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Restaurants & Bars 47

Fifth Floor

cabrales | Jun 20, 200312:14 PM

I recently took in a memorable dinner at The Fifth Floor. An outstanding meal by US standards. The first two courses are to be particularly commended. A description of a meal earlier this year is also included as background.

Chef's Choice Menu

Sea bass, Geoduck clam, Kumamoto oyster, and Osetra caviar with lime and olive oil
Glass of Champagne Ruinart Rosé Brut, Reims

Sautéed meuniere, brown butter vinaigrette
Bouchard Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2000 (Demi)

Braised with morels and asparagus

Roasted with bee pollen and cured with Buddha's hand and Hawaiian salt, with glass of Kracher, Smith & Robles "Cuvée Miaud" Trockenbeerenauslese, Neusiedlersee, Austria 2000

Braised with glass noodles, sautéed with Meyer lemon and olives, sautéed foie gras, with Domaine Dujac Gevrey-Chambertin "Combettes," Burgundy 1993 (Demi)

Poached slowly with black truffles and roasted crispy on the skin, truffle jus

Strauss Family Yogurt Sorbet with Strawberry-Rhubarb Soup

(7) BING CHERRIES WITH ALMOND FOAM (may not be formal dish name)

Earlier meal:

Laurent Gras’ cuisine sings. It is all that it has been hyped in the media to be :) My only meal thus far at Fifth Floor was ravishing and the evening ended with my having come to suspect, subject to the need for further sampling, that Gras’ cuisine is second only to that of T Keller for restaurants visited in the US (notwithstanding my finding Blue Hill to be the best subjective match in the US still for my preferences).

Prior to this meal, I had wondered, unfairly (in the sense of not having given Chef Gras the benefit of the doubt), why Chef Gras appeared to have been touted as one of the most promising chefs in the US of the emerging generation. I had taken in one meal at Peacock Alley, and had also sampled his cuisine recently at James Beard. Neither meal bore, in my mind, the indicia of a cuisine that was as promising as that I saw described in certain press coverage of Chef Gras. In a manner that is highly uncharacteristic of myself as a diner, I had let my cynicism with respect to the general quality of cuisine in the US and my general dislike for the cuisine of one of Chef Gras’ mentors (Alain Ducasse, whom I have long believed is significantly overrated) taint my judgment of Chef Gras’ cuisine. Distressingly, I had in a bizarre way prejudged Gras’ cuisine without even having ever dined at FF. Worse still, I had stridently communicated these doubts to the chef in connection with the James Beard event (perhaps he has forgotten). What all of this amounted to was considerable baggage on my part as it related to my taking in a FF meal. That baggage was compounded by my being unable to explain to myself why I had prejudged Chef Gras’ cuisine when I ordinarily like to take in at least two or three meals at a significant restaurant before arriving at a conclusion with respect to its cuisine. Couple that baggage with the load of slight guilt I was feeling for having made several reservations through on prior evenings and having cancelled them (with some notice, but not a great deal) when I secured last-minute-ish reservations at French Laundry. I have rarely harbored so much self-perceived baggage with respect to a restaurant in the US before. I arrived at the restaurant with some trepidation.

With that relatively unfortunate background (for which I was the sole party responsible), the kitchen, dining room and sommelier teams placated my anxieties by orchestrating, with clarity and conviction – and with poised elegance -- the unfolding of a moving meal. A meal that left me believing in Chef Gras’ promise as a cuisinier (in the sense of having potential, despite his cuisine being already relatively advanced in my mind) and in the promise of a restaurant, when a worthy chef is supported by a strong sommelier (Belinda Chang, ex-Charlie Trotter’s) and a gracious maitre d’.

With all respect to FL, the wine list and sommelier team are stronger than those at FL, and the maitre d’ and his team were on par with those at FL. A meal that left me wondering, the next evening when I was dining at FL, whether I had made a mistake in not revisiting FF. A meal that causes me, the next time I am in SF (Napa included), to make FF my first stop. (It is hard to tell whether my recent six meals at FF might have temporarily rendered an incremental meal there less interesting to me.)

It would be fair to say that I am a convert.

In Gras’ cuisine, I note cooking of products that is just, in the sense of cooking that leaves meats and shellfish and fish not overcooked. I see sensuality – as in the undulating folds of the geoduck, in the suppleness of the portion of an appropriately small lobster in the cappuccino appetizer, in the delicate shrimp with their blush tones accompanying it. I see a willingness to take risks in a measured way – as in the saucing for the scallop or the dipping sauce for the foie gras (discussed below). I see an openness to certain features of Asian cuisine, with an integration that renders traits of such cuisine subsumed within a larger framework.

