Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gary Danko's eunuch orgy

So apparently Gary Danko has this fantasy about the end of the world, which involves ... well, read for yourself:
Gary Danko envisions a "delicious and awesome festival" set on the banks of a lake in Udaipur, and featuring eunuchs, platform beds, and fifteen wines, including a Nebuchadnezzar of Krug champagne from 1947.
That's from the New Yorker, quoting from a new book called Last Supper, about the fantasy last meals of various chefs. Udaipur, by the way, is a lake-filled city in India.

Someone PLEASE order this thing with overnight shipping and send me all the other juicy details!! (I'd do it myself, but it's starting to sound like the sort of thing that might be illegal to send through the mail.)

In the meantime, we all should thank Gary, the sole San Francisco chef in the book, for representing our gloriously and freakishly hedonistic city so very, very well!

Then Tyler Florence, recently transplanted to Marin, ruins the whole Bay Area's rep by poring boring sauce on the whole thing and saying he fantasizes about a “classic Southern feast of my childhood ... No frou frou French. No snout-to-tail. No fucking foie gras.”

I love chicken fried steak as much as the next Texas boy, but Tyler it has to be said: LAME! YOUR FANTASY DOESN'T EVEN CONTAIN A SINGLE CASTRATED DUDE!!

New Yorker: No seconds

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thomas Keller backlash close to boiling over

To some, 'slipping' French Laundry is 'not the best,' 'disappointed' customers say other chefs 'within striking distance'
Is the mainstream media next?
It was exactly two years ago Monday when a well-established weblog called San Francisco Gourmet posted a surprising, reluctantly brutal review of Thomas Keller's iconic restaurant the French Laundry, saying that over three visits between 2003 and mid-2005 the restaurant "appears to be slipping," mixing up orders, fumbling dish descriptions and letting waiters regularly reach across diners to deliver food and wine.

Meanwhile, the review noted, French Laundry's prices had nearly doubled over five years, rocketing up much faster than those at other top-shelf restaurants in the area, even as those other restaurants gained ground against the French Laundry in food and service quality.

"The French Laundry has exhibited service that has consistently been below excellent," the review stated. "The menu itself seemed to be a notch below what it once was ... I suspect that The French Laundry will not be able to reclaim its past glory."

Reaction to the review was not encouraging. One commenter called it "blasphemous" and said it "lost all credibility" by comparing the French Laundry to a lesser restaurant, Gary Danko. Meanwhile, San Francisco Gourmet drew no concurring opinions from the torrent of French Laundry reviews gushing from the many new weblogs then emerging.

"I was starting to think that I would be the lone voice in the wilderness forever," the author of San Francisco Gourmet wrote earlier this year.

In retrospect, the review was a remarkable harbinger of things to come, probably because it was written by someone especially familiar with the restaurant, with at least six visits to the restaurant in five years.

In November 2006, almost a year and a half after San Francisco Gourmet's French Laundry piece, a blogger and self-described lifetime gourmand named Vedat Milor posted a review titled, "The French Laundry: Solid but imperfect." Milor, too, had visited the restaurant on numerous past occasions and felt it was slipping.

He said the restaurant "displays an automatic, slightly assembly line quality," with predictable food, weak examples of luxury ingredients like truffles and caviar and undisclosed add-on prices.

This description echoed Gary Danko, who called the French Laundry "the Laundromat" when I interviewed him shortly after the French Laundry took three debut Michelin stars to Danko's one.

This past May, a San Francisco-based freelance food writer named Catherine Nash chimed in with her own critical take on the Laundromat. She had visited four years prior, and the restaurant had exceeded her high expectations. This time?

"We were not blown away," Nash wrote on her weblog, Food Musings. " It was not nearly as exciting as we'd remembered or as wonderful as other meals we've had ... it was just not that interesting."

San Francisco PBS station KQED joined in the backlash in June, publishing on its "Bay Area Bites" website a French Laundry review from Michael Procopio, a waiter, former San Francisco Chronicle food section intern and 1997 graduate of the California Culinary Academy.

This story was the first faintly negative review of French Laundry I had seen, and the one that sparked the idea for this post, even before I heard backlash rumblings in the bigger, non-blog media world.

The review included some highly complimentary words for the food and servers. But Procopio found "something was not quite right," including the robotic staff, who insisted he order champagne rather than a still white wine; who recited dish descriptions while mispronouncing key words and who ultimately sent a chill up his spine. Procopio concluded the restaurant embodied "uniformity," "repetition" and "machinery well-oiled."

His unease reached its dramatic crescendo when an aggressively confused waiter read Procopio's $1277 bill aloud to Procopio, his dining companion and the rest of the restaurant.
We were pleased to know that everyone in the room knew how much we spent. Perhaps our waiter thought that a guest at one of the other tables might avail us of his or her superior math skills. We were, all of us, quietly horrified.
Three themes emerge repeatedly in the bad reviews.
  1. Speculation that the opening of Per Se in New York, to say nothing of Keller's three other expansion restaurants, movie consulting or books, has led to an inevitable muting of the culinary and service heights reached at the original French Laundry. San Francisco Gourmet and Milor both mentioned this issue, and Nash brought it up in a comment attached to someone else's review.

