SAN FRANCISCO, May 27, 2014 – An evening at Gary Danko is an exhilarating fine dining experience that defies all preconceptions. It exists in the realm where the great expectations of culinary wonder are far surpassed in a breathtaking high wire act of fabulous haute cuisine.
A blistering array of courses cascade across a brilliantly charged evening in a packed intimate restaurant where the chef is legendary, and the atmosphere is electric.
Gary Danko takes the pressure of being the premier restaurant in the Bay Area and shatters any illusions that it doesn’t deserve its reputation for greatness. This gastronomic center of the universe is actually in a small corner location at 800 North Point Street near Fisherman’s Wharf. From the street are lovely views of Alcatraz and San Francisco Bay, and cable cars pass by the front door.
The restaurant holds a spare 24 tables, split between two rooms, with a small but swinging 11 seat bar area and a soothing rose colored ambiance. The décor is posh throughout, the lighting is divine rich shades of ruby and gold, and the feeling of excitement in the crowded room at 7:30 PM is palpable. Gary Danko hums with the sustained velocity of a special event night on steroids.
A brilliant, impeccably trained staff turns what is already a prime occasion into an extended guided tour of creative culinary delights. Presentation and service throughout the night is superb, and a three hour meal seems to fly by in an intoxicating stream of edible superlatives. It is performance art with fine food.
Dinner is a prix fixe meal of between three and five courses. The menu changes seasonally and is divided into appetizers, fish and seafood, meat and game birds, an exceptional cheese course, and deserts. Choose as many courses from any category as you wish, two appetizers, two seafood, and a game bird, for example, or an appetizer, a meat course, a selection of cheese and desert.
This free form structure allows the customer to pick and choose from a wide variety of plates and construct their own meal. It also allows for an endless variety of choice for a couple trying 10 different items, or on return visits. Three courses are $73, four courses are $92, and 5 courses, the most popular meal, is a more than reasonable $107.
Glazed oysters in a lettuce cream sauce topped with Osetra cavier are light, delicate, and fantastic. Risotto with lobster, shrimp, Shimeji mushrooms, corn, and roast tomato is simply exquisite, a signature standout dish with perfect texture. Veal sweetbreads on porcini mushrooms, peas, and fava beans are absolutely spectacular, crisp and succulent, bursting with flavor.
Serving sizes are not large, but courses are plentiful, thankfully, so savor each and every bite. Branzini with a saffron-orange emulsion on a fennel puree is wonderful, perfectly cooked, and beautifully served. Roast Maine lobster with potato puree, chanterelle mushrooms, corn and tarragon is a delightful seafood extravaganza, tender and rich.
Roast loin of bison with king trumpet mushrooms on a wild nettle spatzle is a fabulous dream come true, brilliantly combining delicate flavors. The Sommelier has helped choose an exceptional Hirsch Vineyards 2010 East Ridge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir from an amazing wine list of many thousands of precious bottles. The meal proceeds like a fine theatrical performance with a precision cast.
Then it is time for the fromage. Gary Danko has one of the epic cow, goat, and sheep cheese courses to be found on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Choose from an ever changing array of 16 to 20 selections each night from around the world, including artisanal cheeses from Vermont and the coastal farms of Northern California. The cheese cart creates a noticeable stir as it moves through the room.
The evening has flown by in a blur, the fromage has been devoured, and now it is time for a succession of deserts. An apricot cherry tart is fabulous, but the beignets with coffee pot du cream are irresistible.
The theatre of food reaches its cinematic climax with a tableside performance of flambéed cherries with mascarpone filled crepes. It is as if the room has stood still.
Gary Danko’s is such a superlative dining experience that, despite how booked in advance it is, they allow full dinner service at the bar on a first come first serve basis to the public at large, who line up for the privilege. First seating in the restaurant is at 5:30 and the last seating is at 10 PM, but the restaurant is open until 2 AM, and is wildly busy most nights until closing.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles
All photos by Alison Reynolds