Tuesday, January 22, 2008

San Francisco & Gary Danko

To celebrate my birthday, I planned a day of culinary hedonism, namely flaneuring around some of San Francisco’s most celebrated eateries and hoping for the best. We began with coffee at Ritual. While Marisa, a non-caffeine addict, found its cappuccino epiphanic, Ritual’s espresso was completely lacking in restraint. The barista appeared to employ a lot of technique, but the intensity was completely overwhelming, the caffeic equivalent of the dreaded California fruit bomb. We then strolled to Tartine for pastries and the requisite second morning espresso, all of which were outstanding.

We moved on to the venerable Zuni Cafe for a leisurely lunch. With rare San Francisco sunshine radiating through the restaurant, our table on the second floor overlooking Market Street provided privacy and views. We split a deliciously simple plate of black spaghetti with clams, garlic, olive oil and red pepper flakes and the justifiably famous roasted chicken with bread salad. As the fat from the chicken drained onto the warm bread salad, I became excited and erroneously pronounced Zuni’s chicken better than the smoky classic at Pollo a la Brasa in Koreatown.

Later than afternoon, we went down to the Ferry Building to check out the scene. After scoffing at the Slanted Door and its dumbed down “pan-Asian” selections, we saddled up to the bar at Hog Island Oyster Company. (New York has also succumbed to the same anglicized pan-Asian blandness in the form of Momofuku with its false shrine to pork. Once one eats at Chung King, Jitlada and the like, there is no going back.) There, we split a dozen sweetwater oysters and kumamotos from HIOC’s renown farm in nearby Tomales Bay. We then tried, and I ignored, an overcooked cheeseburger from the southern outpost of St. Helena’s Taylor’s Refresher. I’m glad the burger was bad, because I doubt I could have eaten it.

The coup de grace to this entire day of arterial destruction was a 9:00 pm reservation at Gary Danko, a titan of San Francisco dining. Gary Danko, after earning a sterling reputation at as a chef in Bay Area restaurants, opened his eponymous restaurant in 1999 and it became an instant classic. The San Francisco Chronicle has ranked the restaurant in its “Top 100” ever since it opened, and the painfully democratic Zagat Survey named the restaurant the most popular in San Francisco and as having the best food and service. Yet the controversial Michelin Guide awarded Gary Danko only one star, an outstanding accomplishment, but inconsistent with its local popularity and status. In comparison, Michelin gave two stars to competitors Michael Mina and Aqua.

We loved a dinner there two years ago, and I wanted to return again with Marisa. What we discovered on our return was a dated, one-dimensional restaurant with uncomfortably solicitous service.

Danko’s vision is a hollow triangulation of a cuisine that is neither progressive nor timeless. The middlebrow menu of vaguely French-inspired dishes with scattered elements of seasonality and Asian spices constitutes a reconfiguration of the old continental formula that was swept out 25 years ago by Puck, Waters, etc. I’ll list a few items:

Beef Tenderloin with King Trumpet Mushrooms, Potato Gratin, Cassis Glazed Shallots and Stilton Butter
Seared Ahi Tuna with Avocado, Nori, Enoki Mushrooms and Lemon Soy Dressing

Beef tenderloin, or filet mignon, is the hallmark of 1970’s continental food, which is not surprising since it is famously expensive and bland. With the side of potatoes, a substitution of mushrooms for corn and a cheaper cut of beef, the dish could be sold as a Swanson Original TV dinner. Seared ahi tuna,--a locution that is either misleading or vague and redundant depending on whether yellowfin, bigeye or some other tuna is being served-- has long been a favorite of whites in flight and hit the Ohio exurbs in the mid-Nineties. (I still shudder from those lengthy drives with the family through Republican precincts to the old Market Square Bistro in Bainbridge where I first developed my hatred of the dish.) The avocado accompaniment is even more embarrassing, as the fruit must be served with 80% of tuna hand rolls in California sushi bars. The only constants here are the luxury ingredients, which are perfect for Danko’s hugely marked up wine list and conservative clientele, and the kitchen’s anachronistic inclinations.

As for the actual experience, we sat on the perimeter in the restaurant’s smaller dining room, leaving us in earshot of the room’s center table and any reverberations. When one member of the party at the center table turned out to be the loud personification of what Eric Cartman detests about San Francisco, I knew we were in a bit of trouble.

Considering it was my birthday dinner, I went with the seared foie gras appetizer with caramelized red onion and apples that was served in an undisclosed lake of sweet red wine sauce. The dish was tasty, but a harbinger of mediocre things to come. Whatever amount of street cred I had is now being relinquished: the foie gras’s texture was slightly languid for my taste. Marisa tried the lobster salad with persimmon, chestnut mousse, and pomegranate seeds, and it was as bland as Mitt Romney.

