(San Francisco, CA) It is our first night in Hotel Palomar, and after a full day wandering the city and lunching at the Ferry Building, we decide to “keep it simple” by dining at Fifth Floor. As it happens, our suite is on the same floor and only about 30 steps away from the restaurant. We gussy up after a long nap, then eagerly anticipate fusion French cuisine prepared by David Bazirgan, voted Eater.com’s 2011 Hottest Chef in America...
There is a sense of mystery surrounding Fifth Floor. Chefs have come and gone over the years. In 2010, the restaurant lost its sole Michelin star. Their entryway is closed during the day, leaving passersby to wonder what lies beyond. Once dinnertime rolls around, however, the doors allow entrance into the swanky, well-appointed lounge area and the understated, candle-lit dining room beyond. Wine bottles lie in wait behind a glass-walled cellar.
I am not starving after all our afternoon adventures at the Ferry Building, but I quickly change my tune once I catch a whiff of the food coming out of the kitchen. The hostess seats us at a low table near the wine cellar and I am immediately struck by the form-over-function chairs. The height of the chair arms makes them impractical to rest your own arms comfortably or to use your utensils effectively. Cool doesn’t always translate to useful.
We begin, as always, with a bit of bubbly to further sharpen appetite before getting down to the business of ordering. Shortly thereafter, and before our dishes arrive, we are rewarded with an amuse bouche of local halibut brandade, golden crispy round nugget of hot fish that is delicious but whose texture is somewhat unnerving.
Feeling frisky, I start with Roasted Baby Beets. Nothing uneasy about this dish, just playful discs of root vegetables paired with pink grapefruit plus strawberries cut to look like beets. Little pillows of creamed feta nestle around a crispy pistachio cracker jutting up like a tilted seesaw. It is incredibly creative, fun to eat and admire.
English pea soup comes next, a bright green swamp of creamed snap peas, wilted pea shoots, cumin, and a flourish of balsamic reduction on top. It is rich, sweet, and wholly irresistible. I mop up the remainder with a slice of the whole grain bread.
For my entree, I choose the Prime New York Steak. Two medium-rare slabs drizzled with bordelaise sauce arrive on a bed of creamed stinging nettles, with salt-baked potatoes in the center, topped with split asparagus. The meat is so dense, I have trouble slicing it with my knife. My plate slides back and forth on the tabletop. Eventually I’m able to try a bite. The beef is not chewy, just very dense. Flavor is good and it is cooked expertly. Stinging nettles, on the other hand, are not to my taste at all. They seem like gin-soaked creamed spinach. Yuck. Potatoes and sauce are solid.
Finally, we end with dessert: an orange chocolate hazelnut "bombe" topped with gold leaf and accompanied by hazelnut ice cream. It is dark and decadent, somewhat lightened by a swirl of rhubarb sauce.
Final analysis? Fifth Floor has outstanding service and top-notch cuisine. Overall vibe is casual elegance. Food shows flashes of sublime creativity and inventive pairing of ingredients, with just one clunker (stinging nettles) amid the excellence. I have no problem visiting Fifth Floor again in future, and look forward to the next adventure!
I'm still trying to get used to the change in time zones and can't decide if I'm hungry or ready for bed. Regardless, we use tonight to kick off our vacation with a multi-course dinner.
I begin with a glass of the Gloria Ferrer Sparkling Blanc de Noir. The sparkling wine is crisp and light and it pairs nicely with the amuse bouche of halibut brandade. I'm not a giant fan of brandade, at least not as a main course. There's something about salt cod and mashed potatoes that even when baked with a crispy crust, doesn't appeal to me. We saw it on many a menu in Paris last autumn and I just couldn't bring myself to try it. I take a tentative bite...it's delightful. Creamy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, the comfort of mashed potatoes with a very slight hint of halibut.
The abundance of fresh and local veggies always excites me when we visit California and I order the shaved asparagus salad with hearts of palm, speck, and sorrel with lemon vinaigrette. I ask for a wine pairing recommendation and our server brings the Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling. I brace myself for a glass of sugar syrup and find the wine to be verdant, not cloyingly sweet like some rieslings can be. Not only does it pair wonderfully with my salad (which is fabulous with sweet raw asparagus, salty speck, and bitter sorrel) but it turns out to not be the priciest white he could have recommended. I love when servers don't take the wine pairing request as an opportunity to jack up the bill.
My next course is potato gnocchi with sauteed ramps, castelmagno, and rabbit ragu. I have a thing for both gnocchi and spring ramps, but it's the castelmagno that gets me. I've had it at cheese tastings, but can't find it in Grand Rapids and rarely see it on menus when I travel. Castelmagno is from Italy's Piedmont region and it's a nice ripe, yeasty cheese. The kind that slaps your cheeks and tickles your nose as you take a bite. The rabbit is tender and clean tasting (sorry bunny lovers). The pillows of gnocchi and tender ramps are punctuated by the Castelmagno.
I was planning on ordering lamb or beef for the third course, but instead order the scallops with morels and sugar snap peas in vermouth sauce. When it's morel season, I feel it's my duty as an American to eat my weight in them. But surprise, there is also a puree of English peas anchoring the dish when it arrives. As much as I love morels, I abhor green peas. I like sugar snap peas and regular snap peas, but not plain old green peas. As it turns out the pea puree has enough butter and cream in it to kill the taste of peas, but I eat around it just in case! The scallops are sweet and tender as are the sugar snap peas. And the morels are meaty little bites of heaven with creamy vermouth sauce tucked into each fold. Our waiter has poured me a glass of the Starlite Vineyards Viognier which is not available by the glass, but he says there's an open bottle in the cooler. I like this guy. A lot!
I decide to end the night with a chocolate orange hazelnut concoction that arrives with a gold leaf garnish. Talk about gilding the lily. It's rich. It's decadent. It's just a bit much. Overall, the food and service are impeccable and this was a wonderful start to our adventure.