Amuse Bouche
Champagne Henriot Brut 1990

I was happily sipping the developed champagne, nicely settled in. I really appreciate champagne, and Henriot 1990 pleased me not only because of its taste in the mouth, but also because this was a wonderful champagne that is not frequently available in US restaurants. (Also, I had never sampled the 1990 before.) I found the artwork on the wall facing me to be appealing. Depicting a woman with older-style clothing, but bringing in certain regions only her broader outline to view. The lighting also pleased.

The amuses were presented together. One was a tuna tartare presented in a small bowl. It carried, I believe, ginger, chives, shallots or onions and lemon jus, among other flavors. The tartare brought to mind the fleshy meatiness of tuna, and was nice. The other amuse was a butternut squash veloute with small pieces of cashew and a plump ravioli with meat contents (perhaps oxtail?; I do not recall). I considered the amuses to be individually appropriate, but did not see their sum as being greater than the two parts (nor lesser, to be clear).

Goeduck Clams, Finely sliced and seasoned with lime and fresh wasabi.
Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannshohle Riesling Spatlese, Nahe 2000

This course heralded the beginning of a lyrical meal. The knifework/cutting work was noteworthy on the petals of geoduck. Gently turning, tiny curly edges in certain areas; almost forming a curvaceous frilled ridge in certain areas. The “cut” of the geoduck enhanced the textural component of the dish, while also rendering it visually endearing. The geoduck portion lay in an indented middle section of a large curved bowl-like plate, with muted concentric circles in close proximity to one another lining the rims of the plate.

The geoduck pieces’ flavor was enchantingly clear/pristine, and its texture appropriately crisp and clean. This dish carried the most delicious geoduck I recall ever having sampled, and I have sampled this product on at least 40 different occasions to date (albeit mostly in Chinese or Japanese restaurants). (I am interested in geoduck, including, among other things, because I have wanted to take in pieces from geoduck while they are still live, but we should not digress).

The saucing of the geoduck was based on a sufficiently thin olive-oil that had appropriately muted lime connotations. The fresh wasabi was almost negligible in direct taste effect in the mouth, consistent with appropriateness of this item occupying a limited, supporting role in the dish. The fresh wasabi was not only sweeter than most fresh wasabi I have sampled (and, of course, than processed wasabi), it was also considerably more subtle (a favorable trait in my book). I also appreciated the control of the amount of pink Hawaiian sea salt in the dish. It was just appropriately subtle in this context – in the sense of not having a grain that would become pronounced and make the diner take added notice. An outstanding course.

While the wasabi might generally lead the diner to consider analogies to Japanese cuisine, the utilization of the other accompaniments to the geoduck rendered such potential comparisons inappropriate (in a good way). The wasabi did not bring to mind Japanese cuisine, and it was intellectually pleasing to me in hindsight that it did not do so, except at the point in time when I first saw the name of this course on the menu.

The color of the geoduck charmed me – the thin pieces were largely an ivory color, but they carried a slight blush tone. The color is difficult to described, as it was delicate, like the flush I sometimes see on my own cheeks after an intense meal or when the weather is very, very cold.

Sea Scallop, Sauvignon Blanc reduced with passion fruit, sauteed cauliflower
Michel Fonne Roemerberg Tokay-Pinot Gris 1999

Gras can cook scallops too :) I am demanding when it comes to scallops, which must be plump, “crisp” in texture and markedly undercooked relative to the level utilized at most restaurants in the US. At FF, Gras gets it right, with a scallop harboring a lusciously quasi-raw interior that begs to be taken in by me :) Nice utilization of a small section of caramelized cauliflower on top of the scallop, with appropriate limited browning along certain portions. Appropriately, the texture of the cauliflower still had some structure to it; it had not softened inappropriately.

As significant as the appropriate undercooking of the scallop was the interesting saucing of this dish. The Sauvignon Blanc utilized in the saucing added a bit of acidity, but the saucing was more complex (in a good way) than suggested by the mention of that wine. There were buttery overtones to this yellow-colored, appropriate-consistency sauce. It was intriguing to me that the passion fruit was very, very subdued in the saucing. In fact, its main contribution was the slippery, glistening texture of the material coating the seeds felt on the tongue, instead of the citrus effects of the main fruit itself. There was a noticeable vanilla component to the saucing, including through dots of black grains relating to vanilla bean effects. However, it should be emphasized that the described components of the saucing, when brought together, resulted in an overall flavor that surprised me (favorably) and that was developed and appropriate. There were a hint of saltiness and some acidity to the saucing that pleased me, against the slightly stronger sweet notes from the vanilla. The sauce was concurrently acidic and salty and vanilla-conveying; it was also appropriately thin and warm (in an oddly comforting way in the context of this course).

