Several interim chefs have come and gone at Fifth Floor, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner, since Melissa Perello left in late 2006. The other shoe finally dropped this week, as chef-consultant Laurent Manrique, chef of the Aqua restaurants, named Jennie Lorenzo as the day-to-day chef de cuisine. Lorenzo was the opening sous chef at Ame, Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani's San Francisco restaurant.
Manrique plans to install a Gascon menu when the restaurant reopens in mid-February, after a brief remodel. He is from Gascony, and says he was struck by the similarities he saw between California and Gascony when he arrived here in San Francisco to cook at Aqua.
"Gascon cooking is the home cooking for Bordeaux, and California's most famous wines are Cabernet Sauvignons, which is the prime grape of Bordeaux, so it makes perfect sense," says Manrique, whose wine credentials are strong. He is a partner in wineries in California and Spain.
For Fifth Floor's re-opening, Manrique will play host to Jean-Pierre Xiradakis, whose La Tupina restaurant is a fixture in Bordeaux. I have fond memories of sitting in the glow of La Tupina's gigantic fireplace while Xiradakis sautéed cèpes in duck fat. The new design of the restaurant will feature several of his writings on French and his paintings, which Manrique swears remind him of Northern California.
The menu will include Chataîgnes, Manrique’s homage to chef Jean-Louis Palladin, a chestnut soup with poultry "quenelles," prosciutto and pistachio, and such dishes as La Cruchade et Civet (polenta and rabbit stew) and Poule au Pot (poached chicken, foie gras stuffing, broth and herbed vermicelli). There will be duck confit.
"We will have to lighten up the food for California tastes," Manrique hastens to add, "but I want to keep the bold flavors and the style of Gascony as much as possible."
Manrique wants to expand Fifth Floor's wine list, currently at 1,500 labels, particularly in Bordeaux and in California wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, but also in other wines from Gascony and environs, such as Jurançon, Madiran and Cahors.
Selling those less-familiar wines will be a challenge for Emily Wines, who will continue as Fifth Floor's sommelier. But she and Manrique have a secret plan.
"I want to do a chef's menu with a wine for each course, but with a twist," he tells me. "I asked Emily, 'What if you come to me with an interesting wine tasting, and I come with the food to match to the wines?' I think it's a shame the wine is always coming second."
To emphasize the wine connection, the new design will have a showcase wine cellar in the dining room. The restaurant will also be divided into two sections. The tables around the bar will be for drop-ins only, and will feature a more casual menu than the dining room.
A fireplace, however, is not part of the plan. "The San Francisco Fire Department is less flexible than the one in Bordeaux," Manrique laughs.
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