For a place that's been able to maintain a high reputation for several years, Fifth Floor sure has had a revolving door in the kitchen. It was opened by George Morrone, but he left for other projects and Laurent Gras (now garnering oohs and ahhs at L2O in Chicago) took over around 2002. He left a couple years later, and was replaced by Melissa Perello, who earned the restaurant a Michelin star during her tenure and was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Best Rising Chef award. Then in 2007 she left, to be replaced briefly by former line cooks Charlie Kleinman and Jake Des Voignes (who managed to successfully maintain that Michelin star). Last year Laurent Manrique (until recently also the chef at the Michelin two-starred Aqua, which he's also left after problems with ownership) briefly took over, but now he's gone. Shortly before we arrived in San Francisco, the baton was passed to Jennie Lorenzo, who had worked with Laurent Gras when he was running Fifth Floor, and whose resume also includes stints at Blackbird in Chicago, time with Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay in London, and a trip to the Far East at the Michelin two-star Ryugin.
That's a lot of turnover at the top, and frankly, Fifth Floor was not on our eating agenda for this San Francisco trip. But we happened to be staying at the Hotel Palomar, wherein Fifth Floor resides, and when we learned that they were promoting a 50% discount on the entire wine list, assembled by the highly regarded and aptly named Master Sommelier Emily Wines (who also did the wine list for Miami's Area 31, another Kimpton hotel), we quickly changed our plans.
When we made our dinner reservation they put us in the lounge area rather than the dining room, which I suppose was just as well, given that we had the kids with us. The lounge area adopts a very clubby, manly theme, with lots of wood and leather. There is one long communal table (which nobody was using), a couple other tables (including a large round one that we commandeered), and several low-rise two-tops scattered about. A quick peek into the dining room gave mostly an impression of beigeness; it looked like an elegant, somewhat generic hotel restaurant. A drawback to being in the lounge area was that service was somewhat sporadic - out of sight, out of mind, and with none of the waitstaff regularly passing through the lounge area, there were times we were somewhat neglected.
The menu is fairly short - no more than 10 appetizers and about the same number of entrees - but was supplemented by a bar menu of mostly simpler fare, which is where we often find things for the kids. The restaurant menu is geographically unplaceable, subtly drawing influences from all over (some Italy with a tortellini, some Japan with a tuna "zuke," some North Africa with a "b'stilla" sauce for foie gras...) but doesn't come off as silly for doing so. Collectively, we had starters of a crab "cappuccino," summer squash tortellini, and a caesar salad, followed by a stuffed quail, and a steak frites and a club sandwich off the bar menu. Things started off a little shaky but got better from there.
The tortellini starter brought three vividly green belly-buttons of stuffed pasta. They were filled with a tiny dice of summer squash, along with a tomato "marmalade" that was not sweet enough to merit the moniker, yet didn't bring much else in the way of flavor contrast either. The "garlic + bread sauce" the tortellini were placed upon had formed an unappealing skin on its murky brown surface, and its flavor didn't do much to enhance the somewhat bland squash filling. The crab "cappuccino" was much more successful, a big coffee cup of a creamy broth redolent with dungeness crab, picked up by a hit of ginger, and topped with a truffle foam duplicating the milky froth of the namesake. The only peculiar note to this one were strands of greenery lurking in the soup (wilted baby spinach?), not off from a flavor perspective but just an unexpected texture given the "cappuccino" descriptor. A caesar salad bore a pungent whiff of fishiness (and this from someone who is a big anchovy fan).
The quail, on the other hand, was pure bliss. The bird was perfectly roasted, the legs separately from the rest of the body, which had been boned out and stuffed with a slightly chunky and very flavorful forcemeat. It was served over a bed of a succotash of fresh corn, peas and piquillo peppers along with a scatter of pea tendrils, and then a Madeira sauce was poured tableside (the tableside finish possibly being either an allusion to or a remnant from the Manrique tenure, but either way a nice touch if somewhat incongruous while eating in the more casual lounge). Every single component of this was good on its own, and even better together.
The steak off the bar menu was also nice, a thin cut (the same as the rib-eye "paillard" on the regular menu?) which I suspect was cooked sous-vide and then finished with a quick sear, as it bore that method's typical red-to-the-edges coloration. It came with some gloriously crispy fries which had been given a drizzle of a bright green herb oil. One oddity was that the bar menu steak came at no notable discount from the one on the regular menu, a more composed and elaborate dish with persillade tater tots (tots!), cipollini onion, smoked sour cream and a cabernet reduction. I didn't try the club sandwich but noticed that between my wife and daughter it disappeared quietly and surreptitiously.
The real standout of the dinner, particularly with the 50% discount, was the wine - a 2003 Frederic Magnien Vosne-Romanee Les Suchots. What a treat it is to be able to get such a nice wine, with some bottle age on it, for about $85.
We closed out with one dessert, a warm chocolate pudding cake. Frod Jr. finds it almost impossible to resist the gravitational pull of a warm chocolate cake, but this one came with some unusual accompaniments - a lime cream, a coconut foam, and popcorn ice cream. It sounded pretty unlikely, but it all worked out just fine. Presented in a big old-fashioned glass, any sign of chocolate was initially completely concealed by a big white cloud of coconut foam. As we dug in, it all came together in surprisingly pleasing fashion, and Frod Jr. and I both particularly enjoyed the popcorn ice cream.
Though we experienced some missteps, the 1/2 off wine deal alone would seem enough to make Fifth Floor worth a visit. And if the rest of the menu can reach the level of the quail dish and the dessert we had, then San Franciscans ought to hope that Jennie Lorenzo sticks around a while.
12 4th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103