The wine pairing by Ms Chang was much appreciated here, although I’d have to say the Corton Charlemagne that followed was splendid with Chef Gras’ lobster dish as well :)

Lobster Capuccino, Lobster broth emulsified with chestnuts, prawns and sauteed lobster
1/2 Bouchard Corton Charlemangne 2000

This excellent dish, together with the two before it, constituted a glorious arch in my meal at FF, with all respect to ensuing courses. The supple, blush-tainted section of a small lobster’s body is presented on a plate. Nestled close to it were several small poached Maine prawns.

The lobster segment was flavorful, in a way that I am not accustomed to sampling for non-Brittany lobsters. It was cooked just right (i.e., significantly undercooked), with its inner portions having an added appealed. The texture was “crisp”, in the sense of the way the flesh gave in when taken in, and yet slightly supple (in a good way).

The warm broth was poured onto the lobster and Maine prawns tableside. I took in the lobster and prawns early, to preserve their limited cooking levels. I appreciated the relative thinness of the broth, the coral-pinkish color of which pleased me considerably. While thin, the broth was rich in flavor, with the chestnuts included adding to the overall effect without being particularly noticeable. The lobster-stock-based broth had nice Cognac sensations, and its overall taste might, on the basis of a relatively simplistic comparison, have brought to mind that of certain lobster bisques. However, the thinness of the broth and its more refined taste clearly separated it from a lobster bisque.

The inclusion in the broth of a bit of Esplette or similar pepper (in small amounts) was helpful, as was the limited “shot” of black pepper (Sarawak?) found very sparingly in the broth. I generally do not encourage the utilization of jolts of flavor as might result from the black pepper in this dish, but here I liked it because it was not jarring and further distinguished the broth from the sensations of a lobster bisque.

The lobster capuccino appears to be on its way to becoming a signature dish of Chef Gras, together with the pork belly with black truffles dish that I have not yet sampled. I like Corton Charlemagne, and, while I generally prefer Bonneau de Martray, the ½ bottle version of the Bouchard 2000 was quite appealing with the lobster.

Skate Wing, Caramelized, Bordelaise sauce and artichoke

The skate may have the course I liked less in the meal, but even it was good-plus. A nice white Bordelais sauce with black truffle and somewhat crisp-tasting baby artichokes. The fish was of a high quality and well-prepared, which is not something I can say about many skate dishes sampled here in the US. The baby artichokes added a crispy texture to the dish which was appropriate.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras, sauteed with licorice, quince "spring rolls", and bean sprouts, dipping sauce
Renee Renou Bonnezeaux "Cuvee Zenith" 1997

A lusciously-cooked, fairly large piece of foie, with a wonderfully paired wine. To the side of this dish was a dipping sauce made of quince, Asian pear and rice wine vinegar – dark, acidic and rich. Appropriately dense dipping sauce, and very “different” (in this context, favorably so). I found the licorice on the surface of the foie to have been refreshing and enhancing, and to have given the dish a staying power in the throat (almost like when one takes in a mint and then inhales down one’s throat). That is the way that licorice should be utilized. It had a slight sweetness as well as an “herbiness”. Properly utilized, licorice should not remind the diner of the grotesque black licorice candy sticks available in the US. It should offer a slightly medicinal, slightly refreshing persistence.

On the side were not only the above dipping sauce, but also small, refreshing leaves of lettuce. The lettuce was amusing to me (in a good way), because it fulfilled several functions. First, its freshness and its crunchiness mitigated some of the fatty sensations of the sauteed foie. This was particularly appreciated by me, because, as happy as I am to take in sauteed foie, I find it sometimes too much when taken in in meaningful quantities. I sometimes wrapped pieces I cut off from the large piece of foie for wrapping (with my utensils, of course) in the coolness of the lettuce. The raw bean sprouts pleased, in part because their neutral, plant-like taste helped (together with the lettuce and the effects of the licorice) to balance the intensity of the dipping sauce for the foie.

