Monday, May 7 was a big night in the national culinary scene — so big, in fact, that many in the business call it the “Academy Awards” of the food world. The James Beard Awards Ceremony is an annual event that honors outstanding restaurants, chefs, culinary professionals as well as food and wine writers. And although Dano Hutnik of Dano’s Heuriger on Seneca wasn’t in attendance, the event held special meaning for him and his wife and business partner, Karen
Gilman. “Too much to do around here!” Gilman said last week with a tinkling laugh.”
Hutnik was nominated as a semi-finalist for the Best Chef of the Year in the Northeast, a category that holds some stiff competition and spans Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, as well as New York State (New York City is a category all its own.) He didn’t make it to the final round of chefs, but that hasn’t stopped industry professionals and locals in the Finger Lakes region from beaming with pride at the nod from the prestigious organization.
I spoke with Gilman over the phone last week about the nomination, an honor she and Hutnik considered flattering and thrilling, but not necessarily more important than the restaurant wall she was currently painting.
“I do have time to talk now,” she said as she answered the phone, “I was just working on
The restaurant has been open for seven years and, to the average consumer’s eye (mine as well), it’s a beautiful space: light and bright with wood floors and enormous windows looking over a sprawling lawn that eventually leads to Seneca Lake. But Gilman insists the restaurant is “showing its age.”
“People spend longer in a heuriger than they do in other styles of restaurants,” Gilman said. “And we encourage sharing here.”
One could argue that the only way in which it’s showing age is the finesse and comfortable personality with which Dano’s Heuriger operates. It’s unlike any restaurant in the Finger Lakes region, and it’s one of the favorite picks of tourists and residents alike, in large part to its unique model and menu.
A heuriger is a style of restaurant typical to wine country in Vienna, where Hutnik is from. Casual in style and sprawling in menu, diners can order small bites of food in waves as they sit, sip wine and chat with friends. “People spend longer in a heuriger than they do in other styles of restaurants,” Gilman said. “And we encourage sharing here.”
Much of the food is displayed in a glass case at the front of the restaurant, underneath a large black chalkboard that takes up half a wall and lists, in colorful script, the menu options. Diners entering the restaurant are lured in by homemade desserts like Linzer torte, all made by Gilman, and then round the corner to encounter bowls of creamy pumpkinseed oil-cream cheese spread and traditional Viennese salads.
Diners with bigger appetites can order large dishes as well, including a farmer’s plate that contains smoked pork and sauerkraut, and a laundry list of other meats, or a Viennese bento box — a cheeky play on a Japanese lunch vessel that offers small tastes of a variety of foods. “It’s a good way to try a lot,” Gilman says.
Charcuterie plates are also offered and ordered often by diners intrigued by Hutnik’s insistence on curing, smoking and fermenting all of his own meat and pickles. It’s a step that may seem extraneous to some, but that’s just the way Dano’s Heuriger operates. “We like to have our hands in everything, every part of the process,” Gilman said.
And they do — from an herb and vegetable garden directly outside of the kitchen to the very small culinary staff (just Hutnik, Gilman, and their sous chef Daphne Nolder), Dano’s Heuriger feels intimate and special, like eating in a close friend’s home.
A close friend who has an extensive wine cellar, that is.
The wine list at Dano’s contains, at any given time, at least 45 bottles, 42 of which are typically Finger Lakes Wines. “Our cuisine goes really well with rieslings, gewurztraminers and gruner veltliners,” Gilman explained, noting that one of their international wines is also a Gruner.
They have been featuring single-vineyard wines in attempt to better highlight the work done by growers and winemakers. “Local wine has gotten so exciting,” said Gilman, referencing the wide variety of options they have in constructing a thoughtful list.
Between the local wine, international food and personal brand of creativity the pair has put into Dano’s Heuriger, it was apparent to me as we wrapped up our conversation why the restaurant had been nominated for the award. I finished by thanking Gilman for her time and sheepishly telling her she could get back to the work at hand.
“Oh that wall?” she said casually. “I finished painting that five minutes ago.”