Monday, May 3, 2010

Gary Danko - 04/10/2010

800 North Point Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 749-2060

I first dined at Gary Danko in the summer of 2004. At the time I was starting to get into food, but my excursions consisted of restaurants like Zankou Chicken or if I was feeling spendy, Ruths Chris. For the longest time, I considered Gary Danko the finest meal of my life.

Interestingly the menu remains almost identical to what I had six years ago which is a bit worrisome. The best restaurants are constantly evolving though experimentation, testing to see what works and what doesn't. Of course the consistency offers the opportunity to taste the same courses and see how they have withstood the test of time.

We had a 10:00 PM reservation but arrived a bit early assuming we could be seated. Surprisingly the restaurant was still packed and we weren't actually seated until our reservation time. We had hoped to start early as we were planning to order the entire menu, though I took the full house as a good sign.

The service started off a bit rocky, though it improved over the course of the meal. When we tried to order the whole menu our server seemed vaguely offended by the idea and he brusquely attempted to dissuade us from doing so. Though this proved to be a good idea, the way our server presented it left a bad taste in our mouths. We ended up ordering about 20 courses and splitting them all three ways which came out to 6-7 courses per person.

Amuse - Curried Cauliflower Soup
We were each presented with a bowl of warm creamy cauliflower soup. Despite the simple appearance, the soup actually exhibited a blend of subtle flavors: heat, bitterness, sweetness all nicely intertwined.

Risotto - with Lobster, Rock Shrimp, Shimeji Mushrooms, Peas and Asparagus
Risottos at restaurants fall into three categories: shellfish, mushroom, and vegetable. This was a blend of all three and though it looks a bit busy the flavors are well balanced. The sweetness of the shellfish, the vegetal sapor of the peas and asparagus, and the earthiness of the mushrooms are all clearly identifiable. A subtle blend of herbs and fennel adds a unique touch to the dish.

Seared Sonoma Foie Gras - with Caramelized Red Onions and Rhubarb
A very good and traditional preparation of seared foie gras, the charred exterior hiding an ocean of rich unctuous flavor slightly tempered by the sweet tang of the onions and rhubarb. My companions considered this the best course of the night and once upon a time I might have as well.

Seared Ahi Tuna - with Avocado, Nori, Enoki Mushrooms and Lemon Soy Dressing
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit seared Ahi used to be one of my favorite dishes and Danko had the best hands down. The presentation of the course as a butterfly was a bit more elaborate than I remember. The tuna was tender and clean and when combined the other ingredients formed sort of a deconstructed tuna roll. The gari was a new addition and an unwelcome one on account of its overwhelming flavor. The ginger might have been effective as a palate cleanser but not integrated with the rest of the dish.

Dungeness Crab Salad - with Avocado Mousse, Pineapple, Hearts of Palm and Curry-Lemon Vinaigrette
I suspect the kitchen told the staff to push this course. We ordered it on the strong recommendation of our server and it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, funky tasting crab, rancid avocado, and funky tasting hearts of palm.

Lobster Salad - with Avocado, Citrus, Shaved Fennel with Meyer Lemon-Tarragon Vinaigrette
One of the most eye-catching presentations, the orange-red tones of the lobster and citrus providing a bold contrast to the greens on the plate. As one would expect the salad was tart, bitter, and refreshing with just a hint of licorice from the tarragon. Pity the sinew wasn't removed prior to plating as the lobster was otherwise spot on.

Crispy Farm Egg - with White Polenta, Royal Trumpet Muchrooms, Frisée and Pancetta
The next course is a variation on a Lyonnase Salad, something I would have passed over on my first visit that has since become a must-order course every time I see it on a menu. I preferred this heavier presentation with the polenta and mushrooms adding gravity. The sparse covering of frisée was just enough to add a bitter tinge without making the course too astringent. As for the crispy egg, I quite enjoyed the savory coating which gave the white a more tangible presence but as always it is the unifying effect of the yolk that makes this course so damn good.

Pancetta Wrapped Frog Legs - with Garlic Purée, Potato, Lentils and Parsley
Interesting interplay between the fishy frog legs and the savory pancetta. The potatos and lentils made for a much heavier course than I initially anticipated with a not unwelcome smoky sapor from the legumes.

Glazed Oysters - with Oscetra Caviar, Zucchini Pearls and Lettuce Cream
The biggest disappointment of the night, the oysters and caviar used to be one of my favorite courses but this time around it felt like I stuck my tongue into a cup of saltwater.

Roast Maine Lobster - with Potato Purée, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Edamame and Tarragon
The quality of the lobster was similar to that of the earlier course, nicely cooked but layered with gristle. I preferred the richer preparation; the butter sauce of the lobster meshing particularly well with the potatoes and mushrooms. The edamame and tarragon added a complex vegetal sweetness to the mix.

Coconut Thai Curry - with Lemongrass, Calamari, Lobster, Scallions and Shiitake Mushrooms
The curry itself is what you would expect to find at your neighborhood restaurant, what sets this apart is the quality of the seafood, all impeccably fresh and cooked perfectly.

Seared Sea Scallops - with Zucchini-Fennel Purée, Red Peppers, Harocot Vert and Shimeji Mushrooms
A superbly cooked scallop, rough caramelization on the surface hides a soft meaty body. The sweetness of the peppers and purée masked the buttery sweetness of the scallop. This would have been just as good served simply to celebrate the delicate essence of the shellfish.

Horseradish Crusted Salmon Medallion - with Dilled Cucumbers and Mustard Sauce
A quintessentially Scandiavian preparation of salmon, the classic accouterments of tangy mustard and dill pickles elevate the overdone salmon.