Second, the lettuce added to the intellectual dimensions of the dish for diners familiar with the practice in Vietnamese cuisine of sometimes wrapping fried spring rolls (much larger rolls than that of the mini roll accompanying the foie in this dish) with larger pieces of lettuce. This link is hinted at by the tiny spring roll (about ½ the length of my pinky finger) that sat adjacent to the foie. :) While the small size of the spring roll made its precise contents relatively difficult to gauge, at least some elements were repeats from the dipping sauce described above (appropriately). One of the contents was a type of slippery medium-thickness vermicelli-like, translucent noodle that The outer layer of the spring roll was not as thin as I might have subjectively preferred, but it tasted appropriate.

In some ways, this dish reminded me of the geoduck with wasabi course. This dish’s inspiration may have been drawn from an Asian dish (in this case, Vietnamese, instead of Japanese), but its overall effect had been so transformed by the chef that it no longer appeared to result in a dish representing fusion cuisine. It had just become part of a delicious and distinctive dish.

This dish, relative to, say, the geoduck and the lobster capuccino, may be indicative that the tastes within a given FF meal have more pronounced ebbs and flows than those at, say, French Laundry, which, as Steve P and I discussed, probably at this point has a more internally consistent set of dishes constituting a framework for the restaurant’s cuisine than does FF. (Note this observation does not contain an implicit indication that one approach is preferable to another. Nor does it indicate I prefer one approach to the other.)

Squab Breast
Roasted with almonds and cumin, caramelized dumpling and salsify
1/2 Chateau Haut-Brion 1999

This squab dish was very good. Small slices of almonds coated the outside of the squab breast, which was cooked appropriately cooked to a medium level or slightly below that. A good sign, given my subjective belief that many meats tend to be overcooked at restaurants in the US. I liked the extremely limited effects (almost not noticeable) of the cumin in the seasoning of the squab too. There were too many almonds in the dish, however.

The caramelized dumpling was appealing. The “pasta” outer layer was very thin, and was quasi-translucent with a golden tinge to its appearance. It had a slight feeling of oiliness (in a good way). Inside was confit of squab, which was appropriately dark-tasting. A robust-tasting dish.

What can I say about the wine? :laugh: Haut-Bions, both red and white, are among my preferred wines :) The 1999 ½ bottle was, expectedly, slightly more developed than 1999 full bottles I have had. Kudos to the restaurant for carrying H-B in a ½ bottle. (FF carries H-B Blanc in 1982 and 1983. Had I not ordered the ½ bottle of Corton Charlemagne, I would have probably restrained myself and stuck with a bottle of Chassagne Montrachet, Ramonet 2000, at $90, though.) Ms Chang’s wine service was elegant and pleased me considerably.

Veal Milanese
Tournedos flavored with orange and parmesan, macaroni, spinach salad

The FF kitchen substituted this dish, replacing a pork belly with black truffles dish that may be on its way to becoming one of the restaurant’s signature dishes and that I had been hoping to sample. When the dining room team member advised me it was veal, I was not encouraged because I have generally found veal to be poorly prepared (including at French Laundry, relative to other meats that are utilized for the second of the meat courses in the longest tasting menu) in restaurants in the US. Fortunately for me, there were no such problems at FF, and the veal was flavorful and not impeded by overcooking. Its texture was appropriately fleshy, and non-dense. The orange and parmesan flavors, while relatively pronounced in the dish, were also appropriate. In addition to overcooking veal, most restaurants (FF excluded) in the US tend to use jus-based saucing that, while potentially appropriate in certain circumstances, can get tiresome for a diner. Here, the orange flavors worked with respect to the veal offered. I liked this dish, which was among the stronger veal dishes I have had in the US.

To the right of the plate with the veal, there was a longish serving plate with three items that included the spinach salad and the macaroni – nice touches.

The veal dish was interesting to me because it relied in significant part on citrus flavors, as did the ensuing intermezzo dish and, to a much more limited extent, the scallop. However, the mix of the flavors inhering in different dishes presented during my FF meal stood in stark contrast to the overutilization throughout the progression of the meal of citrus flavors at Danko.

Bermagot orange and Meyer lemon sorbet with citrus compote

Delicious, particularly given my preference for Meyer lemon. Nice utilization of citrus peel in limited quantities, and nice general texture and “natural” taste-like components to the sorbet.

Banana and Avocado Parfait
Coconut financier, bananas baked in coconut milk

This was a nice dessert. I would not have thought that bananas would have matched coconut and avocado flavors necessarily, but in this dish they worked. The exact quality of the desserts at FF is difficult to evaluate based on my single visit to date, but my preliminary assessment is favorable. I like bananas in desserts, to the extent they are not matched with chocolate (both in view of my subjective dislike of chocolate and because of the unduly traditional nature of chocolate as bananas’ accompaniment). Here, the bananas were not overwhelmed by chocolate and were about the same strength as the coconut and avocado components of the dessert. Avocado does have a fatty texture (when appropriately ripe) and a certain limited aroma that might render it a good match for certain more traditional dessert ingredients.