After the richness of the foie, I wanted a change of pace and ordered the “Moroccan-spiced” squab with chermoula and orange-cumin carrots. I have an affection for practically all things Moroccan, and frankly couldn’t resist. Marisa, enticed by the side of chestnut spaetzle, tried the venison with braised red cabbage. Both dishes were, for all intents and purposes, submerged in the same sweet red wine sauce as the foie gras. I wanted to try Marisa’s venison, but my palate lay in ruins and I was unable to differentiate Marisa’s venison from Manischewitz. While I am amenable to criticism that I ordered foolishly, the menu’s description of these dishes did not mention sweet red wine sauce.

Danko is known for its traditional cheese course. For this food geek, it is immensely exciting when the old-fashioned wooden cart of esoteric cheeses is wheeled up to the table. On this evening, however, the assortment of cheeses underwhelmed. It could have been the absence of epoisses--Marisa’s favorite dairy-based substance--the overrepresentation of the quotidian cheddar, or the fact that Bristol Farms and La Brea Bakery carried most of the selections. Worse yet, none of the cheeses stood out, another disappointment.

We did end on a high note, because the baked chocolate soufflé, our shared dessert, was great. The soufflé had the requisite fluffiness and the chocolate had a welcome sharpness that I very much enjoyed. Two sauces accompanied it, but they weren’t needed.

Gary Danko
800 North Point Street
San Francisco
(415) 749-2060

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Solar de Cahuenga

For the minority uninterested in paying $10.00 for a cup of coffee in a coffee “boutique” frequented by 40-year old white men wearing “God is Dead” shirts and Doc-Martens--whether ironically or not--and located in a neighborhood best known for its admixture of Upper East Side levels of pretension and Los Angeles levels of stupidity, I suggest giving Solar de Cahuenga a chance. Maverick barista Donny Morrison has recently taken over the reins of its espresso machine, and good things are bound to happen.

Solar de Cahuenga
1847 Cahuenga Bl.
(323) 467-7510

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Tartine Bakery, San Francisco

I am going out on a limb and pronouncing Tartine Bakery the finest bakery in the Western world. I freely admit that I base this opinion on only a few sampled items and on two visits that were separated by one year. I understand that Tartine only opened in 2002, lacks charm and comfortable seating and has long lines of insufferable San Franciscans. But I am also basing this opinion on visits to such celebrated establishments as Maison Kayser and the ever precious Gérard Mulot, as well as the inferior quality of bakeries in Los Angeles and New York. (When Bread Bar, the local branch of Maison Kayser, is properly managed--and it is a rare occurrence--it is the best bakery in L.A.)

I became hooked on Tartine in 2006 when its lusty croque monsieur ended a painful hangover. Not surprisingly, Tartine served its croque as a tartine, i.e., open faced. The bread was thick and crusty, the ham smoked, and the béchamel and gruyere in perfect, if slightly indulgent, proportions with thyme and pepper. Tartine’s accomplishment was that it made a sandwich that clearly benefited from its originators’ technique, experience and access to impeccable ingredients, but would not be out of place at a Philly cheesesteak tasting or on a taco tour of central Los Angeles. The sandwich is ultimately about pork and cheese and should cure a hangover, which it did.

In our recent trip to San Francisco, we had an hour to kill between having coffee at Ritual in the Mission and going to lunch at Zuni for my birthday, and so we wandered over to Tartine. As the line was not yet Soviet in scale though still out the door, we thought we'd try a few items, which restraint quickly dissipated under the pretext of birthday exuberance. We loved the ham and cheese croissant, which Tartine served warm, and also bridged (and negated) the false gap between food’s supposedly high and low bandwidths. The gougere with gruyere and fresh herbs was a revelation because of its ineffably addictive texture and peppery kick. On the sweet side of things, a thin and crunchy hazelnut biscotto with anise was a perfect complement to Tartine’s near perfect, restrained espresso that was not hyper-concentrated or over extracted, like at Intelligentsia. We could not resist the fresh “morning bun,” practically the Platonic form of a cinnamon roll. It was both light and substantial and had a thin layer of orange sugar to provide sweetness and balance.

We ended with the finest chocolate chip cookie this side of my mother’s. The thin and tasty cookie and had an undertone of saltiness and masterfully worked the classic salty/sweet combination. The cookie was like a cohesive, well-practiced quartet: the chocolate had the freedom to solo, but used its discretion to collaborate smartly with the dough’s tight rhythm section.

The upshot of eating before Zuni is that we were forced to order their venerable roasted chicken and bread salad and wait the hour, a period for which I otherwise would not had patience.

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero Street
San Francisco
(415) 487-2600