Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dinners at the Fifth Floor

Last Tuesday, I found myself happily back at the Fifth Floor Restaurant (my fourth visit in the last six weeks) with friends who've been eager to check it out after I told them something good and exciting is going on there.

By coincidence, the Michelin's 2010 San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country Guide was released earlier that day. I bantered with Jennie Lorenzo, the Fifth Floor's executive chef, who smiled giddily and seemed relieved that her restaurant retained its Michelin Star. She took over the kitchen early this year. Last year, when she was assisting then head chef, Laurent Manrique, Michael Bauer torched the Fifth Floor, rating the food a measly 2 Stars for the San Francisco Chronicle, a plunge from the 4 Stars it previously held. Meanwhile, Aqua, where Manrique went and recently left, lost its two Michelin Stars and is rumored to be closing. So as in fashion, in the restaurant business, one day you're in and the next day you're out.

I find Jennie down-to-earth and maybe quite humbled by finally being in charge of a high-profile restaurant. Jennie was born and raised in the Philippines and never went to cooking school. Yet, she's certainly no stranger to Michelin Stars. She has cooked for chefs with a total of 9 Michelin Stars: Marco Pierre White in London (3 Stars), Gordon Ramsay in London (3 Stars), Seiji Yamamoto at Ryugin in Tokyo (2 Stars, and expecting another Star), and Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone at Ame in San Francisco (1 Star). An impressive achievement for someone self-taught and still youthful.

The Fifth Floor has been a bastion of contemporary French cuisine since it opened. A parade of some of the best chefs the city has known cooked there: George Morrone, Laurent Gras, and Manrique. And it was also where Rajat Parr, the well-known sommelier, first presided, when Morrone opened it back in 1999.

I haven't been to the Fifth Floor in years, but I bolted for a reservation last month when I received word they were blowing out the wine list. The Fifth Floor wine list has always been one of the best in the city if you love classic French wines. I knew the restaurant has been in decline in recent years, so I never checked the menu or who was manning the stoves, I was there to attack the Burgundy list. Food was going to be background.

I picked out the five-course tasting menu, which at $65 has got to be the city's best priced among restaurants of the Fifth Floor's order. Sign of the times, I'm sure, but to bargain-hunters like me, a find.

Jennie's cuisine is contemporary European cooking with a mixture of Japanese, no doubt picked up during her stages at Mirabelle in London, Ryugin, and Ame. But like I said, I never even inquired about the food initially. My two requests were that the Stuffed Quail and Roast Duck Breast be substituted for items in the standard fare. I needed some dishes for the red Burgundy. They obliged without resistance. Again, sign of the times.

When the first course was brought, the Smoked River Trout--a kind of deconstructed version of New York lox-bagel-cream cheese, presented in a colorful palette of orange, yellow, white, and green (the smoked trout, mango chutney and corn-chip twirl, dabs of cream on the plate, and slices of cucumber as garnish)--I got a bit distracted from my 1993 Domaine Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanee Les Beaux Monts (more on this later).

Next up was the hedonistic Crab Cappuccino. Its aroma of vanilla, truffle, crab, and ginger was intoxicating. The foam was sweet, delicate, and fragrant; and when I dug deeper into the cup to scoop up the crab broth, the flavors exploded. What a surprise, it was like tasting pure essence of crab. The complexity of this simple course blew my mind!

At this point, the food was taking over. I couldn't wait for the next dish to arrive. The quail, stuffed with sausage and drizzled with a light, creamy madeira sauce, was so good I had the urge to lick my plate. And the roast duck breast was perfectly medium-rare, tender and juicy. The dinner was dazzling, and it was the wine that provided adequate background for the food.

The meal starts with an innocuous amuse on a spoon

A Fifth Floor classic, goat's milk butter

The popular Crab Cappuccino...

