Sunday, March 11, 2012

Dinner @ Fifth Floor

Late on Friday afternoon, one of my co-workers mentioned that we had some visitors from Tokyo in town, and suggested that we do a team dinner.  Of course, my help was enlisted to pick a suitable place and book it.  This was quite the task, as there would be ~14 people, and Tokyo is known for its fine cuisine.  And after a quick poll, we determined that Tuesday was the only night everyone could attend.  Where would I possibly find a good place on such short notice?

Luckily, I have a master list of places that might be good for groups or private dining, and on Monday afternoon, I spent a few minutes calling around.  Many places were not open on Mondays and thus were immediately ruled out as I couldn't get in touch with anyone.  Most others only had availability at 5pm or 10pm.  But, somehow, the Fifth Floor had their private room available, which could seat 14 people, and because it was for a slow Tuesday, they'd let us order a la carte.  And their online menu sounded fantastic, and I've been wanting to go for quite a while, as their new-ish executive chef has been getting good reviews, and their pastry chef has won a bunch of awards recently (and I got to see him do a cooking demo and sample his food at a cooking demo a few weeks ago, where he made the best beignets I'd ever had!)

Unfortunately, the meal didn't live up to my expectations.  Some of the dishes I was most excited about from the online menu were not actually available (which I totally understand, boring winter vegetables had been switched out for asparagus and more seasonal items).  But overall, while the food was all fine, it just wasn't anything special, and certainly not justified for the price point.

The private room was the perfect fit for us, sectioned off from the main dining room, and providing us the ability to do our own thing (read: be dressed like software engineers and not like the rest of the clientele!). Service was ok, with bread and water readily replenished, and plates all brought out at once for the table.

There were a bunch of little missing things that did surprise me however, given the price point and reputation of the restaurant - no palette cleanser before desserts, no napkin refolding when I left for the bathroom, no share plates offered when people mentioned splitting dishes, very long waits between courses, crappy bread service, desserts brought before coffee/tea/dessert wines, etc.  No major offenses, but these added up to make the experience not feel nearly as smooth as I'd expect.  Perhaps it was mostly due to being in the private room, but I'm not sure.

Overall, the food was ... fine.  No clear execution issues, but nothing was particularly good, and I certainly feel no need to go back (except that I do want to try their burger sometime, served only in the lounge).  Several dishes had some pretty serious issues with over salting.  The sauces were the highlight of most of the dishes.  The menu was designed as 4 courses (2 appetizer style, 1 entree, 1 dessert), and I arranged to share with a few neighbors, each of us ordering different 4 courses, so I got to try 12 different dishes, plus the amuse and extra desserts.  That is more than 2/3 of the menu, so I'm pretty sure I got a pretty representative sample of the menu!  Also: very full!

Bread and butter.
The bread was sourdough, very sour, with a nice crust and decent chew to it, but pretty mediocre.  Served cold.  Placed on our plates without any word.  Butter was creamy, sweet, and actually quite good, with a little salt on top.  I really didn't care for this bread at all.  For a restaurant of this caliber, I expected choices and/or warm bread ... something.

Amuse bouche: Carrot foam and blood orange granita.
This was a really strange choice for an amuse.  The foam didn't really taste like carrot and I would have never identified it as such if they hadn't told us it was.  The granita did have a citrus flavor to it.  The contrast of the cold granules of granita and the soft foam was interesting, but this lacked any real interesting flavors and seemed really out of place.  It would be more appropriate as a palette cleanser before dessert, or perhaps between courses.

We waited a very long time before our first course, with it arriving well over an hour after we sat down.  Granted, we took a while to order, but this felt pretty extreme, particularly the time between the amuse and the first course.

Kanpachi Taradito: jalapeno, rhubarb, cilantro, puffed rice.  $17.
The fish was decent quality, firm, not fishy, but the sushi restaurants I go to tend to have much higher quality raw fish.  The fish didn't have much flavor itself, and I didn't really pick up on any of the accents on the plate, no jalapeno or rhubarb really showing through.  This was also way too salty.

Island Creek Oysters Five Ways: béarnaise & caviar, fried with rouille, cucumber, chowder, mignonette.  $20.
There was a classic oyster with mignonette, a warm baked oyster with béarnaise sauce, a fried oyster with rouille sauce, a chowder shooter, and a raw oyster with cucumber granita.  A bunch of people at the table ordered this, and all were fairly unsatisfied, agreeing that the best one was the classic preparation.  I had only the baked oyster.  It was lukewarm and had way too much béarnaise that completely masked the oyster.  It was basically just a bunch of not very flavorful béarnaise and was overly salty.

Mariscos a la Vasca: heart of palm, leek, caviar, salsa verde.  $17.
This dish was an assortment of cooked seafood, including calamari, crab, baby squid, mussels.  It was served warm and the seafood was all cooked nicely, nothing rubbery or tough.  The heart of palm was the most interesting, stuffed with something.  The salsa verde didn't have much flavor.  No flavors really stood out here, and although I can't complain about how anything was cooked, there was really just nothing interesting going on here.

