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Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco

It is seldom seen today in 2012 for chefs to open restaurants with their name as the restaurant’s name, unless perhaps there is some clever twist (here’s looking at you Baker & Banker). To name a restaurant after yourself takes courage for chefs. It means you are the destination. Your cooking will be evaluated by diners with your name in mind, along with the atmosphere and service too. Your deft touch searing the foie gras and reducing the demi glace needs to also have an impact on the roses in the central grand vase. Fine dining has always been about the food and the experience seamlessly blended into one spectacular vessel where money buys you royalty for a couple of hours. A fine dining institution that bears the name of its chef and owner– almost feels as if the destination is a genre-changing brand, like a Ralph Lauren or Versace. The name in the title speaks to magic and mystique.

Restaurant Gary Danko indeed does feature some magic and certainly no shortage of mystique. Opened in late 1999, Gary Danko’s dining room can be almost considered an old stand-by in today’s restaurant world where one year in business is roughly comparable to ten human years of life. Twelve years ago Danko garnered award after award for his young restaurant, including the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant back when nobody even knew the James Beard Awards existed. Even before opening his own restaurant, Danko received the James Beard for Best Chef- California, in 1995 at the Dining Room at the Ritz Charlton in San Francisco. Guess what news the James Beard Awards sent to Danko last week? He is now nominated in 2012 as a finalist for Outstanding Chef, for the entire nation this time around. If the James Beards are the Oscars of the food world, then Danko is Katharine Hepburn, nominated every year.

In addition to a closet full of James Beard Awards, Gary Danko is the perennial most popular restaurant according to Zagat’s San Francisco guide and The San Francisco Chronicle has made the restaurant one of its Top 100 in the Bay Area since the restaurant was born. Nobody here is trying to put expectations through the roof…

Yet if anything possibly does jettison expectations to soar even further, then have the chef’s name in the restaurant title. Even Paul Bocuse, arguably the most celebrated chef in the world, no longer has his name in the title of his famed dining room near Lyon, France. Interesting enough in the Bay Area, Danko is certainly not the most famous nor the most celebrated chef in this land of Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, and David Kinch. Those famed three chefs’ restaurants  don’t have their names attached to the title. Danko did not start the organic food movement either, or teach the world what sous-vide is, champion local and sustainable cooking, or even more shocking in this generation, he is not a Top Chef or Iron Chef. He is a chef. A very gifted chef too.

Which leads us to the domain of the chef, in the heart of San Francisco’s tourist haven Fisherman’s Wharf. No tourist will stumble upon Gary Danko after exiting Pier 39, but there does seem to be a slightly higher ratio of tourists to residents than at many of San Francisco’s other premier dining rooms. The dining room itself is a bit dated and cluttered, feeling both posh from the beautiful china and glassware and lush flower arrangements, and worn with tinted black windows and banquettes that show some age. Diners here celebrate, which leads of course to noise. In a dining room such as this where tables are very cozy, the experience is far less elegant and intimate than it really should be at destination restaurants.

In fact I encountered a similar feeling recently at what I would consider a very similar restaurant to Gary Danko– Michael Mina. Yes, both chefs’ names in the restaurant name. Both experiences cost slightly less than the highest tier of Bay Area dining and feature less sous-vide, hay smoked, abalone  type cooking and ingredients than a Coi or Benu. Yet, both restaurants have a bit of fine dining identity crisis, where they strive to be formal, but the atmospheres are too bustling, too rushed to truly be “fine.” At Michael Mina, the tables have no tablecloths. At Gary Danko, the small tables themselves can barely hold a plate, a wine glass, and a water glass, and the tables are snug next to each other. I couldn’t help but listen to the couple’s issues at the table next to us.

Atmospheres certainly are not the only part of fine dining, however. If the buzz words lobster, truffles, and foie gras represent fine dining, then welcome to Gary Danko. The chef is a master with luxury ingredients and also knows how to make humble fish like salmon and the usually drab cheesecake into momentous occasions. Take the salmon for instance, usually a fish relegated to home cooking instead of in the hands of talented chefs. Danko wraps a salmon medallion in beautiful phyllo dough with a light dollop of not too spicy horseradish between the crust and fish. The balance reminds me of how sushi masters balance fish, rice, and wasabi with restraint in Tokyo. The spice comes through to liven up the proceedings without giving that wasabi nose-clearing kick that horseradish often does when piled into a prime rib filet. With some more gentle spice added from a mustard based cream sauce and the cleansing dilled cucumbers, the dish is not eye catching, but it is indeed jaw dropping after tasting. It shows the gift for combinations, such as horseradish and salmon, that Danko possesses. The dish perfectly shows Danko’s propensity for haute cuisine ingredients and cream based sauces, but with a lighter hand, and some flair for the exotic or for some spice.

