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At Frances, her five-month-old Castro restaurant, chef-owner Melissa Perello's food is a Danish modern table: serene, beautifully designed, populist, simple. There are no flourishes, only the best materials. The craftsmanship is exquisite, the intentions pure. Frances is that rare restaurant that achieves everything it sets out to be.
3870 17th St.
San Francisco, CA 94114
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
Yet it leaves me feeling conflicted.
Before I start processing feelings, let's synchronize restaurant gossip: Have you heard about Perello, who became the executive chef of Charles Nob Hill at the age of 25, then the chef of Fifth Floor a few years later? And did you catch all the buzz over how she took a few years off, leased a little Castro space that has been cursed since the mid-1970s, and revamped it into a neighborhood bistro with nary an item over $25? Did you know Frances was nominated for the James Beard Award for best new restaurant within a couple of months of its December 2009 opening? Have you heard that it now takes three months to get a primetime reservation? No joke: The host confirmed it on the phone.
The buzzrush was so powerful and so enduring that I finally let it wash me into Frances, though by that time it took a month and some extraordinary measures to dine there. Once, I waited outside before opening hour to score a walk-in spot at the bar. Another time, I ate so late that my meal qualified as both second dinner and first breakfast.
And from the light bacon beignets ($6.50) that began the first meal to the chocolate mousse with salted caramel sauce ($7.50) that ended the last, Perello confirmed the impression I left Fifth Floor with years ago: that she is one of the city's most subtle, precise technicians. Take a simple snack like her panisse frites ($6.50) — a chickpea-flour porridge she conjures into a solid, cuts into rectangles, and deep-fries. You can pick up a frite with your fingers, feel its solidity and the sandy crust grating against your lips as you bite in, and all of a sudden, spell broken, it turns back into porridge.
Instead of paying $40,000 for culinary school, aspiring chefs should spend $22 on an order of scallops just to see how they should be cooked, their outer edges deeply caramelized by a smoking pan, their insides translucent and sweet. The spring vegetables that accompanied the scallops were just as perfectly cooked — tender artichoke hearts the size of rosebuds, leeks tamed of their spiky pungency, creamy potato coins. Perello's bavette steak ($23) belonged in a classroom of how medium rare beef should look. If I could keep a few copies of the satiny squid ($6.50) she served one night (tossed with wavy-edged arugula, finely shaved rings of fennel, and pickled currants), I'd send them to a few cooks in town who still need to learn that calamari and silicone mitts should have different textures. Perello is the chef I'd entrust to cook my grandmother's liver if I were forced to eat it.
And all this culinary technique, of course, is applied to — let's see, what boilerplate hyperbole can I insert here? — ingredients still perfumed with the breath of the farmer who delivered them to her door that afternoon, with supporting ingredients from local artisans like Humphry Slocombe and 4505 Meats.
Sommelier Paul Einbund, who came to Frances from Coi, brings an equal mastery to the wine program: five or six dozen bottles, mainly European, divvied up into sensible categories like "Versatile dry whites" and "Oh aren't they sweet." What has wine geeks from both coasts sniffing around the place are his house wines, which Einbund currently blends with the CORE Wine Company and brings in by the barrel, decanting them into carafes marked with two-ounce measures (he charges $1 an ounce). Right now he's pouring wines from the same vineyards in the Sierra foothills: a Vermentino-heavy blended white and a deep-hearted Syrah blend, both simple and fresh, that make up for their newness with just the right amount of acidity and, in the Syrah, spice.
The servers, too, hit the right tone for a neighborhood restaurant — not afraid to kibitz a little when they see you're open to it, but respectful of your time and your time with your tablemates. Even when I'd catch them standing still, they were quietly surveying their brood, flashing into motion the moment they spotted something I wouldn't have detected.
So why was I left wanting more?
Because, for all Frances' skill and polish, there was a curiously anonymous quality to the place. I could see it in the decor as well as the food: The architects brought in more light, hid the kitchen away, and gave the narrow space the rudiments of style — cream-colored walls, dark wood banquettes and tables, black-and-white-photos. Now it looks like the backdrop to a Banana Republic photo shoot.
Similarly, I kept feeling like Perello hid behind her ingredients and took no risks, either on the composition of the dishes or the flavors within them. Back up a second to that perfectly cooked bavette steak, for instance: It was served with blanched cipollini whose mild allium sweetness barely registered, and a vividly green chimichurri sauce that made not the slightest impact on the flavor of the meat. Minimalist to the extreme.
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