On the corner on which proud Chez Michel lived and died, Gary Danko now serves superlative California food to a well-to-do crowd of business types and tourists. The restaurant's interior is similar to Chez Michel's, with many tables in a small space bisected by a bar. Wood paneling and louvered shutters will make those accustomed to plush office spaces and conference rooms feel at home, while dim lighting and an abundance of richly upholstered banquettes add an air of romantic sophistication. The staff uniform is an elegant dark suit, and the tablecloths are white. The clientele is also dressed up: There isn't a man without a jacket in sight, a rarity even at restaurants that purport to enforce a jacket-and-tie requirement, and the women are likewise dressed conservatively and well.
It is clear that the management has hotel training. Every detail is taken care of in a way that is subtle, but ostentatious in its completeness. In fact, the service is obsessively prominent -- it feels as though, on those few occasions when no server is at your table, it is because they are all off on different errands for you. But the servers themselves are relaxed and genial. If you attempt to fill your own glass while, say, the captain is in the vicinity, you will be gently chided, and the glass will be graciously but insistently filled for you. (A second offense will add $20 to your bill; try to pour your own a third time and you will be evicted from the restaurant. Just kidding.)
The menu is set up according to a type of prix fixe plan: You choose whatever you want from the list, which is divided into appetizers, seafood, meat and poultry, and desserts, plus the cheese trolley and a special tableside hot dessert, and charges accrue according to the number of courses. Three courses cost $48, four are $57, and each additional course adds $9 to the bill. Although it is implied that diners will move down the list as dinner progresses, in theory it wouldn't be a problem to start with a selection of cheeses, then the foie gras, then enjoy the licorice ice cream with figs, and another two orders of foie gras for good measure. Let no one prevent you from eating as you desire; this is San Francisco, after all.
Despite assurances that the courses are graduated -- in other words, if you order six courses the portions will be smaller than the same dish would be as part of a three-course meal -- this is only slightly true. Portions are not small, and the eater of six, or even five, courses will find himself faced with quite a lot of food. A five-course tasting menu is available pre-assembled, and the perfect wine pairings can be had for an additional $29. This is definitely a worthwhile investment.
Gary Danko's wine list is large enough to deserve a review of its own, which I can merely excerpt here: "... compelling ... a true story of nature's bounty ... a timeless epic spanning generations and continents." It lists close to a thousand bottles, French and Californian, including a great number of half-bottles, a size pitifully absent from many wine lists. There are also on the order of 20 very good wines available by the glass, or even the half-glass. None of these is inexpensive. It is evident that the restaurant has deep pockets and a good nose, as many of the wines are truly great, with prices to match, and a number of them are quite rare. It is possible to get a decent wine here for under $40, but there aren't many in that price range, and it's hard to say no to that beautiful three-digit bottle gazing moistly out at you.
The food is from the elite luxury division of the well-drilled French/California army. Nearly everything is excellent, prepared with wonderful ingredients and masterful technique. Danko has a particular way with game birds: A warm quail salad is made up almost entirely of pieces of the bird, cooked to a degree of flavorfulness rarely seen. It is served in a small bowl, dressed with a tart pomegranate sauce, which cuts the richness, and a cute little boiled quail egg to give perspective. Duck breast is sautéed very rare -- not long enough to develop a steaky texture -- so its little medallions fairly drip with succulent juice. It is spared the common tart-sweet accompaniment cliché and is instead graced with a wonderfully nutty celery root purée and delicately spicy pear slices. The menu features other birds as well, including a Moroccan-style squab with chermoula, the tangy dressing redolent of lemon, parsley, onion, and cumin, and a very American guinea hen with apples, chestnuts, and spaetzle.
Danko's mastery extends equally to shellfish. His lobster salad is a scintillating balance of flavors and colors, composed on a white plate. It consists of large pieces of rosy lobster meat, slices of avocado, tart pink grapefruit wedges, a copse of pea sprouts, and small sections of artichoke and fennel on the sidelines. A mustard-tarragon dressing unites the disparate elements. There is also a creamily marine-scented lobster and scallop soup, and roast lobster with mushrooms and fresh soybeans. Danko's take on seared scallops is one of the best in the city, judged solely on the quality of the ingredients and the care with which they're handled: The bivalves are plump, fresh, and marvelously tender, and their mildness is offset by olives and artichoke pieces.
Another excellent fish dish is the tuna steak. A large wedge of the meat is given a nutty crust of herbs and cracked peppercorns, and cooked past the usual rare to a point at which the flavor develops fully, muscle fibers are evident, and teeth are required. One wouldn't want every piece of tuna cooked like this, but it is refreshing to see this steak in place of the banal, flabby, pink cube that one so often gets, and there is no hint of the dryness that can occur when tuna is cooked less skillfully. The fillet of beef is enticingly tricky: Although the meat is naturally mild in flavor, and appears unadorned, it has somehow been invisibly infused with Stilton. Should the invisible cheese not suffice, a lavish, rich potato gratin and candied shallots sing backup.
Not everything at Gary Danko is so perfect. The lone vegetarian dish, italicized on the menu as though to point out its ancillary nature, does, sad to say, seem like a consolation prize, consisting as it does of a viscous, tomato-based pottage of insufficiently tender chick peas with underseasoned braised artichoke laid on top. Similarly, the salmon fails to thrill. Surprisingly for a dish featured on the autumn tasting menu, it doesn't have a lot going on. A sizable medallion of the heavy fish, with a faint-flavored crust, is heavily seasoned with fresh dill, as are the accompanying wilted cucumber slices. Salmon and dill is a classic pairing, but dill is an easy herb to abuse, and here there is too much of it.
It is always a delight to see (and smell) a traditional cheese trolley, and even more so to watch it arrive at your table and unveil its mysteries. Gary Danko has a decent mix of very good artisanal cheeses, with few surprises: local goat cheese, mild hard cheeses, a magnificently au point Pont L'Eveque, Roquefort, and several more. The wine pairing suggested for the cheese selection is a 1976 Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls, a warm, full dessert wine -- a match made in heaven.
Dessert at Gary Danko is a fairly heady affair. The portions are heroic: A trio of crèmes brûlées is more than three times the size of an average serving of brûlée, not to mention the accompanying cookies and fruit. The trio consists of mild vanilla, stimulating coffee, and an opulent chocolate, by far the best of the three. On a milder note, the chocolate soufflé is in the classic style, puffy and light. Although a bit dry and bland on its own, it is impregnated at the table with a thin chocolate sauce and a crème anglaise, adding depth, richness, and fat. Also excellent, for those in a dark mood, are the port-glazed figs with licorice ice cream.
Eating at Gary Danko is a true pleasure. The food, as is appropriate in a restaurant named for its chef, has an unmistakable character, luxuriously refined but with dynamic elements that make it not only delicious but exciting. At its best, Gary Danko offers an unqualified, grand dining experience.