Comfort food with a twist
Gary Danko was cooking and Nick Peyton was hosting when The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco earned a top spot in 1995, the last time Wine Spectator rated the top restaurants in the United States. A year later Danko moved on, but in 1999 he and Peyton grabbed an opportunity to buy their own place. They kept the coziness of what had been Chez Michel and added elegant touches such as cut-glass dividers and subtle lighting.
When it opened in August, the restaurant felt like it had been operating there for years. Peyton put together a dining room staff that was like a well-choreographed ballet the very first week. That's not an easy task in the two not-very-spacious rooms, but somehow guests feel like they're settling into the lap of luxury.
Danko uses a classic approach to make everything taste wonderful and look gorgeous. On our visit, the first of several amuse-bouches was pillow-soft blini with a tiny, perfect crawfish tail and a spoonful of delicate salmon caviar. In a bowl that held just a few sips but had a rim as big as a Cadillac hubcap, crisp strands of tender duck confit garnished a silky squash soup.
A typical Danko dish elaborates on a single idea, such as pheasant with Moroccan spices served with cauliflower, spaetzle and cabbage cooked forever. It's an old-world idea given a modern touch with the spices. Danko executed these ideas with precision.
The restaurant opened with a fully fleshed-out wine list compiled by Rene-Nicole Kubin, who grew up in a family-owned restaurant and boasts sommelier stints at Charlie Trotter's and Highlands Inn, both Wine Spectator Grand Award winners. She parlayed her contacts into an impressive 500-wine list that is especially strong in mature California and Burgundy wines.
A strong by-the-glass list and more than 150 half-bottle listings encourage diners to drink a different wine with each course. Show an interest and Kubin will happily open other bottles, such as the Schlossgut Diel Riesling Sptlese Goldloch 1997 that made my seafood in a mild curry sing. Danko also does one of the best tea services around.
A changing menu offers eight appetizers, six seafood dishes, six meat and poultry dishes, a cheese course and desserts. Guests select their own menus at three courses for $48 and $9 for each additional course, the same system Danko introduced at the Ritz. The kitchen adjusts portion sizes to fit. Cheese lovers should not miss the cart when it rolls around, and desserts such as Port-Glazed Figs with Licorice Ice Cream carry the theme of comfort food with a twist right through to the finish.
Address 800 North Point, San Francisco 94109
Telephone (415) 749-2060
Fax (415) 775-1805
Web site www.garydanko.com
Open Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover, Carte Blanche