  2. That people are holding the French Laundry to very high standards because of its very high prices, which have shot up over five years. Keller was asked about pricing at a Commonwealth Club event in May and became defensive, arguing that he provides good value for the price and pointing to the much cheaper option ($45) at his Ad Hoc, also in Yountville.

  3. The identification of alternative top restaurants, in particular Manresa. San Francisco Gourmet, for example, wrote that Manresa's David Kinch is giving Keller "a run for his money" and, along with Danko and Ron Siegel, is "within striking distance." Milor said Manresa and one other restaurant offered "higher quality product" than French Laundry, "impeccably prepared."

    The blogger behind earlier this month ranked Manresa ahead of French Laundry in a review where he found the latter's food seemed to sympathize with critics who find at French Laundry "a perfection without blemish or character, sanitized, safe, and soulless."
I am agnostic on whether French Laundry is slipping. My one visit to French Laundry in 2003 was my all-time favorite restaurant meal; it also featured a tasting menu half as expensive as the one offered today.

But I will submit to you the following: Hand-wringing over quality at Thomas Keller's growing empire of restaurants in general and at French Laundry, in particular, is likely to continue to work its way up the media food chain, rightly or wrongly. Count on it, and watch for it.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

I'll have what he's wearing

A short article in the front of January's SF Magazine lists all the restaurants who are keeping their waiters looking smart in custom designer suits:
  • Gary Danko outfits staff in suits from Josef Duran of San Leandro
  • Bong Su buys silk tuxedo jackets and Vietnamese ao dai from Calvin Tran of New York
  • Quince recently bought his- and her- russet-brown suits from R. Scott French of New York
  • Lark Creek Steak buys black-and-gray striped dress shirts from Berkeley's Erica Tanov
... and Michael Mina outfits "nearly all" staff in Dean Hutchinson outfits, according to this newspaper article.

At first I thought this was an effort to treat the staff well and have them embody the food -- clothes that are attractive, local and custom.

Then I took a look at the menu for Lark Creek Steak (PDF) and found they are actually selling the uniforms on page one of the menu, under a little clothes-hanger icon:

our uniforms, by award-winning designer
erica tanov, are available for purchase.
$69 blouses - $79 shirts

Just don't accidentally wear the uniform the next time you dine at Lark Creek Steak. Awk-ward.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Introducing 'The Table'

I have a motley collection of revenue figures collected from a handful of restaurants over the years and published in the Business Times.

I'd like to grow and improve this collection but in the meantime I might as well put it all on one handy-dandy page -- and in one handy-dandy table. Hence, The Table:

YearSquare feetSourceArticle
Slanted DoorFerry Building$12 million2005???Charles PhanKitchens catch fire
Left BankSantana Row$10 million+2006???Roland PassotFrench cafe Left Bank to grow throughout West
StraitsSantana Row$7.8 million20068,000Chris YeoThe Straits Dope (Covers)
French LaundryYountvilleabout $7.5 million2004???Time magazineTime magazine article
Gary DankoMain restaurant$4 million to $9 million2006???Gary DankoGary Danko plans ritzy private dining facility
MarketBarFerry Building$5.5 million2005???Doug BiederbeckKitchens catch fire
Burger BarLas Vegas (by Hubert Keller of SF)$5 million ("close to")2006???Hubert KellerS.F. eateries serve Vegas $5K burger
Taylor's RefresherFerry Building$3.6 million2005???Taylor's RefresherKitchens catch fire

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Your private Danko

I report in today's Business Times that Gary Danko is planning a private dining location at the Cannery, about two blocks from Restaurant Gary Danko.

The new location -- Danko's first ever -- is aimed at corporate and group events and demonstration meals to which Danko would sell seats. It would also be a base for Danko's growing high-end catering business.

There are three rooms, each holding up to 35 people. At least some of the walls are paneled with European wood that is several hundred years old and that was originally imported by William Randolph Hearst. (This wood paneling is a longstanding feature of the Cannery.)

There are also going to be at least two highly visible kitchens, complete with cameras, monitors, at least one glass wall and at least a couple of kitchen islands for guests to congregate around.

Danko hopes to open the location by June but needs city approval for the special, streamlined ventilation system from Vent Master.

As restaurant consultant Clark Wolf told me, it has become de rigueur over the past decade to build out restaurants with multiple, sizable private rooms for corporate events. Wolf said this is "critical to the financial success" of a restaurant.

Danko's 65-seat restaurant includes just one private space, which holds only 10 people. He does rent out the restaurant once or more each month for special lunchtime events. He tried for two years to convert the basement of his restaurant into a special events space, but was blocked by his landlord.

Gary told me:
What I am trying to design is a multifunction, multiuse space. I am trying to define to not a new restaurant, but an arm of Gary Danko.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Michelin hears pushback from Danko

From Wine Spectator online, Gary Danko reacts:
"It's very interesting to see what the French think about American restaurants," said Gary Danko, chef and owner of Restaurant Gary Danko, which received one star. "We're very happy to be in the Michelin galaxy. It tells everyone the French are interested in what's happening here."

Still, Danko, one of San Francisco's most esteemed chefs, also added, "If Michelin wants to embrace the world, it needs to look at cultural differences."

Read the full story at Wine Spectator Online.

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