Lobster shows up in a wholesome and luxurious risotto with butternut squash, shimeji mushrooms, and rock shrimp. Every menu has seared ahi tuna, but few match this pristine version over a lemon  soy vinaigrette, with avocado, enoki mushrooms, and just enough umami from nori. Danko’s famed glazed oysters are single bite sensations, topped with Osetra caviar, in a pool of a rich lettuce cream that would make Escoffier proud.

Subsequent bites through the long menu show that Danko might want to consider paring down some of the options. With some 25 to 30 savory options per night, nothing is an unabashed clunker, but too many dishes are not masterpieces like the salmon or the oysters. Striped bass is beautifully cooked, wrapped in crisp speck, but its sauce tastes of nothing more than clarified butter with a few notes of salt from the capers. The Moroccan spiced squab stops you in your tracks with its bold flavors. I could not eat enough of the couscous billowing out of the bird, studded with orange-cumin carrots, raisins, and almonds. The server will warn you that the squab will be served rare. Indeed it is and should be. Unfortunately, the meat is so thinly sliced, and the bird too thoroughly packed with a pound of couscous that the squab gets entirely lost in the couscous avalanche. The dish then seems more like a side dish than a meat dish and the squab meat often overpowered.

Danko’s lemon pepper crusted duck breast impresses too, sitting in wonderful celery root purée. Pity the duck breast though since its neighboring side of duck hash still gives me nightmares. Pallid, cold, and saltier than the Pacific, the hash is the, forgive the pun, the kitchen’s ugly duckling. It should never have appeared. How something more like what you get from a Jimmy Dean box in the freezer aisle appears on a plate at this otherwise outstanding restaurant is beyond me.

Don’t skip the epic cheese cart, but do not lose sleep if you pass up the chocolate souffle with creme anglaise and chocolate sauce. It should be more luxurious in appearance, more vivid in chocolate taste. The underwhelming sauces, the somewhat dry souffle, and a deflated top from too much time between oven and table deflated the dessert proceedings. Everything the oysters accomplish earlier in the night, the souffle did not. On the contrary, creme fraîche cheesecake is magical with caramelized pecans, rhubarb, and strawberry sorbet. Sometimes, good old fashioned cheesecake just beats classical French desserts. With mignardises, petit fours, and a lovely breakfast bread for the ladies the next day (or the taxi ride), celebrations continue long after the duck hash moment.

But that duck hash. And the squab lost in translation. The merely o.k. chocolate souffle. There seems to be a sign of some slippage perhaps now from the kitchen that can quickly be remedied. My bigger point to bring up is from the design side of the experienced presented by the restaurant. Diners can order three courses for $71, four for $89, or five for $105. You can order any course from any category, so perhaps three meat dishes, and the restaurant in theory will make appropriate adjustments. $71 for oysters, lobsters, and quail stuffed with foie gras is a good deal, and you will be full. $71 for sorbet sampler, cheese plate, and crispy farm egg with polenta and frisée…maybe not such a good deal. Nobody probably does that type of meal at such a special restaurant, but my point is that too much awkward dysfunction frequently arises from this style for its own good. Our table mentioned how we would share everything and we will not have the exact same amount of fish dishes as appetizers, for example. The waitress still insisted that “somebody” had to order each dish. Then we receive the bill later, where since “somebody” had four dishes brought to them and somebody else had two, that former diner was charged a four course dinner and the latter two dishes à la carte, which in theory is not even an option. The issue quickly was solved, but should not be an issue to begin with. With the strange menu style leading to off timings if diners are not having the same courses or awkward passing around of plates of sharing, along with the too cluttered, becoming dated room, diners can feel a touch too uncomfortable for a celebration.

Then there is the problem of the mobile cheese cart. Our corner table was isolated from the servers and the rest of the restaurant for a good twenty minutes while our neighbors watched the presentation on the difference of that goat cheese from Nicasio versus that French creamy one. I’m all for detailed cheese presentations and mobile carts. It is a major design flaw though that our table was in cheese cart Siberia for this long, unable to order wine for a half hour. Again, this should not be an issue. Nor should waiters asking us to lift up our menus and put them on the floor or banquette when presented with the amuse bouches. And then there’s the waitress agreeing that the coffee is not so special here and that they should go get Blue Bottle or Sightglass like the rest of the city.

Twelve years is a long time for a restaurant and for that time Gary Danko has performed magic from his kitchen. There may be a few slip ups today and far hotter, younger chefs on TV or making outlandish statements and dishes. At Restaurant Gary Danko, fine dining strives to remain in the name and on the plate, and with a few brush ups, I am sure it will for decades to come.

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