Gary Danko has been at the top of my "restaurants to go to" list for at least three years but for one reason or another (mostly having to do with the difficulties of getting reservations) we hadn't made it. Finally, I secured a reservation (at 6 PM on a Monday - December 2003-! and supposedly there is a recession out there), got a babysitter and we were all set to go.
Gary Danko, named after its owner-chef, is located close to Pier 39. The touristy location seems unusual for such a restaurant, but it didn't prove to be a problem in terms of parking; we were able to find a parking space without much looking only about a block away.
The restaurant is divided into a couple of smallish dining rooms and decorated in that casual-chic style that seems so common these days, with muted colors and abstract paintings on the walls. I wasn't very fond of the banquet seating, which put Mike and I sitting next to each other rather than across the table from each other; I’d rather spend a romantic evening looking at him than having my gaze forced upon the waiters or the other diners. Not all the tables are set that way, though, so you may want to request a more traditional setting when you make your reservation. Then again, you may find sitting next to each other cozier.
Service was extraordinary, competent and polite, casual and friendly without being too familiar or pushy. People who dislike foo-foo restaurants because of stiff service would find Gary Danko a breath of fresh air. The waiters were helpful in explaining the menu and suggesting that almost any substitutions among courses could be made - that flexibility was very welcomed - and later on in explaining the intricacies of the cheeses available for the cheese course. One thing I noticed was that at least in our dining room all the waiters were male, I hope that was just a coincidence and not an active discrimination against female waitresses.
Gary Danko offers both a five-course tasting menu and a regular menu divided into 5 courses: appetizer, fish, meat, cheese and dessert. The tasting menu and the five-course menu cost $74, but you could opt to have 4 courses for $64 or 3 courses for $55. If you choose fewer options you will get correspondingly larger portions, so no matter how many you order you will get approximately the same amount of food, you'll just sacrifice the variety. Mike decided on the tasting menu, though he made substitutions for both the appetizer and dessert, and I went with a five-course a la carte menu. Mike also had the wine pairing ($42). I wasn't very thirsty so I actually didn't have anything to drink (though I tasted his wines).
The meal started with a complimentary minuscule bowl of onion soup with foie gras. It was divine, very flavorful and hearty. The presentation, a small cup placed into a large silver plate, was also beautiful.
We were also won over by the presentation of Mike's next dish (from the regular menu), "Risotto with Lobster, Rock Shrimp, Toy Box Tomatoes and Zucchini". It came in a strangely shaped bowl, tilted; the lower side of which was much shorter than the upper. I would love to get a set of bowls like that! He liked the dish quite a bit, but I think he liked my "Seared Foie Gras, Caramelized Red Onions, Figs and Huckleberries" better. The portion was so generous that I let him have a couple of bites, even though it was so delicious that I wanted every last one for myself. I don't remember what the wine pairing was, but it was a very drinkable white wine, with just the right amount of sweetness to dryness. We both liked it.
My next course was "Pancetta Wrapped Frog Legs with Sunchoke Garlic Pure, Potato, Lentils and Parsley Sauce". The frog legs were quite good, especially the pancetta-covered skin, though they were a bit difficult to eat (those small bones!). I wasn't won over by the lentils - I never am - but they grew on me. Mike had the "Horseradish Crusted Salmon Medallion with Dilled Cucumbers" (appearing both on the tasting and regular menus), which he liked a lot, though he thought some of the salmon was undercooked. The wine served was a 2001 Semillon from the Moss Wood Winery in Western Australia, a type of wine we had never had before. It was almost completely dry, quite spicy and very interesting. It's not a wine I would serve for sipping, but I think I will serve it with fish at some future dinner party.
As my meat course, I had the "Sauteed Guinea Hen Breast, Confit Leg with Chanterelle Mushrooms and Corn". The bird was unbelievably tender; it almost melted in my mouth and its consistency was closer to foie gras than to any poultry I've ever had. It was also quite flavorful, served with a reduction sauce whose only sin was that it wasn't more abundant. The mushrooms were also excellent, and while we weren't crazy about the corn pudding, it also grew on me.
