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The moment does not belong to the hotel restaurant. Five years ago, Campton Place, Michael Mina's eponymous restaurant at the St. Francis, and the Dining Room at Ritz-Carlton were all at the top of the podium, with another cluster of hotel restaurants standing a few heads lower. But the zeitgeist now belongs to smaller, more idiosyncratic restaurants. Last year, Michael Mina (the restaurant) decamped to California Street and left one of Mina's chain steakhouses in its place, and then, last week, Ritz-Carlton shut down the Dining Room, with plans to retool it as a more casual place.
That's not to say there aren't exceptions. One of them is Fifth Floor at the Palomar Hotel, where turnover in the kitchen has paradoxically kept the restaurant fresh. The newest chef is David Bazirgan, who earned a strong rep for his food at Baraka and Chez Papa Resto. But he joined Fifth Floor to attempt more elaborate stunts, spherifying yogurt and aerating carrot juice. In a hotel!
In fact, what brought me to Fifth Floor this month was reading about dishes of his that resemble what's happening at places very much of the moment, like Benu and Sons + Daughters. His ceviche of three clams (razor, geoduck, surf, $17) is of a piece with their food: Lime's needle-sharp acidity pierces the sweetness of the clams and stitches it together with the tiny diamonds of snow peas, cubes of compressed melon, and the spiced-citrus aroma of bergamot oil. Once you learn to avoid the teeth-cracking fried corn kernels, the ceviche has the shimmering quality of high tide at dawn. That spherified yogurt I mentioned? Quail-egg-shaped blobs of it, flavored with sumac and encased in a gel-like membrane, float in a smooth cucumber gazpacho. As each sphere gushes in the mouth, its tartness lights up the chilled soup, illuminating both the vegetal flavor of the cucumber peel and the toasted shallot and cumin in the vadouvan spice blend.
12 Fourth St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: South of Market
Bazirgan's food meanders through a global souk, picking up spices and herb blends from dozens of stalls: Moroccan ras al hanout on the lamb, Thai green curry with the duck. It's quite a shift from the last time I ate at Fifth Floor, when the Mediterranean purity of Melissa Perello's food whispered while the zebra-print carpet belted out Rodgers & Hart tunes.
The decor has shifted from Zsa Zsa Gabor's closet to private club, with dark woods on the walls and floor, curved beige leather chairs, and glowing circles of gold and orange lighting the room. The tablecloths are off, and the mood is more relaxed, too; for every woman in an Ann Taylor suit discussing the shareholders' interests there are two florid hotel guests in polo shirts and rumpled pants splitting a $150 bottle of Burgundy.
Fifth Floor's à la carte menu is divided into three savory courses and dessert, and Bazirgan also offers an $85, six-course tasting menu. With wine, both options will cost $120 and up. It takes a good 10 minutes to read the menu, plus another five for the young, well-tailored waiter to recite his favorites, arms outspread in evangelical bliss. Theatrical tendencies aside, he's on his game, and if you're drinking by the glass he'll come by, whispering about an extra bottle sommelier Amy Goldberger has opened in back, and would you like to taste a glass?
Desserts are a shade too flamboyant: A rum baba ($10), rounds of soft rum-soaked cake with braised pineapples, comes with a grainy kaffir-lime ice cream and basil seeds that swell into eyeball-looking pearls when soaked, but otherwise don't do much. The baked Alaska ($12) impresses table after table with meringue peaks covered in flaming brandy. But the blue flames disappear too soon to soften the layers of peach ice cream and crème fraîche sorbet at the center, and the spoons that come with the dish don't make for good chisels.
Focus instead on the second and third savory courses. The most exquisitely balanced dish I tasted at Fifth Floor was a lobster agnolotti, each frilled dumpling paired with a sweet-pea purée; a musky, transparent pane of guanciale (cured pork jowl); and a tuft of bright-orange carrot "air" bubbles that crumpled back into carrot juice in the mouth. There was also a tender hunk of pork shoulder, cooked sous-vide and paired with a crisp-skinned slice of pork belly ($30); the meat came with ground peanuts, ripe peaches, and a bourbon foam more essential to the dish than the tangle of sautéed mustard greens on the side. And a mild halibut filet ($31) took on richness from the olive oil it was poached in, holding its own against a green-olive caviar and two smeared stripes of a saffron and roasted-tomato sauce that tasted as vivid as it looked.
I didn't always sense the same intuitive brilliance in Bazirgan's food that makes Benu, Coi, and Commis so fascinating right now, but the food displays excellent technique and a wide-ranging intelligence. Then again, hotel restaurants are designed to awe rather than convey one chef's personal vision. Fifth Floor is certainly worthy of a impress-the-client dinner or a late-night, boozy anniversary dinner that finishes in one of the hotel rooms.
Attempting to lure in more locals, Fifth Floor's PR wing has been emitting releases about the chef's lounge menu with the frequency of Kardashian tweets. One of those lures is a suite of seasonally themed dishes on the bar menu — right now it's Cape Cod summer. While the clam cakes encrusted in panko are ephemeral, three snacks and two decent but not thrilling cocktails cost $75. We locals can pay less and do better at bars like Comstock Saloon and the Alembic.
One lounge special, though, is worth an afterwork detour: a shot of small-batch bourbon, a pint of beer, and a burger for $25. Encased in a high-domed bun the size of a navel orange, the medium-rare hamburger, leaching pink juices, is clearly made of well-aged beef, with that grassy, robust gaminess that hints at lamb. The moment for burgers in this town is still peaking, and for the moment, Fifth Floor's is one of the best.