Sunday, March 30, 2008

Danke Schon, Gary Danko

Damn, he's good. Gary Danko, I mean.

It's one of the top restaurants in San Francisco-- consistently rated at the top, a Michelin star (not two??) and rated by Zagat as highly as Thomas Keller's temple of food, The French Laundry. The atmosphere is always referred to as classy, but not stuffy, and the food divine. Will it be all that it's cracked up to be? I dialed my little fingers off to get a reservation for Ms. Food Snoot, the Pajama Queen and myself so we could see for ourselves.

So, it was that on a chilly San Francisco evening, we tottered up to 800 North Point in our most important-looking heels, and strode confidently into Danko's comfortably warm establishment. We arrived almost an hour early, but when you're wearing four inch heels, the idea of walking around on hills in the cold, going from bar to restaurant in search of a way to kill time, just doesn't look all that appealing.

At Danko's though, we lucked out and three seats at the bar were left free all at once and we settled in for a little pre-prandial chat and cocktail.

Service is a big deal--BIG deal--at this place. I'm not kidding. And neither are they. It started with the transfer from the bar to our table. Being reasonably able-bodied and not completely snookered at this point, we were fully prepared to carry our own drinks to the table, but the gentleman who came to get us already had a tray in his hand onto which he deftly placed the three glasses. We duly followed him to the dining room and as we did the "where do you want to sit?" tango with each other, I thought, geez, does he even remember who had what? As soon as we were committed to a seat, without missing a beat each glass sailed down to the table in front of the proper owner.

"Not bad... And for your next trick?" I thought.

I didn't have to wait long. Ms Snoot's wallet slipped from her lap and onto the floor, and the PQ offered to get up and look under the table. Perhaps it was a bit odd looking -- a lovely woman diving under the table, but quicker than you can say "amuse-bouche," three of the staff members were at our table, one with a flashlight in hand.

"Can I help?" she offers, as the PQ extracts herself. "Happens all the time-- it's why we keep a light at the front. It's by your feet, miss."

Only Ms. Snoot's fabulous agility enables her to pick it up before the captain who's next to her.

Danko's offers a tasting menu, or a "design-your own" a la carte menu, and so to maximize our possibilities, we opted for one tasting menu with wine pairings (Ms. Food Snoot), and a four course menu with its own wine pairings (PQ) and a four course without wine pairings (designated driver).

To start with, of course, there is the "little treat" as the server said.

A quenelle of salmon tartare mixed with slightly crunchy couscous, with dots of blood orange reduction and garlic cream. Succulent, aromatic and utterly delightful.

Ms. Snoot's first course: glazed oysters topped with generous dollops of Osetra caviar, paired gorgeously with a 2006 Gruner Veltliner from Rudi Pichler of the Wachau region of Austria.

How is it that Gruner can go with anything? It also worked quite well with the PQ's and my asparagus starters.

The PQ's mix of green and white asparagus, nestled under greens with red peppers and a red onion vinaigrette as well as delicately poached quail eggs. Eggs and asparagus -- so perfect. It came nicely paired with a 2006 Teira Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma.

My soup. The plate came to the table with a napoleon of duck confit, parmagiano and tarragon aioli over a slash of balsamic reduction. I have only moments to enjoy the view before another server is immediately at my side with the most adorable little covered copper pot, from which he pours a creamy asparagus soup that floods the napoleon.

I'm thoroughly impressed at how nicely the servers sweep in with the plates, simultaneously presenting each of our dishes. Since they made a big deal about that in the first season of Top Chef, I've started noticing, and it is kinda cool.

As is our wont-- because most of us don't regularly dine at those haute cuisine establishments but rather at family-style joints where passing round the plates is not only customary, but de rigeur-- we each took a few bites of our respective dishes and then passed our plates around to the right.

Consternation from the waitstaff. Two of them materialized instantly and one tried valiantly to pick the caviar and oyster dish out of the air as Ms. Snoot passed it, just so she could place it gently in front of the PQ, even as another one sadly straightened the rectangular asparagus salad plate, which I had unceremoniously plonked down 15 degrees askew in front of myself. Looked faintly defeated, they all retired appearing to be thoroughly mortified as we passed the plates twice more. Oh God... oh god....the captain is going to kill us, seemed written on their faces.

Ms. Snoot had one extra course, a horseradish crusted salmon medallion, not with the dilled cucumbers as advertised on the menu, but rather the freshest green beans in a mustard sauce. As we stared at the lovely looking plate, Ms. Snoot wondered aloud if the wine pairings included a fresh wine for this course, and no sooner had the words left her lips than I spotted our server heading--nay, charging, I tell you-- toward our table with a glass and a bottle in hand, as though the very fact that Ms. Snoot had been left wine-less with food in front of her for more than a microsecond was a crime beyond contemplation. And it was a total winner, an aromatic, fruity and beautifully balanced 100% Roussanne, a 2006 Domaine Quenard Chignin-Bergeron "Vieilles Vignes" from the Savoie region.

Moving on, the PQ tackled her scallops with a goodly glug of Merry Edwards Pinot Noir (2006) from the Sonoma Coast. The sweet scallops were seared perfectly and served with roasted vegetables.