Mike had the "Juniper Crusted Venison with Caramelized Endive and Cranberry Compote". The venison was very good, but the endive was incredible. So incredible, that only now reading the description of the dish I realized that that "fruit" I thought I was tasting and liking so much, was actually not only a vegetable but an endive! Only now can I understand the Belgians love affair with that vegetable. The wine was a 1999 Rioja from Finca Allende. We both liked it (we like Rioja wine), but it didn't overwhelm us.
The next course was a selection of "farm house and artisanal cheese". A selection of cheeses is presented at the table and you get to choose four of them (the portions given are substantial, though). Mike saw this as an opportunity for trying some new things so he went for the most unusual selections. I wasn't so adventurous and instead mostly concentrated in soft cheeses. Everything I had was excellent, in particular a blue cheese that seemed to have nuts (or perhaps just a nutty taste). Three of Mike's cheeses were very good too, the Humboldt Fog, in particular, was extremely creamy and delicious. We've forgotten the name of the last one, but it was the weirdest cheese I'd ever tried. Mike warned me I wasn't going to like it, and he was right. It actually had a pungent taste, bitter and almost challengingly so. I was certainly grateful for the grapes provided with the cheese, they really helped cleaned my palate after tasting the strong cheese. Mike, on the other hand, grew to like it though I'm not sure he'd order it again. Unfortunately I don't remember the name of that cheese. The cheese course came accompanied by a 1995 Broadbent Maira Colheita from Portugal, which Mike enjoyed (but I don't think he's yet met a madeira he didn't enjoy).
It was finally time for dessert and it was here that the whole meal fell apart. To put it bluntly, Gary Danko needs a new pastry chef. I had the "Chocolate Coffee Napoleon, Mascarpone Mousse and Mocha Ice Cream". The dessert was OK tasting but nothing more. The Mocha ice cream was one-dimensional and I was actually grateful the portion wasn't larger. The Napoleon didn't work very well, the cookie was too hard, the mousse too boring, and in all, much less than what you'd expect from a restaurant of this caliber. Still, it was much better than Mike's " Baked Chocolate Souffle with Two Sauces". The two sauces were chocolate sauce and creme anglaise, but they did little to improve the dry, tasteless souffle. The frozen chocolate souffle sometimes available at Trader Joe's would have been a significant improvement over what they served. Mike liked the 1999 Late Harvest Pinto Gris from Mendelson Winery in Napa served with dessert, however.
I thought that the petit fours served after dinner helped redeem the pastry chef (though they were by no means outstanding), but Mike didn't really enjoy them very much.
In all we had a very good meal, but not an awe-inspiring one. I'm not sure if this is as much due to the quality of the food at Gary Danko as to the fact that by now we've been to several upscale restaurants (Fleur de Lys, the French Laundry, Masa's, Charles Nob Hill, Aquarello, Elisabeth Daniel) and our taste buds are a tad jaded; it may take more to impress us now than it did in the past. Gary Danko's limited five-course menu may also work against him. We like extensive tasting menus (8 to 11 course ones), both because they expose us to all sorts of new flavors and because they turn the meal into an experience in itself; our dinner at Gary Danko only took 2 hours, for example, which is almost an hour less than meals we've had at restaurants of its caliber. With less dishes to taste, it's also more difficult to amaze us. And yet, I really liked the relaxed atmosphere (not to mention the lower prices) of Gary Danko. I certainly would like to go back someday (hopefully when they get a new pastry chef).
The meal came to about $210 before tip. At the end of the meal they presented us with a folder with copies of its menu and the 2003 Relais & Chateaux guide (Gary Danko appears in it, a fact of which they seem quite proud). The tasting menu was hand signed by Gary Danko, a nice touch.
Restaurant Gary Danko
800 North Point at Hyde St
San Francisco, CA