In the Fisherman Wharf neighborhood of San Francisco, diners in elegant dinner dress leave their cars to the valet and place their evenings in the hands of Gary Danko. From the moment I arrived, the service was impeccable. The doorman opened the door before my dining partner and I had even crossed the street. Throughout the meal, this heightened level of service continued, from the genuine smile and friendly knowledge of our waiter to the staff’s incredible attention to detail. For example, we asked to keep a menu and the label from our wine bottle, expecting our waiter to simply return with the label in hand and deposit a menu with the check. Instead, as we left the restaurant, our waiter presented us with the menu inside a folder and the wine label laminated and mounted on a card. Gary Danko provides a standard of service that most restaurants should set their sights for.
The restaurant is located two blocks away from Fisherman’s Wharf, just off the well-worn path of the busy neighborhood. Despite its removed location from the tourist traffic, it’s important to consider when planning reservations that Gary Danko is often booked a month in advance.
Once we were showed inside, we were welcomed by a very friendly hostess, as well as by the buzzing bar and dining room behind her. The décor is awash in modernist black, white, and tan. The dining room located beside the bar is separated by wood and glass partitions and the soft, subdued lighting gently reflects off the fine tablecloths, creating a warm atmosphere. We were taken into a second dining room that has a slightly quieter ambience. I was given a comfortable chair and my dining partner, who was seated against the wall, plopped down onto one of the cushioned benches that run along both sides of the room, each complimented by the occasional pillow. To further encapsulate diners in the world of the restaurant, Gary Danko has tinted windows, making it impossible to see outside.
While I began to look over the menu and wine list, we were served an amuse-bouche of Parsnip Soup with mushroom, carrot and a drizzle of truffle oil, which arrived in a small bowl with a similarly small spoon. The white puree of parsnip was given color by several pieces of carrot and mushroom piled in the center.
The 1500-bottle wine list includes a table of contents and offers wines from fifteen different countries and three centuries. The wine list won Wine Spectator’s highest honor, the Grand Award, in 2006. While our waiter was very informative, particularly in pointing out the best vintages in the French regions we were interested in, he was quick to offer the services of the sommelier to further answer our questions. Gary Danko has three sommeliers, and Ian Conroy holds the title of Cellar Master. Our bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was decanted tableside and served in Spiegelau glasses.
The dinner menu is divided into six sections: Caviar Service, Appetizers, Fish and Seafood, Meat and Game Birds, Cheese and Dessert. Diners are given the option of choosing between courses of three, four or five plates of their choosing or a predetermined Tasting Menu, which includes five artfully-designed courses that reflect the best of in season produce and style, with the further option of adding hand-selected wine pairings. If you decide to design your own courses, dishes from any section of the menu are available in any order. While I doubt that many diners would prefer dessert before their appetizer, I appreciated the freedom.
We chose to order two four-course meals, each beginning with the Risotto with Lobster, Rock Shrimp, Butternut Squash and Porcini Mushrooms. The dish was served in angled, slanted bowls and, while it looked like a typical seafood risotto, the flavors were anything but typical. The buttery lobster melted in my mouth along with the perfectly tender pieces of risotto. I thought the lobster would steal the show, but the rock shrimp were actually my favorite component: cooked to retain their juiciness, they burst with warmth and lightness. The porcini mushrooms also held up well on their own. By the time I was over halfway through the dish, I realized that I was still experiencing new flavors. The butternut squash was sweet and soft, and the basil oil added flair when it pooled in my spoon.
Next, the Horseradish Crusted Salmon Medallion with dilled cucumbers and mustard sauce arrived. The medallion, two inches in diameter, was centered on a large plate with a thick crust of horseradish on top and three edible-pod peas situated around it. The mustard sauce was poured in waves around the salmon, beneath which sat the dilled cucumbers. Though the horseradish looked plentiful, I found it lacking the powerful emanative flavor that I prefer.
Our entrees arrived next: Quail Stuffed with Onion, Foie Gras and Pine Nuts for me and Seared Filet of Beef for my partner. The quail came with braised cabbage, cranberries, polenta and pomegranate sauce and its presentation was absolutely stunning. The two small, roasted birds lay over a circle of polenta on a bed of colorful braised cabbage. Pomegranate seeds were aligned in a ring around the polenta. The tender quail was bone-free except for the legs, and the foie gras and onion provided a rustic richness. The pomegranate seeds, small enough to chew, combined with the cranberry and quail, to create a dish that exuded a precise balance of sweetness and tartness, richness and lightness.
The Seared Filet of Beef rested upon potato gratin and cassis-glazed shallots. The pleasant rich scents of blue cheese butter wafted from the plate and captured my attention. The cassis, butter and beef blended to create a dark chocolate flavor and the tender beef was cooked precisely to my dining companion’s preference: our request for medium rare delivered an unbelievably moist steak, with a warm, red center.
The cheese service at Gary Danko is one of the best in the country. Our waiter wheeled a marble-topped cart of nineteen cheeses to our table and explained the nuances of each selection. The options are divided into goat cheese, sheep cheese, cow cheese and hard cheese, and each cheese course allows a selection of four cheeses served with grapes and perfectly thin slices of walnut raisin bread. The waiter prepared the plate at the table. My favorite cheese was the Roaring 40’s blue cheese, which the waiter described as the most complex cheese on the cart. The cheese is aged in wax, resulting in an intense moisture with suppressed molding. What would have made the cheese divine however would have been a bit of honey comb or raspberry gelée, and it is unfortunate that Gary Danko does not offer them in accompaniment.
For dessert we ordered a single Chocolate Soufflé Cake and two glasses of Madeira - the sweetness of the Madeira cut through the fine chocolate. The dessert wine list includes a very fine Sauternes and several ports. Unlike other soufflés, the soufflé at Gary Danko was not at all like heavy pudding but exuded a lightness that practically had it jumping out of the ramekin it is served in. Two refined sauces came with it: a vanilla bean and a Belgium chocolate. The waiter deflated the soufflé by slicing into the center, and then poured each sauce inside one at a time.
Gary Danko provides a meal on par with any great performance, and when it came to a close, instead of bowing as a conductor or an actor might, our waiter simply asked us to tell our friends about the restaurant. This genial request typifies the restaurant: Though regularly booked up to a month in advance, with no need to extend this humble request, Gary Danko takes the time to do so anyway. Gary Danko offers a superb dining experience.