Another example of the toll that tasting all these fancy foods and wine is taking: Ms. Snoot takes a none-too-stable picture of her entree, a beef tenderloin with trumpet mushrooms and shallots glazed in cassis with Stilton-infused butter. Paired this time a Bordeaux style blend of cabernet sauvignon, cab franc, and merlot --2003 Almus from Caldwell Vineyard in Napa. Full and flavorful, but not edgy.

For my main I decided on the quail stuffed with wild mushrooms and foie gras with a Romanesco and rosemary scented potato cake and oddly enough, one of the highlights for me that evening, florets of perfect blanched broccoli across a swath of sweet carrot puree. This last little element was surprisingly spring-like and delicious, reminding me of those perfectly executed little vegetable sides at Cibreo.

The PQ, in our frenzy of cross-table tasting, has splooged a drop of sauce on the tablecloth in front of her. She jokes to a server that she'll have to hide it with the bread plate, but as the server sweeps the crumbs off the table, she says quite seriously, "Does it bother you?"

We all laugh, of course not. But the server reaches into an inside pocket and extracts small circular white label stickers, which she places on the tablecloth to cover the 1 cm stain left by the droplet of sauce.

"Seriously," says the PQ, "Are there people who ask you for that?"

"It would bother some people," she says quite reasonably. I'm still stunned at the notion that this kind of "Out, out, damned spot" moment must occur often enough to warrant her carrying the stickies in her pocket.

Ahhh. the cheese cart. I'd been eying that little vehicle literally since we walked in the door.

I counted nineteen cheeses on the cart and our long-suffering server carefully explained each one. I was quite thrilled really to see that they actually had several cheeses that I had never had, and a couple I'd never even heard of-- the true benchmark for fine dining in my estimation. Since each one of us had opted for a cheese course, we had a potential of tasting twelve cheeses. TWELVE. Oh Lordy. Hold me down.

The PQ's cheese choices include, from the top, a French Livarot, Cashel Blue from Ireland, Mimolette (a little dry-- perhaps not aged long enough--and in the PQ's opinion, too salty) , and a Cana de Cabra, a Spanish goat cheese from the Murcia region that I had never had before, but which turned out to be beautifully ripe and pungent.

For Ms. Snoot, also from the top, a Brie de Nangis (sadly too old, given the 60-day holding pattern it suffers in customs), Midnight Moon from Cypress Grove and a fabulous Munster au Gewurtz, semisoft and stinkily intoxicating Munster with a terrific rind washed in Gewurtztraminer, the classic pairing for this cheese.

On my plate, from the left, a surprisingly well-crafted and powerfully buttery Grayson from Meadow Creek Farms in Virginia, a smooth and very tasty Gorgonzola dolce, a rather dry ashed "Tradition du Berry" goat cheese-- shaped in a chopped off pyramid like the Valencays-- from Fromagerie Jacquin (they make that fantastic, goopy young St. Maure de Touraine that still haunts my Omnivore's dreams), and a little taste of the sheep's milk Brebiou from the Pyrenees.

And to go along with this extravaganza of cheese? A '06 Veneto Amarone from Campagnola called "Caterina Zardini."

At this point, a restroom break. Ms Snoot and the PQ start to explain where I can find "the Spa" as they call it, but then they both stop short. "Never mind, someone is GOING to help you before you get there."

An odd thing to say, I muse, as I make my way through the dining room. Out of no place, a captain appears and says, "May I?" and leads me to the door of the rest room, where, I kid you not, one of our servers appears to be waiting just for the sole purpose of opening the door for me. She's our server, so I know she can't be standing there all night opening the bathroom door, but it was bizarre and faintly eerie that she seemed to be right on hand as I headed to the ladies room.

I'm already stuffed to the gills, but for our dessert, the PQ and I are sharing Bananas Foster, which is spectacularly prepared tableside, with flames and everything.

We're fascinated by the entire procedure and have many questions for our now even longer-suffering server.

The finished dish is plated with chocolate crepes and a lovely hazelnut ice cream, topped with pearls of Valrhona chocolate. Exquisitely silky bananas, mmmmmm.

Oddly enough, as she's finishing up the Bananas Foster, our server starts looking rather frantically over at the corridor, and following her gaze, I spot no less than five people in a frenzy of preparing what looks like our coffee and Ms. Snoot's dessert. Another near-panicked glare over at the corridor and they head majestically over to our table. Cups and saucers, a lovely little cream and sugar service first, then with perfect timing, the Ms Snoot's Chocolate Souffle and the Bananas Foster hit the table at the same time. Brilliant.

With expert precision, another server breaks into the souffle, and pours, oh, a good cup of creme anglaise and another cup of melted chocolate into the center. Add a glass of Jacques Laverierre Clos Chatart Banyuls (plus a 20 year tawny port for the PQ) and we are good to go.


Just as we're reeling, stuffed and overstimulated, they plonk down one more thing-- the irresistible petits fours.

Wafer thin.

It's now half past midnight, and I may have turned into a pumpkin-- or at least, I may now be shaped like a pumpkin.

The restaurant is emptying out, but still, the table near us is still going strong and I see a staff member wheel the cheese course in their direction. Seriously? They won't be finished til two am! Does the staff EVER get to go home?

We totter towards the door and no less than six staff members are there to see us off.

Dang, I think to myself. Can you drive us home too?

On second thought, they probably would have.

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