Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dreaming of Gary Danko...

The French Association Relais & Châteaux provides a guide to the most prestigious hotels and restaurants in over fifty countries. There are only eighteen restaurants in the United States that have earned the "Relais Gourmand" designation. In the last thirteen months, Count Fosco has dined at three of them. Here is one of those stories...

In July, Fosco had his belated birthday dinner in San Francisco with his mother and sister. Fosco would have loved to head to Napa to enjoy the delights of The French Laundry, but come on: a $200 prix fixe dinner? Not this year.

So instead, Fosco and the family went to dinner at the beloved Restaurant Gary Danko (which, it's worth noting, has the same food rating as the French Laundry in the current Zagat San Francisco guide. It's also the most popular restaurant in that survey).

[N.B., the restaurant is unrelated to the Jake Gyllenhaal space-time bender.]

Named for its eponymous master chef, Restaurant Gary Danko occupies an unassuming corner in a quiet residential neighborhood near the tourist monstrosities of Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. There is nothing touristy about GD. The interior is a comfortable haven from the street, with warm lighting and an extraordinary profusion of flowers. The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming. GD prides itself on its service, and justifiably so: this was the friendliest restaurant staff I have ever experienced, from the waiters to the runners to the sommelier. You will feel extremely at ease at GD, I promise. No wonder it's so hard to get a reservation (it really was).

I'm going to walk you through our dinner course-by-course. But remember: I'm not John Mackey, so my food photographs are taken with a camera phone and they are not very good (seriously, how the hell does JM take such good pictures of food? Click on his "Journal/Blog" link and enjoy the deliciousness).

There is nothing like a gorgeous place setting. And this picture shows nothing like a gorgeous place setting. But trust me, that glass plate with the black blossoms was exquisite. (The photos do get a little better after this one.)
Shall we begin with an amuse? Indeed! These are blurry chicken dumplings floating in wild mushroom broth. Pretty simple, but quite delicious--and kind of surprising for summer.
My family and I challenged the sommelier by requesting a "reasonable" wine that works well with seafood (for my mom and my sister) and red meat (for extremely carnivorous Fosco). She was a pro (of course), and came up with a delightful rosé by Clos Saron in the Sierras called "Tickled Pink." I guess there is some sort of stigma attached to rosé, but this was a really good wine for all of our various courses.
First Course. My mom had the Risotto with Lobster, Rock Shrimp, Corn and Tomatoes. My sister had Sweet White Corn Soup with Corn Truffle Ravioli and Summer Truffles. Fosco had the Seared Foie Gras with Caramelized Red Onions and Peaches (pictured below). I think that carmelized red onions are now one of my favorite fruits (they're hiding under that green stuff). And that sweet and savory jus at the bottom of the plate? So delicious. I wanted to lick it up.
Let's take a quick break to note how beautiful my sister looked that night.
Main Course. My sister continued the corn theme (a choice she later regretted, just from the perspective of having too much of one flavor) with the Roast Maine Lobster with Yellow Chanterelle Mushrooms, Corn and Tarragon. Gary Danko is known for his work with lobster and this was really quite thrilling:
My mother had the absolutely beautiful Seared Sea Scallops with Sweet Pea PurÈe, Shimeji Mushrooms, Chorizo and Fava Beans. Look at those scallops! They were so rich and smooth.
I enjoyed the Roasted Loin of Bison with King Trumpet Mushrooms, Onion and Herb Spaetzle. This is one of the three or four most delicious things I've ever eaten. The bison was seasoned so extraordinarily that, just by itself, it would have made the whole meal. But the gorgeous green spaetzle were thrilling as well. This was a hearty dish with surprisingly complex flavors. I could eat it everyday. Bask in its bisonic glory:
I had read that GD's cheese cart is pretty impressive, so I decided to have a cheese course. I made the following four choices (beginning in the upper right corner on the plate below and moving clockwise):

  1. I forget the name of the first cheese, but it was from France, it was creamy, and it contained plums soaked in Armagnac. Yes, it was as good as it sounds.
  2. The delightfully creamy (and buttery) Pave d'Affinois.
  3. The truly exceptional Hook's Cheddar from Wisconsin. Sharp as a blade, baby. I could eat some of this on crackers for lunch most days.
  4. And, for a little bit of adventure, a very smelly Livarot. This is a complex flavor--one that gets up into your sinuses and says "Fuck You!" It was pretty remarkable. However, I couldn't eat this on crackers everyday.

And now we come to the mild disappointment of the evening: dessert. I hate to say it, but the desserts at Gary Danko just weren't up to the standard set by the rest of the food. Not that they were bad; they just weren't very interesting. I had a Chocolate Cherry Napoleon with Pistachio, Black Pepper and Red Wine Ice Cream, which sounds a lot better than it was. It was basically just chocolate and cherry flavors. My mom and sister were similarly unimpressed with their desserts.
Next time, I think I'll just do with cheese for dessert. (Although, perhaps the dessert offerings in other seasons are better.) There was a plate of petits fours, of course, thoughtfully topped with a candle and a chocolate script "Happy Birthday" (to me!). And the "ladies" in my party (which apparently does not include Fosco) were each given a beautifully-wrapped peach upside down cake to enjoy for breakfast the next morning. Luckily, Fosco's sister is allergic to peaches so I could eat hers. Take that, sex-discriminating pastries!

On the whole, dinner at Gary Danko was one of the exceptional meals in my life. The cuisine, the atmosphere, and the service made this a truly extraordinary birthday dinner. Allow me to recommend Gary Danko for your next special occasion.

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