Dano Hutnik used to be a ballet dancer. When he was 10 he fell in love with dance and eventually made it his career. Fifteen some odd years later he realized that aging was not exactly a ballet dancer’s friend, and his transition to culinary guru commenced.
Hutnik first trekked to Paris where he studied at the Cordon Bleu, subsequently making his way to San Francisco and the California Culinary Academy where he received his chefs’ diploma. Hands-on experience came from time in the kitchen at restaurants on both coasts of the United States until Hutnik ultimately settled in upstate New York.
In an interview with the Finger Lakes Times, Hutnik describes cooking and running his own restaurant as, “very similar to dancing. Dancing is very hard work, but if you go to bed with it and you wake up with it, then it’s successful.” It’s a sentiment echoed by almost every similar successful chef and restaurateur; this is not a 9-5 enterprise but rather one that demands devotion far beyond the typical job or even career. This is a lifestyle, and if guest response is anything to go by, Hutnik’s career change and decades of hard work have all been worth it.
The critics agree.
Hutnik’s efforts have garnered him numerous accolades, not the least of which is his recognition as a 2012 and 2014 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Northeast Chef of the Year Award. The Foundation has also featured him four times, and he has lectured on numerous occasions at the well-respected Hotel School at Cornell University.
Chef Hutnik’s wife and partner Karen Gilman manages the business and oversees front-of-house operations. As if that wasn’t job enough, Gilman is also Dano’s on Seneca’s pastry chef and she painted many of the art pieces on display at the restaurant She was also featured at the James Beard Foundation four times.
Bright, Airy, and Open – Spacious Dining
The restaurant itself is bright, airy, and open. High ceilings, light-colored walls, and blonde wood accents add to the breezy feel, and there are numerous windows arranged in Mondrian-esque nested squares that give an otherwise simple room a contemporary flair. The short walls that serve to bisect the room are topped with a scattering of knick knacks – a tiny candlelit lantern here, a bowl of gourds there – and seating is provided by simple straight-backed chairs and long wood tables in matching dark brown hues.
It’s hard if not impossible to sit in a spot where you wouldn’t be in at least partial sight line of the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, and given the view outside, this is a very good thing. Seneca Lake glimmers just beyond the lush green lawn that surrounds the barn-style building and the landscape is as just about as quintessentially “wine country” as it gets. There are fresh flowers on the tables and outdoor dining is available as the weather allows.
Heuriger Dining – Family Meal Austrian Style
A heuriger is, in many ways, the Austrian version of a Spanish tapas joint. The menu is presented in a way that encourages a choose-your-own-adventure mentality and a convivial atmosphere. Eat family style and order all at once or as your appetite and personal sense of pacing dictates. The menu at Dano’s rotates at often reflects the changing seasons, so even if you managed to nibble your way through the current day’s offerings (don’t even try – you can’t) your next visit would bring a new and tasty challenge.
Available items are often on display at the counter so diners can get an idea of what they’re ordering (some of the industry’s more avant-garde eateries could benefit from similar transparency – we’ve all experienced that moment of dread when the “beet salad” comes to the table in unrecognizable, “cutting edge” goo-based form), but tableside waiter service keeps mealtime moving and keeps the casual atmosphere of the heuriger from turning chaotic.
Larger parties can opt for the “Chef’s Table,” which is essentially a house-picked assortment of the restaurant’s best dishes served family style. It feels a little like you visited your long last family in Vienna and the rosy-cheeked matriarch broke out all her best recipes. You may not have that built-in sense of nostalgia when you sit down, but chances are it’ll be there when you leave.
Dano’s on Seneca – The Menu
There is a widespread misconception about Austrian food that usually involves descriptors like “heavy” and “dense” and “big slab of roasted meat.” The roasted meat is definitely represented at Dano’s but so are vegetable preparations that would excite even the most carnivorously biased palates as well as lovely artisan breads and herbaceous and zesty spreads (the red pepper and the horseradish walnut are ridiculously good) and… well, on and on and on.
The charcuterie is a must-try item and Chef Hutnik makes all of the meats – and as of a few years ago, even the cheeses – himself. The sausages are spiced with garlic and
This is not fancy food, so if you are looking for platescapes carefully constructed with kitchen tweezers and garnished with microgreens this is not the spot for you – or rather it is, you just need to reconfigure your expectations. This is good food, homey food, belly-pleasing food. It’s the kind of food that you crave when you’re sad, or happy, or hungry or homesick. You don’t have to be “in the mood” for Hutnik’s food, it’s heartwarming and