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


Jeni said...

I highly recommend getting a copy of the Zuni Cafe cookbook. It's one of my favorite. I loove love love their roasted chicken and bread salad. And their braised short ribs in Chimay ale. MMMM!

Steve said...


We already have it. The carbonara on a cold night is great, too.


H. C. said...

Too bad that most of the Danko dishes were underwhelming... though it may seem worth it to go for the dessert alone (especially given my cocoa weakness)

Anonymous said...

hilarious - love, mgg

Steve said...

Wouldn't that be "MGP?"

addicted said...

dear bloggers,

please update.

thank you

Steve said...

Agreed. Thaitown or K-town will be next.