At this point we were wishing that we ordered the entire menu. That wish lasted until we saw the first of the meat dishes. The portions for the last five courses were noticably larger than the appetizer and seafood courses and paired with some sort of dense carbohydrate or starchy vegetable.

Lemon Pepper Duck Breast - with Duck Hash, Carrot-Ginger Purée and Vanilla Poached Rhubarb
I couldn't help but compare this course to the duck I had the previous night at Chez Panisse. Both were nicely prepared and but compare the two. In both cases the duck itself was spot on but where Chez Panisse took a more savory approach, Danko relied on a sweeter flavor profile that gave the dish a much more unwieldy feel.

Quail Stuffed with Foie Gras - Mushrooms and Quinoa, Artichokes, Olives and Scallion-Potato Cake
One of the more intriguing courses on the menu though a bit flawed in execution. The quail and foie ended up blending into an amalgam with some of the qualities of each but not as good as either would be standalone.

Seared Filet of Beef - with Yukon Potatoes, Curried Cauliflower, Cumin-Cilantro Butter and Tamarind Glaze
Hard to go wrong with a nice filet of beef and a side of potatoes. I appreciated the curried flavor the filet though there was something vaguely wrong about combining Indian spices with beef.

Roasted Pork Belly and Tenderloin - with Brussels Sprouts, Bacon, Parsnip Purée and Maple Cider Glaze
The tenderloin was well prepared but its hard to appreciate the tenderloin when theres a slab of rich pork belly beckoning. The maple cider glaze was a nice addition to the belly, giving the meat a barbeque like sweetness. The sharp bitter attack of the Brussels sprouts was the perfect counter to the richness of the belly.

Braised Lamb Shoulder and Herb Crusted Loin - with Barley Stew, Red Pepper Relish and Cumin Yogurt
The last savory course of the night was greeted with welcome relief, in a mere five courses we had gone from wanting to order more to struggling for breath. As with the pork, this was really two meat courses, one the loin was exceptional with the tangy yogurt, the cumin heightening the simply seasoned lamb. The second was a much heavier dish, combining the richness of the braised shoulder with a nutty character from the barley stew

Warm Louisiana Butter Cake - with Caramelized Apples, Huckleberry Compote and Vanilla Ice Cream
A satisfyingly simple dessert, the neutral sweetness of the warm butter cake heightened the tanginess of the paired fruit.

Hazelnut Chocolate Bar - with Brandy-Vanilla Foam and Espresso Ice Cream
I've been really enjoying these ultra-dense super-rich chocolate desserts of late. This was particularly good paired with a subtle bitter tinge from the espresso and a light woody essence from the brandy-vanilla foam.

Flamed Baked Alaska - with Vanilla Ice Cream, Raspberry Sorbet, Raspberry Sauce and Crème Anglaise
Always a visually appealing course, the blazing column of blue fire gave way to an alcohol tinged on the meringue. Still once the fun of the visual effect wears off this becomes a glorified ice cream and sorbet dessert.

I really had no idea what to expect on my return to Danko. The restaurant has racked up and still continues to enjoy a laundry list of critical acclaim: one Michelin Star, tied for the top spot on Gayot, best for food on Zagat numerous years in a row, and a 4.5 rating on yelp with nearly 2000 reviews.

Right after the meal I was bitterly disappointed, probably because neither of my old favorites survived the test of time. Analyzing the courses individually, there really were only a few total failures and about as many truly exceptional courses. For the most part, cooking and quality of the meat and shellfish was spot on but the dishes just didn't feel that special.

Part of me wants to chalk the lackluster experience up to bad luck, maybe an off night in the kitchen. That could have explained one or two courses but after tasting two thirds of the entire menu I think I had a representative sample of what the restaurant has to offer. I think the restaurant has plateaued; the kitchen has reached a level of performance and is happy where it's at. By no means is this a bad thing but it just means I got good when I was expecting transcendent.


sygyzy said...

In your experience, how do restaurants normally react when you order a large number of dishes and have them split among a number of diners? I always want to dot his (order whole menu, but split amongst 3-4 people) but am worried they would be upset or wouldn't "know" how to split it. What do they do for a dish that (for example) is a duck breast? Do they each give you a 1/3rd of a breast?

sygyzy said...

One more thing and sorry for the double comment but don't you think the server was not happy with you ordering the entire menu because it was 10PM? They would have been there serving you til 2AM probably. Maybe later. If you settled for 20 dishes, how many were you missing? Was the entire menu just 5 more or a larger number? Great review, as always.

Epicuryan said...

In my experience, most restaurants don't mind but they don't do any special plating though some will provide sharing plates. So with your duck breast example, I'll eat one third and pass it to one of the other diners who will eat his share and give it to the last guy. The hardest part is controlling the tempo, with so many courses restaurants will sometimes bring too many courses at once. Typically we ask that they bring one course per person.

I absolutely think the server was unhappy having to stay extra late and that he was justified in his feeling, but he could have presented his case better. If he had just warned us that the meat courses were all entree portions we wouldn't have tried to order the whole menu anyway. I believe there were 30+ courses on the menu so we got a bit less than 2/3.

sygyzy said...

Ryan, thanks for your explanations. So in this case, they did not plate each course 3 different times, right? They just gave a complete plate to the table and you guys passed the plate around?

Epicuryan said...

That's right, they gave us one complete plate so make sure you and your guests are comfortable sharing food. It's rare that a restaurant will actually make the effort to split the dish into individual portions.