The meal from Chef Gras, as ably brought forth by the dining room team, sang – sometimes pleasing me by murmuring flavors and other times tapping bolder notes.

I am eager to be a part of Chef Gras’ audience again, in part because, as favorable as my first meal at Fifth Floor was, I am trying not to judge unduly hastily.

Further Observations

The meal was interesting to me in a number of respects apart from the dishes described above. First, I believe that, when cuisine takes risks, the resulting plate better be delicious, as I do not give a cuisinier the benefit of the doubt for having tried and fallen short. Fortunately, the risks taken at FF (relative to, say, Danko) worked. A related point is that dishes with multiple components to them – a certain obvious complexity of construction – had better have their components be internally consistent. (Internal inconsistency coupled with complexity is one of the major weaknesses in the cuisines of the Pourcels and Gagnaire, in my assessment). On both these dimensions, Gras’ cuisine was appealing.

Second, I like to sample the cuisine of the direct and indirect progeny of Chef Senderens, with whom I took in my first ever three-star meal. Even though Chef Gras was sous-chef to other three-star chefs (Ducasse and Guy Savoy), Chef Gras is described (like Senderens, with whom he worked at a relatively early stage in his career, I believe) as liking to collect ancient recipes and I had had certain expectations relative to potentially updated ancient recipes. That is an aspect of Chef Gras’ cuisine that is impracticable to investigate over the course of a meal or even several meals. However, it is an aspect of Gras’ cuisine in which I am interested. The below article appears to suggest Gras utilizes certain old cookbooks from the nineteenth century, which would, of course, be dated very significantly earlier than the books in my personal set. However, the process Gras describes of being in dialogue with chefs from the past, through the cookbooks, is somewhat interesting to me.

Third, there is an attention to detail in Gras’ cuisine that I have thus far found to be appealing. An attention to small things through technique, to details about the composition of a dish, to the cut of a geoduck section. Fourth, Chef Gras’ cuisine has been described in certain articles as not utilizing significant amounts of butter and cream. While that might have been the case, I would not have guessed that was a underlying consideration in the chef’s cuisine. The flavors are appropriately rich, for applicable dishes, for example.

Dining Room Teams

Chef Gras’ maitre d’ was poised, articulate, and had all the other qualities that I consider to be favorable. He appeared approachable and proactive, and yet also allowed me sufficient “space” in the context of the meal. He will be very helpful to the chef, as will the sommelier team. The non-sommelier dining room team members were very gracious and knowledgeable about Chef Gras’ cuisine. FF should consider applying to become part of Relais Chateaux. Its service is among the very best I have experienced in the US.

Based on second-hand information, Ms Chang inherited a strong wine list from her predecessor. Having no direct information on the FF wine list before her arrival, I can say that it is very robust now – replete with verticals; good breadth as well as depth; strength in, among other things, Burgundies.


This restaurant is luscious-looking, in a contemporary and distinctive way, and is characterized by dark woods in tobacco and chocolate tones. It does not have an unduly masculine feel, as the artwork on the walls tempers that.

Other Information

There is a significant bar area, where the full dining menu is available, as well as an area adjacent to the bar with tables (presumably offering the same cuisine). An affiliated website suggests that the bar area can accommodate over 20 people. While these areas are not as evocative as the main dining areas, they still offer an appealing environment for dining in the event an advance reservation has not been made. Beyond the bar and related areas and closer to the entryway to the restaurant following the elevator ride, there is significant seating for drinks, etc. The bar area appears to offer opportunities in particular for last-minute visitors to sample FF’s cuisine. Alex Lee, executive chef at Daniel, was dining at the FF bar area on the night I visited.

The restaurant is located in a boutique hotel called Hotel Palomar. When I last checked, rates for a weekend night were relatively reasonable, beginning at around $199. Based on my review of the lobby, the hotel appeared relatively modern and to constitute a good resting place following a dinner at FF. Valet parking is available, at $12 approx. To access Hotel Palomar, one drives along Stockton towards the South, until one passes Market and Stockton in effect becomes Fourth Street. As there are no left turns onto Fourth from Market, diners should note that they are best off accessing the hotel using Stockton and following the street as it becomes Fourth St. The restaurant is indeed located on the Fifth Floor.

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