Monday 2 August 2010

Old or new?

San Francisco is rightly acclaimed for the quality of its restaurants. It's a foodie town through and through. Local, fresh, organic. Much of this ethos can be traced back to a lady named Alice Waters, who opened a place called Chez Panisse in neighbouring Berkeley back in 1971.

Chez Panisse is not the best restaurant in the world (Michelin gives it one star), but it stands for something greater than just the food it serves. Local produce, grown or reared sustainably, cooked simply but thoughtfully. It epitomises the Ballymaloe approach to food that I had drilled into me in Ireland last year; indeed Alice Waters and Darina Allen are old friends. Not that that gets me a table of course, I have to settle for lunch in the 'cafe'.

It's a lovely space and there is an air of casual professionalism among the many staff. The kitchen is open along the corridor, and fresh produce is on display everywhere. The bread is excellent as you'd expect. I am tingling in anticipation. Pizzetta with zucchini, squash blossoms, pine nuts and pecorino is delicious; thin, crisp and bursting with flavour. But it is too big. It's enough for two, and a place that prizes its ingredients so highly should ration them accordingly.

Wood oven roasted albacore with Meyer lemon, fennel, fingerling potatoes, black olives and aioli looks wonderful. The fish is so flavourful, and the olive tapenade is rich and dense and incredible. I can probably take or leave the aioli but it reminds me instantly of Ballymaloe. The fennel is soft and buttery, but the thyme stalks it was marinaded with are still in there and you have to pick them out of your mouth. And the potatoes are sort of luke warm. Which lets down an otherwise splendid dish.

Dessert of Summer berry sherbet with Middleton Gardens berry compote and langues de chat is fantastic. The flavour bursts out of the dish, the balance of sweetness is perfect, and the strawberries are the finest I have tasted. The experience is a good one, the menu extraordinary but a couple of little things let the place down. I'll try the restaurant next time.

Not content with one exuberant meal in a day, Carrie and I have dinner at Gary Danko - the newer side of San Francisco dining. There's a two month waiting list but we sneak a spot at the bar. It's dark inside, each table has its sense of privacy preserved and there's the air of important things being discussed, or illicit liaisons being born. It feels like a local place too. Very San Francisco.

The staff are slick and friendly. I want to rebuke them for that, but they get it just right. We're waiting a while, and they bring us buckwheat blinis with smoked salmon and caviar that just don't get any better. The menu is massive. All the appetisers can be sized as entrees, meaning there are thirty odd dishes to choose from. I hate this kind of menu. It smacks of arrogance (how can a kitchen cover so many bases) and a broad, vagueness of style. And it's impossible to choose what you want.

We get a perfect gazpacho while we think about it. The Beet Salad with Goat Cheese, Caramelized Nectarines, Pecans and Zatar Oil is fresh and zingy. I don't normally like ring moulds but it looks good. The Lobster salad with avocado, roasted tomatoes, shaved fennel with Meyer lemon and tarragon vinaigrette sounds like quite a mouthful. It arrives as a brilliant and complex balance of flavours - the vinaigrette the crowning glory.

The Roasted Pork Belly and Tenderloin with Potato-Ramp Purée, Peas, Bacon, Pickled Onions and Maple Glaze is superb - soft, succulent belly and firm but tender loin. As a dish, it just works. The Lemon Pepper Duck Breast with Duck Hash, Carrot-Ginger Purée and Brandied Cherries must surely be too much. Duck breast and duck hash? But yes, he's nailed it again. It is devastatingly good. The composition of the dishes is most impressive - near perfect combinations of flavour colour and texture, in perfect proportion.

The cheeseboard kicks ass and the chocolate souffle is delicious if that's your thing. The wine list? It's a telephone directory. I was tempted by the 1990 Margaux that passed my lips a year ago and still lingers there if I think about it hard enough, but at $3,400 a bottle, we give it a miss.

I want to hate a guy who has an eponymous restaurant staffed with slick, friendly people who deferentially refer to him as Chef Danko, where there are thirty main courses to choose from and a two month waiting list for a table. But I can't. Because he pulls it off. Brilliantly. It is very, very good.

Out with the old, in with the new.

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