...the flavors explode with pure crab essence

Big Eye Tuna, a tuna sashimi garnished with cha soba in a yuzu vinaigrette. Absolutely perfect with the toasty, citrusy 1999 Corton-Charlemagne, Domaine Tollot-Beaut

Seared Scallops, with crispy tater tots, crunchy, juicy, perfect with the vibrant 1983 Meursault-Poruzots, Domaine François Jobard

Huckleberry soda shot, surprisingly good palate freshner

Slow Roasted Pork Belly, fatty pork like pork belly and porchetta is ubiquitous in Bay Area restos these days

1999 Domaine Tollot-Beaut Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru. Toasty, bright, sharp, and laser-focused.

1986 Domaine François Jobard Meursault-Poruzots. Superb freshness. Deep gold color. Honeycomb, toasted nuts, honeyed pear, nectarine, apple, and grapefruit, laced with spice and minerals. It gained more energy after two-and-a-half hours!

1993 Domaine Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux Monts. Fascinating as this was made during the Accad years of the domaine. Fragrant cherries. Deep, dark ruby color. Still backward, but not too hard, the tannins are velvety but the fruit is sharp, high-toned, mineral, and infused with tart cherries, red licorice, and black pepper. Showing a lot of Vosne character.

Back label of 1998 Domaine François Lamarche La Grand Rue Grand Cru (monopole). From a little-known grand cru vineyard wedged between Romanée-Conti and La Tache. A terrific vintage. Seductive as a Romanée-Saint-Vivant but more powerful and masculine. Crushed berries, game, meat, and fur scents. Pure. Wonderful tannins that accentuate the bright black cherries, cherry liqueur, aromatic herbs, and pepper. A great match with the quail and duck.

1969 Domaine de la Pousse d'Or Volnay Clos de la Bousse d'Or (monopole). I brought this to toast a friend born on this vintage. Impeccable provenance as it was from a batch that came directly out of Nicolas Potel's cellar, son of Gérard Potel who was gérant and winemaker at Pousse d'Or. Amazingly pristine. '69s have unbelievable power. Darkly colored and fragrant. Structured, concentrated, firm, elegant, and sturdy fruit. Volnay with muscle. Bags of life.

I'd be amiss if I don't mention this playful and delicious dessert. Fifth Floor Sundae. Warm Valrhona dark chocolate pudding topped with popcorn-flavored ice cream and coconut foam. The popcorn aroma was decadent. A fabulous finish.

Fifth Floor
Hotel Palomar
12 Fourth Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: 415.348.1555
Monday-Saturday 5:30pm-10pm, closed Sundays


  1. Save some of those '69s for my 40th coming up in Decemnber! Awesome post Alex! Dan S.

  2. @Dan will start gearing up for the big day!
    Alex B

  3. Great write-up. I need to check this place out again. What kind of deal are they doing on the wines?
    TJ Mueller

  4. $65...what a steal. Nice write up Alex. Etienne Grivot's intial impressions were that the 07 vintage has some similarities with 93.


  5. @TJ Ask for the reserve wine list (if they haven't seen you there, they may just bring you the regular book if you don't ask for this), that's at 50% off--the selections have dwindled since I first got there 6 weeks ago, but still plenty of gems, I haven't told a lot of people so I can keep raiding it :)

    @Eric best bargain in the city, that's why I can afford going back there :).

    You know a lot about Etienne Grivot, he's way ahead of his time. He was vilified for consorting with Accad 20 years ago, but look at how beautiful his wines and how long they've lasted. Many think of Accad as just harvesting very ripe fruit and long cold-soak--well, so was Henri Jayer--but he and Grivot also practiced a modern version of biodynamics, amending the soil and restoring it back to its health.

  6. @Yoda- Thanks for the tips. I will go soon. You mentioned 5th floor the last time I was in your store, but I did not know the details and what a good deal it was.

  7. the 50% thing is still going on?

    the crab cappucino sounds pretty good - and i'm curious, fresh off a Ryugin meal in Tokyo, how her food incoporates that stint.

  8. @ChuckEats Likely the 50% off is still on, worth checking out. Let me know how the food compares to Ryugin

  9. Have you ever seen somebody lick the chutney spoon in an Indian Restaurant and put it back? This would never have happened under the Tories.


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