Fifth Floor

I have long been a fan of chef Laurent Manrique and San Francisco has been abuzz with anticipation when it was announced that he would be taking over the helm at The Fifth Floor (thus named for being on the fifth floor of the Palomar Hotel). With being open just two days, I am my friend, Lisa, headed for their first Friday night dinner. The interior décor had not changed much; still redolent with warm brown walls, floors, and tables. There is a nice punctuation of color with elegant red lights in the ceiling.

Perusing the menu, we were saddened to learn from our jovial waiter, Christian, that a tasting menu was not yet available but would be in the future. Lisa and debated what to get and how to order as much as we could without breaking the bank and tasting as much as possible. I readily admit to invoking the name of a mutual friend of mine and the chef’s to see if a tasting menu was remotely possible. "We can always ask," Christian said, as he headed back to the kitchen to inquire. God bless Laurent as he agreed to put something together for us. I did feel a bit of an imposition asking, but was thrilled he will willing to accommodate us.

Drinking some Perrier Jouet Champagne, a trio of amuse arrived; smoked shrimp, potato croquettes, and a cold, creamy yogurt carrot soup. A very promising beginning! There was some debate on wines. As there was no tasting menu as yet established, there was also no set wine pairings. The restaurant’s aptly named sommelier, Emily Wines, was very insightful and helpful. I am a huge fan of Rhône wines, especially in whites — much preferring them to overly oaked and buttery California Chardonnay. Even though the chef wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to put together for a tasting menu, Emily worked in concert with what the chef was preparing to design a fabulous pairing experience for us.

Amuse – smoked shrimp, potato croquette, chilled carrot yogurt – Perrier Jouet Champagne. We were already having a lovely time. Besides the amuse, a comment needs to be made of the bread cart. Yes, I said bread cart… While perusing the menu, a cart is wheeled up with a variety of breads to choose from; several from Laurent’s home town, rolls, breads, etc. Served with your breads of choice are two butters, one from cow’s milk and a goat’s milk cheese. The goat’s milk cheese was definitely different; white and creamy with the piquant goaty flavor that many hate and I adore.

Our first official course was Chataîgnes, a chestnut soup and poultry “quenelles” topped with a
brunoise of prosciutto and pistashio. With this was served one of the few California wines of the evening, a Tablas Creek Xote de Tablas
Blanc Paso Robles, 2005. I adore this wine and it went splendidly with the soup. The first of many dishes this evening to be served with a table side pour, the bowl was brought out with its quenelle and crunch. The combination of chopped pistachio nuts with the creamy chestnut was delightful and unexpected. The soup was rich and reckoning from Laurent’s Gascony home.

Foie Gras – Cold foie gras poached in crushed grapes with a sourdough
bread tartine of grapes, black truffles, and artichokes paired with Fritz Haag
Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett, Mosel 2006. It is so easy to ruin and serve mediocre torchon and thrilling to have perfectly-prepared cold foie. This was a thrilling course. The accompaniments worked well as did the pairing.

Saumon – Slow-cooked Loch Duarte salmon, essence of walnut béarnaise,
salsify croustillant, and watercress salad served with Cold Heaven Vogelsang
Vineyard, Santa Ynez 2006. Knowing we had a long way to go, this was the first course I deliberately did not finish. It was hard not to finish as well… This was the second course where a table-side pouring occurred, as the dish was brought out and the cream sauce was presented and poured. The salmon was stunningly prepared with the perfect amount of pinkness inside. So often it is overcooked and dry, but not here. The watercress offered a bright contrast to the rich meat and a crisp wafer of salmon skin was served to enhance the experience.

La Cruchade au Civet – Traditionally-prepared corn polenta with
Ossau-Iraty cheese, rabbit civet and roasted hazelnuts paired with Domain de
Mazilly Beaune 1er Cru 2005. Much credit goes to our waiter in this instance as he heard me explaining to Lisa exactly what rabbit civet is and how rare it is to find it on a menu. Christian made sure we had a serving and with the stunning wine pairing, this may very well have been the dish of the evening. Comforting and country in its origin, to have it served in a haute cuisine setting brings new excitement to the San Francisco dining scene.

Cochon au Lait Entier – Roasted pork shoulder with homemade boudin,
apple croustillant, and a reduction of milk bouillon paired with Buil & Giné,
Giné Giné, Priorate, 2004. I’m not sure what made me happier in this course, the pork shoulder or the blood sausage. While served in a foam, yet another sauce was added by our server. The shoulder — again — was perfectly prepared but the real excitement came with the boudin and rich sauce.

Cheese – Like the bread cart, a specially-designed cheese cart is presented and quite intriguing. Kudos to Emily again for serving three different sweet wines (only two of which I got notes on, I’m sorry to say). Lisa and I shared two cheeses each; Roquefort, Tomme de Chouans, Ossau-Iraty, Sally Jackson paired with Emilio Justau Pedro Ximenez Sherry, Camut Pommeau du Normandy. I often complain about cheese plates being over dressed with accoutrements. Thankfully not the case here — a bit of honeycomb and nuts on one plate, and membrillo and almond cake on the other. Stunning.

Two desserts which Christian picked out for us and we shared which were paired with Charles Hours Clos
Uroulat Jurançon, 2004 was the classic Gascon  Croustade Gasconne; apple crisp with anise-orange blossom syrup and garnished with green apple sorbet as well as the traditional miniature Gâteau Basque, Marmelade de Cerises Noires; almond cake with cream
filling garnished with Black Cherry marmalade. Of the two, the apple croustade was the preferred dessert but mostly for its lightness and enthralling green apple sorbet.

Mignardise finished the evening — some truffles, pate de fruit, and fritter-like funnels of orange-scented fried dough (I know there is a Gascogne name for this delicacy which escapes me at the moment). Now, several days later, I am left a warm, comforting feeling about the meal. It is a dichotomy in this city in that what is being served is classic country French peasant food from Laurent’s home region, but served in this high-end, haute setting. It will be interesting to see how San Francisco embraces (or not?) the food. There is no molecular gastronomy; no tricks. The rabbit dish especially is so far removed from one would expect with allusion of pretentiousness upon the entry of the restaurant. In many ways, it is homey, simple comfort food, but so perfectly and elegantly prepared and served as to be a dichotomy. It will undoubtedly confuse people who are expecting more challenging combinations of ingredients. Personally, I hope the menu, chef, and cuisine are embraced as being something very much needed and worthy of appreciation. 

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