Enter the Era of the Quiet Chef

San Francisco --- We are, at last, entering the era of the "quiet' chef. Thank goodness, all that stacking and fireworks and dishes with 1,000 misplaced ingredients are beginning to be behind us. This is the day of food that is sensible, subtle, understated. And when it is done well, it is simply delicious.

A recent dinner at the two-year old Gary Danko restaurant in San Francisco solidified that trend for me. The meal was superb, from beginning to end. And what's more, service was in line with the finest you will find in the world: attentive, intelligent, grown-up.

A native of New York state, Danko grew up with a food-loving mother from Louisiana and an architect father. Restaurants played a role in his life from and early age, and by 1977 he was graduated from the country's respected Culinary Institute of American in New York state.

Soon he found himself in California, distinguishing himself with awards, accolades and top jobs up and down the state. His name was always mentioned when one asked where to dine in California.

Two years ago he opened his very own elegant, classic, wood-toned restaurant near the Wharf in San Francisco. Wisely, Danko serves no more than 65 diners. Tables are hard to come by, and the food is not given away, but that's the price diners pay for a top restaurant.

I always judge a restaurant menu by the number of dishes I would LOVE to eat. On Danko's dinner menu, there were too many to count. Shall it be glazed oysters with leeks, salsify and osestra caviar? Or a risotto of Maine lobster, rock shrimp, winter vegetables and rosemary oil? And what about the Vegetarian artichoke, tomato and chickpea stew? (And while I was making the final decision, two glorious cheese carts came rolling past, making the decision all that much more difficult.)

I was in comfort food mode and that meant risotto won out. And was I delighted. A perfectly tooth-tender risotto bathed in a soothing rosemary oil-infused sauce, studded with the truly sweetest of rock shrimp and lobster. Elegant, satisfying, a perfect start to a cool fall evening.

As a main course, my cravings for spice won out, and so it was the Moroccan-spiced squab with Chermoula, orange-cumin carrot. Like a perfect color palette the dish had everything: the richness of the meaty squab, the hit or Moroccan spices, the color or carrots with a fine hint of cumin.

Danko's sommeliers have done him proud, with a world class wine list. I devoured it, as I did the menu, and came up with two true winners from California. By all means try the 1998 100 percent Roussanne from Qupé vineyards in the Edna Valley north of Santa Barbara. The white wine has all the qualities of a pure Roussanne: fresh-tasting, with perfect balance of fruits and acidity, bone dry with overtones of pineapple and honey.

For a red, I turned again to the Santa Barbara neighborhood for a Zaca Mesa syrah, full of flavors of peppers, berries, and spice.

Danko offers a brilliant dining formula: Choose three, four or five courses, and the quantity of each course will be altered according to your tastes. And if you can't wait for reservations, the full menu is available at the lovely bar without reservations.

Gary Danko
800 North Point at Hyde
San Francisco, CA 94109
Tel: 415 749 2060
Fax: 415 775 1805
Open daily, dinner only. All major credit cards. Three-course menu, $55; Four-course menu, $64; Five-course menu $74. Five course tasting menu, $74, with wines, an additional $35.