And that concluded course one.  I found the format of this meal to be a little strange, the waiter telling us that we should all get four courses, and that the first set was mostly salad style, then more standard appetizers, then mains, then desserts, but I think this was way too much food and we really could have combined the first two courses.

Hot and Cold Foie Gras: kiwi, hazelnut, vin jaune, vadouvan, broiche.  $22.
My favorite dish of the evening.  And no, I'm not sick of foie gras yet!  There was a seared chunk of foie gras, two slices of a house made terrine, kiwi three ways: a slice of kiwi and two different kiwi sauces, toasted hazelnuts, and some small slices of toasted brioche.  I really liked the thicker kiwi sauce and thought it complimented the foie gras beautifully, both in terms of the texture and flavor, with its sweetness balancing out the richness of the foie.  The seared piece was pretty standard, creamy, but not very flavorful or warm (perhaps this is just a negative side effect of group dining).  The weakest seared foie gras I've had anywhere recently.  The terrine was creamy and flavorful, fairly mild, perhaps my favorite terrine that I have had.  The hazelnuts didn't really add anything.  A piece of brioche, spread with some of the terrine, a tiny slice of fresh kiwi, and dunked in kiwi sauce was was pretty fantastic.  I really, really liked that kiwi sauce, and found myself eating up a bunch of the extra bread that I didn't care for, just to dunk it in the sauce once my other components ran out and sauce remained on the plate.

Mendocino Uni Flan: dungeness crab, saffron, sichuan pepper, kaffir lime.  $15.
This was the dish I was most excited about heading into the meal.  I've been on a serious uni kick lately, craving it nonstop, even though I've had it in a slew of preparations, such as standard nigiri at a bunch of sushi restaurants (Kiss Seafood, Ryoko's), as a side with kampachi at Michael Mina, in risotto at Chotto, and even served with quail egg in a "Spoonful of Happiness" at Koo or with oysters, roe, and gold leaf at Kabuto.  In particular, I've been really into different uni custard dishes lately, like the warm egg custard topped with uni at Commonwealth and the uni crème brûlée at Quince.

This dish was a creamy uni pudding, with little bits of rutabega, topped with more uni, a few small chunks of crab, and a foam.  The pudding had a fairly strong uni flavor and was a nice consistency, but I preferred both the flavor and consistency of the uni crème brûlée at Quince.  The crunchy bits of rutabega were unexpected and I enjoyed them for the textural contrast.  The extra uni and crab chunks were welcome additions, both things I always enjoy, although not particularly noteworthy (the uni wasn't that creamy or flavorful, the crab wasn't that sweet).  I am not really sure what the foam was.  Overall, an interesting dish for sure, and I enjoyed it.

Not pictured was the final dish I tried in round 3: Brillat-Savarin Ravioli, with hedgehogs, sage, brown butter, pistou, hazelnuts, sylvetta.  $14.  This was a dish that the Yelpers all rave about, and sounded amazing ... ravioli stuffed with a triple cream?  ZOMG!  The pasta was well cooked and the cheese creamy as expected.  I love wild mushrooms, so I liked those as well.  I only got a bite of this however, not enough to base a full review on.  I'd love to try it again to get a better sense.

Butter Poached Maine Lobster: riesling, brassicas, cara cara, nigella seeds, fines herbs. $42
This looked awesome.  I loved how they reassembled the lobster meat.  So cute.  Unfortunately, it looked better than it tasted, particularly the lobster (I tend to feel this way about lobster ... I think perhaps I just don't like lobster that much since I've been spoiled by really good local Dungeness crab, which is just so much more flavorful).  The lobster meat was on the rubbery side and lacked any real flavor (besides the butter from being poached in it).  Also on the plate was an assortment of winter vegetable slices, some of which were pickled and really vinegary (which was a strange pairing with the warm lobster) and some of which were just sauteed in more butter and sauce.  These veggies were really well cooked and I gobbled them up, particularly the little cabbages.  There was also a creamy sauce on the plate that was quite delicious, that I soaked up with my leftover bread.

Leftover lobster meat - > lobster slider!
Protip: I ended up bringing some of this home as I was getting completely stuffed at this point and wasn't loving this dish, and really wanted to save room for dessert.  I re-purposed it the next day as a lobster roll and it was amazing.  I simply chopped up the cold lobster meat, which was already covered in butter and delicious sauce, added some mayo, chopped celery, onion, and cucumber and threw it on a toasted and buttered a brioche bun.  It was really delicious and a thousand times better than how it was served at the restaurant.  Which ... perhaps makes sense given all the butter and mayo.

Roasted Venison Loin: pain d' epices, celery root, pear, foi gras, chestnut, venison jus.  $35.
Wow, a lot going on on this plate.  Two types of powders, a foam, a sauce.  The venison was really tender and flavorful and not at all gamey.  The chestnut and the celery root were both very crunchy and I didn't really like them.  I guess the flavors paired ok with the venison, but they were hard to cut and just not that interesting.  The crostini was delicious, with a rich molasses flavor that complimented the foie gras in one of the powders and in the foam.  While the venison was good, my favorite part was certainly just topping the crostini with the assorted sauces/foams/powders.  And once I ran out of crostini, using my leftover bread to lap up the sauce.  Are we noticing a theme here?  They have a good saucier!

