Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Tale of Two Restaurants: Dueling Dinners in San Francisco

On a recent trip to San Francisco, the Cute Gardener and I made reservations at two very expensive restaurants: Gary Danko (New American) and Jardiniere (French/American). During the five-month window when same sex marriage was legal in the state of California in 2008, two of my gay male friends were wed in San Francisco and celebrated with a small party of family and friends over a $500 dinner at Gary Danko, which boasts a Michelin star. I had been itching to go since hearing about their decadent dinner. Same went for Jardiniere, a place that I was told would float my boat for all things art nouveau as the French-American place supposedly had a grand sweeping staircase and curvaceous railings that lined the perimeter of the entire upper half of the restaurant where diners ate while looking down through a central space to the bottom floor bar filled with jewel-like bottles and glasses.

When we arrived at Danko we found a simple, dark and elegant dining room to welcome our dressed up selves. It was a high heel, coat and tie kind of night and the hostess took our jackets immediately for the coat check. Upon sitting we were asked if wanted to see the menu before deciding upon cocktail or wine. The seduction began as I was impressed by the thick, luscious red roses in crystal upon our table but the CG was a bit irritated by the white napkins that were not replaced by black to mesh in with our darker attire. The room seemed to be filled with either Bay Area elite families out for early supper or couples who looked like they had saved up their whole paychecks for this experience. Although formal dress was called for, most of the men were tie-less. The seats were so close together that we spent a lot of time avoiding the flash bulb of a female dining next to us as she alternated between iPhone texting and taking pictures of her soup slurping mate.

At Jardiniere, we were welcomed into an equally dark space where the hostess also took our coats immediately. Upon being whisked up the staircase we were seated at the best table available at the moment for a perfect glance downward into the bar and around the spacious second floor at our dining peers. Everyone was dressed up nicely and the room’s patrons were diverse; a sign of a place where the food comes first and allures everyone in equally for an exquisite shared experience. The tables were spaced so far apart that we felt we were alone in our little romantic world. (Well, that is until a guy on a date nearby started getting louder as he got drunker and drunker finally admitting to his woman that he was a really a smoker and needed to step out for a break.)

An Amuse Bouche should always be something special that you are not used to seeing on the restaurant’s normal menu but that still harkens to the kind of food the chef is known for preparing in his kitchen. The merguez sausage meatball at Danko failed these two tests but the small and cheesy gougeres at Jardiniere were perfectly Harmonique with the wine.

Extremely nice but overpriced wine at Danko while our first choice at Jardiniere was not available at all.

While neck and neck up till now, the charcuterie plate at Jardiniere quickly put it into first place. Everything was made in house and included a soft and fleshy country pate, jambon, spicy coppa, completely fatty and rare pancetta on toast and a rosette de lyon.

It made the pistachio encrusted sweet bread at Danko fall short not to mention that the sweetbreads, although cooked to a creamy oblivion which I like, were still connected by sinews and there is nothing grosser than having a cow sinew wedge itself into your teeth like floss mid-bite.

Jardiniere’s roasted eggplant soup with shelling bean escabeche, nicoise olives and chevre was beautifully fresh and hearty. I loved the small pile of mushrooms, beans, olives and olive oil that were piled atop the center of the soup, which we speared small bites from during each dip into the luxurious broth.

At this point, I don’t even recall what our entrees were at Danko because I am remembering the insanely rich and filling carnaroli risotto with porcini mushrooms I had for dinner. I chose this starter as a main and still could only eat half. It came topped with a sumptuous fried squash blossom stuffed with sheep’s milk ricotta cheese.

The CG had an Alaskan salmon with cherry tomatoes, artichokes, borlotti beans and castelvetrano olives – a sprightly plate with fish that was verging on raw which is top notch in his book. He likes to see fish cooked on the verge of that frightful line but rarely finds anyone who will do it.

Oh yes, speaking of fish, now it comes back to me that I had a branzino at Danko which was a plate of paper thin filets, overly dry and flavorless.

Jardiniere came out on top until the dessert was served. The dry and crumbling cake was not memorable neither were the caramels we were given as a consolation prize. The desserts at Danko were the best parts of dinner starting with the macaron ice cream sandwiches were stuffed with pineapple, raspberry and pecan praline. The CG’s butter cake was moist, dense and delicious.

If that weren’t enough, we were given a plate of custom made candies that we shared bite by bite.

And I was presented with a special pineapple vanilla cake in gold wrapping to take home as a gift. We shared it the morning after for breakfast.

It’s hard to say what I liked better. If I were just grading on food, Jardiniere would win hands down and that is because a place like Danko’s shouldn’t have a Michelin star if it can’t seduce in the food department as well as the perks. But those perks were awfully seductive and out of the ordinary in this foodie’s world and sometimes, for someone who eats out all the time, it is the little things that do count. In a perfect world, these restaurants would merge the best things about each other, freshen up the dark atmosphere, train the waiters a little better on the merits of consistent service, and become one. 

Yes, I realize this blog makes me sound completely spoiled in the food department. Good old San Francisco tends to have that affect on my soul. I will be back down to earth shortly as the trip becomes more of a memory.

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