The restaurant Gary Danko opened in 1999, and in 2000 the James Beard Foundation named it America's best new restaurant. It's always on the short list of the best places to eat in S.F. But in 2009, when high-ticket palaces of gastronomy seem excessive and slightly passé – and Danko is planning a less expensive brasserie to open in Ghirardelli Square — there are certain mental obstacles to overcome, not least the expense to be incurred. Gary Danko is a prix-fixe–only restaurant, currently offering three courses for $66, four for $83, and five for $98 — and that's before beverages, taxes, and tip.
In some famous temples of cuisine, the atmosphere can be a little stiff, even verging on pretentious — something one can experience while enjoying otherwise wonderful meals at New York's Le Bernardin and Yountville's French Laundry. Although after seeing Gary Danko giggle and charm his way through a couple of TV episodes of The Best Recipes in the World, you can infer that perhaps his restaurant would reflect some of that lightheartedness. Danko was even pictured in My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals, lying around on gold lamé pillows at a staged orgy featuring a mountain of caviar and two voluptuous drag queens, also in gold lamé.
When you're planning to eat in a big-ticket place, it's even difficult to pick what season to visit in, all of which have ingredients to recommend them — stone fruits in summer, persimmons in autumn, root vegetables in winter, asparagus in the spring — not to mention other factors, such as relative hunger.
Our meal — the first there for me and a companion, though we were dining with two Danko veterans — was in late spring, on an unseasonably hot day. I got there a little early for our 5:30 reservation, and was directed to the bar to await the rest of the party. We were sent to a cozy banquette in the larger room; the smaller, which contains the entry as well as the bar, seemed both noisier and a little more casual, with its linen-covered tables set a little too close together for relaxed conversation.
Choosing your dinner from Danko's extensive and luxurious menu — lobster! Asparagus! Oysters! Caviar! Foie gras! And that's just the starters! — is a delightful chore, and was interrupted by the arrival of a tiny tuna tartare amuse-bouche. There are a dozen dishes listed under appetizers, eight under fish and seafood, seven under meat and game birds, a cheese course, and eight desserts. To further confound you, you can choose your courses from all categories (three starters followed by two meats, if you so desire, or three seafood dishes, say) and the staff will pace and size them to suit.
One of us decided quickly, because he'd checked out the menu on the Web site in advance. The rest of us took longer, with the assistance of our incredibly knowledgeable and patient server — a reminder that Gary Danko also won Beard's outstanding service award in 2006.
But after sharing tastes of our well-conceived, well-executed first courses, it seemed that anything we would have ordered would have made us happy, whether classical (a lovely custardy chunk of seared foie gras, served with long-caramelized red onions and rhubarb, for contrasts of both savory and sweet) or more inventive (almost raw seared ahi tuna, beautifully plated with fanned avocado slices, nori, enoki mushrooms, and the merest hint of a tangy lemon-soy dressing). We loved a big heap of Burgundy escargot with shiitake mushrooms, baby artichokes, and delicate brioche enriched with smoky bacon. But my favorite starter was a fragile tart of baby spring vegetables enrobed in an airy mousse of ricotta cheese.
Looking at the menu makes me wish I could have also tried the risotto with lobster, rock shrimp, asparagus, and morels, or the lobster salad with asparagus, hearts of palm, and mango.
Luckily for my lobster hunger, two of us ordered the roast Maine lobster, which was served as a separate course, enabling us to share among the four of us. A claw and a big chunk of sweet tail meat were propped atop buttery potato purée, draped with supple, chewy, earthy trumpet mushrooms, scattered with bright-green edamame, and dusted with minced fresh tarragon. It's a perfectly balanced, luxurious dish.
But I didn't finish my rare lemon-pepper duck breast served with duck hash, asparagus purée, and poached rhubarb, which was the least interesting dish of the evening. I much preferred the herb-crusted loin of lamb served atop pearly Israeli couscous with the sweetest, tenderest peas I've had this season — and I've had a lot of them — as well as spring onions, artichokes, and mint. It was easy to like the branzini, the Italian sea bass white and flaky under crisp skin, brightened with fennel purée, Niçoise olives, oranges, and a touch of fragrant saffron. The seared filet of beef, a signature dish, also missed the mark for me — its essential beefy flavor was obscured by its Bordelaise sauce, and I wasn't intrigued by its garnish of braised celery.
But spirits and appetite lifted when the lush cheese cart was rolled over to the table. Again a patient server was happy to explain the origins and styles of each of the more than 20 cheeses on offer, from as near as Napa or as far away as Tasmania. We shared two cheese plates, four cheese each, simply served with grapes and some slices of nut bread.
My favorite dessert was the bluntly named Non-Cholesterol Grand Marnier soufflé, a perfumed cloud, perfect after such an indulgent meal. But I also enjoyed a perfect chocolate soufflé, heavy on the cholesterol; a rhubarb-strawberry tart served with white chocolate sauce, almond ice cream, and a long, thin tuile; and a rich trio of crème brûlées (espresso-caramel, chocolate, and vanilla), garnished with a macaroon, a bonbon, and biscotti. And we were given not only an assortment of tiny sweets (a miniature macaroon, lemon tart, Opéra cake, pineapple upside-down cake, and more) but Danko's signature out-the-door gift: an exquisitely wrapped breakfast pastry, tonight a banana bread enriched with cream cheese.
Late spring, on an unseasonably hot day, turned out to be the perfect time to lose my Gary Danko virginity. And $83 each seemed rather a bargain for the unhurried three hours and the marvelous meal we'd shared there.