Roasted Black Bass: sunchoke, baby fennel, black olive, satsuma, cabernet-honey vinaigrette.  $31.
This was a very nicely cooked piece of fish.  Tender, flaky, and with an amazingly crispy skin.  Seriously, the skin was delicious.  I also enjoyed the cooked baby fennel.  I was drawn to this dish as opposed to the other seafood dishes on the menu because I like olive tapanade and those sorts of mediterranean flavors with seafood, and this had those components, although not quite as strongly as I would have liked.  There was something way too salty in one of the sauces, but like the other main dishes, it did have one delicious, flavorful sauce with it, which I again soaked up with my bread.  My notes from the evening list this delicious sauce several times :)

Protip: I also ended up taking a little of this home with me, and I was surprised by how well it reheated, just in the toaster oven at 400 degrees for a few minutes.  I was seriously skeptical that it would be worth even trying to reheat, but it stayed moist and tender and even more amazingly, the skin stayed crispy.

And that concluded our entrees.  Next up: desserts!  I was so, ridiculously full at this point (and a little annoyed at the waiter for stressing that everyone should order four courses as they were sized designed in that way.  This was a ton of food, and I didn't think ANY of the portions were really downsized to tasting menu style.  Which is what I had read on Yelp beforehand, but both the waiter and other staff I talked to said to order this much ...).  But, I love dessert and I'd heard so many great things about the pastry chef, there was no way I was skipping this course!

Service flopped here a little.  The desserts arrived before the after dinner drinks.  I like to have my bitter coffee WITH my dessert to balance out the sweetness.  The decaf coffee was actually really good, served in an individual french press.  I sorta didn't believe it was decaf!

Turon of Banana: black sesame, cherimoya sorbet, calamansi curd, banana pudding.  $12.
I didn't entirely know what I was ordering ... what is a turon?  (Answer: a Philippine snack of fried banana filled spring rolls!)  What is calamansi? (Answer: a citrus fruit).  I enjoyed the little spring roll chunks, filled with warm, sugary, caramelized banana.  The calamansi curd was just meh and the cherimoya sorbet was mostly just sweet and didn't compliment the other flavors on the dish.  I didn't taste any black sesame, but I think it was in the artful drizzle on the plate.  I'm not sure what the crisp was, but it was basically a little cookie that I used to scoop up the drops of banana pudding, which was pretty tasty.  In fact, I probably would have preferred a bowl of that on its own.  While I liked the little drops of pudding and the spring rolls, they weren't that special, and I wouldn't get this again.

Roasted Apple Cake: Calvados mousseline, hibiscus sorbet, pine nut nougatine, buddha’s hand confit. $12.
The star of this dish was the hibiscus sorbet.  It was sweet but had a really nice flavor.  The apple cake was really, really forgettable.  Just some slices of kinda mushy apple, with a little flavorless cream, and some pine nuts.  Also on the plate was some fairly tasty budha's hand confit and some fried strands of something.

Milk Chocolate Mousse Bombe: passion fruit curd, green tea génoise, chestnut ice cream, chestnut purée, passion fruit glass.  $12.
I only had a bite (ok, two bites) of this, since it belonged to my neighbor who made it very clear that he didn't want to share.  I tried to bargin with my apple cake or banana dessert, but wasn't very successful. This was a chocolately mousse, covered in a thick chocolate layer.  The mousse was creamy and delicious.  The green tea genoise was also awesome, with a fantastic green tea flavor.  If I could handle caffeine in the evenings, or if my neighbor had been willing to give me more, I'd gladly have consumed much more of this!  Far and away the best dessert.

This was a little awkward.  They brought 3 of these stands of assorted little bites for the table.  Each stand had 6 items on it.  There were 13 of us, with some people being fairly close friends and others co-workers who we had just met.  There was cultural politeness going on.  And everyone was stuffed.  So no one was really touching them.  It was killing me, even though I was stuffed and had just consumed all the other desserts, I could resist these.  So, I got to have them all.  You snooze, you loose folks!

There were two chocolate truffles, one rolled in nuts and the other in cocoa powder.  They were both creamy and flavorful and really quite good.  I've had a ton of chocolates lately (particularly in the past few days since going to the SF Chocolate Salon) and these were better than most of the fresh truffles I've had.

Then there was a gelee of some sort and a mexican wedding cookie/russion tea cake/buttery nutty shortbread rolled in powdered sugar.  The gelee was just sweet and I couldn't identify what flavor it was.  Meh.  The cookie was quite delicious, with tons of butteryness and nuttyness, and of course incredibly sweet from the powdered sugar.  It went very well with my coffee.

Finally, there was a lemon bar and a pecan bar.  The lemon layer was sweet and had a strong tart lemon flavor, served on top of a shortbread.  It was decent, but not really my sort of thing.  The pecan bar was awesome, like a little tiny pecan pie.

These were a great ending to the meal!
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