One of my favorite things about documenting our food and wine explorations is being wrong. A recent such humbling experiences was when we decided to try Opus One at their winery in St. Helena two years ago. From everything we’d heard, all the way up to the entry into an opulent, modern architectural marvel in the middle of vines, we were convinced we’d be treated like wide-eyed wannabe noveau riche, forced to swallow overpriced swill and comment with insider lingo about its complexity to make ourselves appear as part of the club. But that didn’t happen. The place was incredibly inviting, the servers were great listeners and seemed sincerely complimented by our feedback, and the wine had not been oversold. It was damn good. That illusion of expected bravado was shattered once again on this year’s trip to pick up our daughter from summer camp where we visited Matrix, a new favorite winery, and the top-rated restaurant in San Francisco (according to Yelp), Restaurant Gary Danko.
First off. How lucky am I? I happened to catch a phrase from Saint Oprah on TV the other day, and she was saying how she’d far rather be joyful than happy. Luckily, I get to have both in having such an amazing wife who I get to share the joys of food and wine with. It’s time we get to spend discussng politics, religion, philosophy, spirituality, history, the future. Something about grounding your life in enjoying food and drink together sets you apart from those who don’t. It’s certainly far more meaningful, I’ve found, than connecting around the distraction of the TV. Even if Saint Oprah is on.
Something about this woman screams “spoil me” and always has, and I’ve been happy to oblige. I remembered one of the best meals we had enjoyed together was at Spago in Beverly Hills many years ago where I treated her to a caviar appetizer. So I decided to do that again. What I didn’t remember was how much she enjoyed the whole ritual with all the fixins, and that I had just bought one ounce of food that would take her two hours to eat. But hey, I’m going a little out of order here because I wanted to start with this ode to my lovely wife. Back to our arrival at Gary Danko.
It wasn’t a weekend night, but as expected, the place was packed even for a 9:30 dinner. Our table wasn’t ready yet – “here we go,” I thought – so we were ushered to the last two seats at the bar. Our bartender was great. He rapped to us about wine, shared some of his favorites, and was generous with letting us have tastes of anything he had open. I’ll let Hillary fill you in on our final dinner selections, which were all remarkable. I noticed right away that our bartender spent all the time in the world talking to us, despite his being really busy. Here we are in a packed upscale place and being made to feel like we were the only ones here. When our second bartender took over, he was the same way, and we were soon to find out the the wait staff, the bussers, the hostess – all were trained to be incredibly attentive without hovering, while being as social as you wanted to be without making you feel rushed. Even a mediocre restaurant can shine with such amazing staff – and this was no mediocre restaurant. That’s when I relaxed and realized I was wrong about the place, expecting snooty, burnt out, hyper service in a place that commands a month-long waiting list.
First up was an amuse bouche and our appetizers. Hillary started in on her caviar, and I ordered something I could languish in and enjoy knowing I’d be here a while – the Sweet Corn Soup with Dungeness Crab, Bacon, Red Pepper, Crème Fraîche and Chive Biscuit. There is nothing better than a good soup, and one of my favorite ingredients is always corn. Plus, being in San Francisco, I had to have something with crab. I was not disappointed. Velvety sweet, crunch from the bacon, salt from the crab and an aniseptic bite from the red pepper and chive biscuit. It was both a very complex and very light opener to a weighty meal.
We will now take a 90 minute intermission for Hillary to enjoy her Black Sea Osetra Caviar with Buckwheat Blini.
Welcome back. Of the best meals I’ve had in my life, the highest density of those have been pork dishes of some kind, so I selected the Roasted Pork Belly and Tenderloin with Bacon and Pea Stew, Roasted Peppers and Maple Cider Glaze for my entree. Imagine crispy, salty belly offset by tender, sweet loin that melts in your mouth. The bite of crunchy frisee, pepper and pickle, and the earthy texture of pea mash were terrific compliments that filled all of your palate with something exciting. Lots of textures of varying temperatures and finishes made every bite exciting. And the opportunity to change up every piece of pork with a different arrangement of bold flavors is just the way I like to eat. A stellar dish.
Hillary got the Roast Maine Lobster with Potato Purée, Pioppini Mushrooms, Corn and Tarragon. Now here is a bit of a story. We try lobster most places we can get it, and are rarely satisfied unless it’s Maine lobster. And then, inevitably it’s cooked poorly. Lobster that’s overdone is like eating foam rubber. You rarely get undercooked, but if you can see through your lobster, that’s a bad sign. Butter poached lobster has been a favorite lately, so when we saw “roast” lobster on the menu, we were dubious. Let’s start with the flavors. You kinda felt you were at a lobster bake with the potatoes and corn. The mushrooms were there, but there were so many other flavors to enjoy, and the topper, the tarragon, brought the dish to a new level. Yet, our lobster was undercooked.
Now before anyone gets upset we’re pointing that out about such a terrific place, let me finish the story. We let our server know who requested that we “let the chef fix it for us,” which is expected. But we didn’t get that THE chef was going to be fixing it. Our server let us know when he brought the lobster back, cooked perfectly this time, that the chef gathers the staff, analyzes the returned dish, and re-educates everyone on how to cook it perfectly next time. Awesome. That was very appreciated, and made us feel special having such attention paid to us, and having a pay-it-forward moment where other patrons wouldn’t have to suffer so (who am I kidding – if this is suffering I have bigger issues). It ended up being one of the best lobster dishes we’ve had.
Now, anyone who sees a Baked Chocolate Soufflé with Two Sauces on a dessert menu and doesn’t order it just isn’t altogether there. Rich, eggy chocolate, risen to a cloud-like texture so you get a small crunch from the outer shell but a mouthful of what feels like undercooked cake batter – but is better. In fact, any souffle worth eating is intentionally undercooked so you’re treated to a mass of sweet lava every time you take a bite. This lava included a healthy pour of dark and white chocolate dumped down a hole in the center to fill up the fluffy spaces inside. But that wasn’t all.
Every table was also brought an assortment of mini pastries and a pineapple breakfast cake wrapped for you to enjoy in the morning with your coffee. We were certainly on the border of a coma at this point, but extended our time with some decaf and a bite from every petit four on this delicious plate. Alright, alright, we finished them all. Don’t look at me like that.
Restaurant Gary Danko is definitely worth the weight. It is expensive, but you’ll experience and taste what a first-class, top-rated restaurant in a foodie city is all about. It’s going to be hard to beat, but we’re up for the challenge and eager to continue our pursuit of joy together as soon as we can get to San Francisco again. Where do you recommend we try next?