter, but this dining chateau, situated in a location so touristy that it's almost impossible to take the food seriously, truly defines excellence. It is amazing how steadfastly the establishment has managed to maintain its culinary chops and dining elegance since opening during the dotcom rush in 1999.
In truth, the restaurant could have rested on its laurels long ago and slipped into the mediocrity of another Forbes Island or Alioto's. And yet, despite the ease and comfort that the chef must feel as a neighborhood resident for the better part of a decade, diners are still pampered and treated to a formidable meal with the gumption and eagerness of a new kid on the block.
The detailed finery is apparent at the door. The restaurant has a reputation for service that is both attentive and unobtrusive, and the reservationist's greeting set that tone immediately. The 65-seat intimate, but not claustrophobic, dining room was set with care, with details such as three identical, plump red roses on every table indicating that someone is paying attention. Even the lavatories (is it fair for a critic to judge an eatery by its restrooms?) are equipped with constantly refreshed cotton towels, soap, lotion, and not a splash of excess water.
Pacing between all five courses is nearly perfect. Servers have expert, insider knowledge of the menu and food preparations, but only volunteer these details upon request. The term "well-oiled machine" kept creeping to mind as we noticed that not just our table, but all of those around us, were tended to like tiny plants, fed and watered with care and attention.
While service alone would be a reason to visit, the proof of the restaurant's valor is equally in the pudding, and here, guests choose between three courses ($61), four courses ($75) or five courses ($89). Danko's aggression toward excellence is immediately apparent in the seared foie gras, a perfectly sweetened and tangy fillet that was yielding yet not mushy, served with earthy Fuji apples, plump roasted grapes, and a sweet and savory tangle of caramelized onions cooked and mellowed for two days. This is the first time I'd met a foie gras bold enough to arrive without crostini or bread, and I did not even miss a crumb.
Next on the five course menu were the perfectly-appointed pan-seared scallops, sweet and salty bronzed medallions tipsy atop a succulent carrot puree, and artistically contrasted with a brilliant spring-green puddle of smooth spinach and fennel. The only disappointment in the seafood was the roasted Maine lobster. Granted, it was April -- months before lobster season is truly in prime -- but Danko is known for having excellent, direct relationships with suppliers. With this dish, the claw and tail on my plate had a lot going for it -- artful presentation shell-side, and perfect texture -- but it lacked any sweetness or flavor that made it worth plucking from the sea prematurely. Its accompanying lightly creamed sauce, speckled with loads of morels and asparagus, was an excellent understudy for the failing star.
Moving on to meat, the roasted bison was very good -- a lightly seared, dainty slab served atop peas, soybeans, carrots, and other ethereal fricasseed vegetables. But "good" turned to "godly" with the Moroccan-spiced squab, a rich, otherworldly deboned whole bird, stuffed with North African couscous, blissfully aromatic orange and cumin carrots, and rubbed with a complex, multilingual spice mixture of lemon, cumin, garlic, coriander, and saffron. Sliced perfectly, the result was near holy.
The cheese cart at Gary Danko cannot be missed; in fact, the desserts themselves were such a letdown that this would be the perfect place to end the meal. (If dinner were a film, the sweet and final course would be the outtakes that should have been left on the cutting room floor. The tableside tray of petit-fours remained half-eaten. The lemon soufflé cake is cloying and wet, and the baked Alaska is just too gooey and sweet.)
But the cheese! This alone merits braving parking at the Wharf. Roughly three dozen artisanal varieties, both local and from the earth's milk-producing far corners, are wheeled tableside to appease the tastes of those who like their mold mild or wild, sheep or cow, nutty or sharp. Standouts include a creamy, acrid Pug's Leap, made in Healdsburg from a farm of just 42 goats, and the Jasper Hill from Vermont, a raw, dairy-forward, small-produced washed-rind cheese.
Yes, the cheese, in its simplicity and elegance, is what excited me. Soft, strong, boldly flavored, and cut to fit my taste, the food at Gary Danko is delicious with very little fanfare: the perfect metaphor for the dining experience itself.
Reservations essential? Yes
by Karen Solomon on Apr 23, 2006