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Even the two most adventurous-sounding dishes on the menu were ones my picky 5-year-old nephew would have devoured. The first was the crisp pork trotters ($6.50) with sauce gribiche. Perello pressed shredded hock meat into two scallop-shaped cylinders, deep-fried them so the edges of the pellets crisped, and placed them on a smear of sauce, composed of infinitesimally minced shallots, egg, pickles, and caper. With its rustic twang, gribiche is a classic accompaniment for collagen-rich off cuts. But the acidity in Perello's sauce whispered instead of keened, which turned out to be fine, because the meat — which could have come from any part of the pig, really — whispered right back. The other false promise was the grilled asparagus salad ($10) with boar lardo (cured fat) and anchovies. If that doesn't sound like a dish that struts and sneers, I don't know what does. But it simpered prettily, with asparagus tips the size of an eyeliner pencil blanketed in mild, crunchy bits of ungamy meat, any flavor of cured fish subsumed by the vegetables.
The restaurant stirs up an internal squabble that continues to rage. The side of me that appreciates Frances for its many strengths argues that outrageous, inventive food is not what a neighborhood restaurant is supposed to do. The service, the wine program, the vibe, the prices, the straightforward, stripped-down California cuisine — it's everything you'd hope a place around the corner from your house would be.
The other, exasperated side counters: Is Frances a neighborhood restaurant, though? The wait for reservations now rivals those at Manresa and French Laundry.
3870 17th St.
San Francisco, CA 94114
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
The lover rebuts: Knocking the place for being successful isn't fair. That's just the way this food-obsessed town operates. Frances is no different from a dozen other restaurants San Francisco has beatified over the years — Globe, Range, Delfina — that have perfected modest food.
But the exasperated side wins out. How is Frances different, it wonders. Melissa Perello is a chef who has the all-too-rare ability to transcend the mechanics of cooking to express a point of view, to change the way we taste and think. Yet I struggle to recall the details of an entrée like the roast duck breast ($25) on beans with a few slices of sausage and a textbook reduction sauce. There wasn't a single unexpected tweak to make me think, oh, this is how the chef's brain works! How exciting! If I'm going to wait two months to get into a restaurant, I want to take away some memory of gratified surprise, some memory of unalloyed, gleaming pleasure. Whether or not she's working on a modest scale, Perello needs to give us a sense of her as an artist as well as a consummate artisan.