Considering Manny Torres Gimenez’s past as the mover and shaker behind Mission pop-up Mr. Pollo and Roxy’s Cafe — and his stints in the kitchen at A16, Coi, SPQR, and Quince — it’s surprising that his newest endeavor, Francisca’s, opened so quietly a little less than two months ago in the highly visible Mission-and-Cesar-Chavez location that used to be the Palace Steakhouse.
Named for Francisca de Torres, Gimenez’s grandmother, it’s clearly intended to elevate rustic fare with a wide range of culinary influences — rooted in his native Venezuela — with the same slightly off-the-cuff approach that characterized the quasi-gonzo, four-courses-for-$20 tasting menu at Mr. Pollo. (Even at Roxy’s, to which he moved after the landlord tried to jack up Mr. Pollo’s rent, it was only $25 for four courses and $75 for 10. At those prices, you can’t expect more than a jubilant sense of wackiness and a lot of experimentation.) Francisca’s, however, is a lot of buck for the bang, even when — from the pours of wine to the truffles that the kitchen might come out to ladle onto an entree, unannounced — there’s a generosity of spirit that’s almost boundless.
To start with the flair of Caracas, an $18 chicken arepa wasn’t particularly flavorful, although that might be because of the meat to which the server steered us. (We should have gone with pork.) The avocado felt grafted on, while the cheese, cilantro, and tomato that provided balance and backbone only muted the meat further.
The Sonoma foie gras with duck-orange marmalade on brioche ($29), which came out as a mega-portion, led to a playful disagreement at the table between one side who thought it lacked sufficient structure and the opposing team — me — that determined that it brought out a certain sensuousness in a way that a brute clash of textures might make too obvious.
A wild arugula salad ($13) came with an unusual quantity of cooked mushrooms, which gnawed into the apple-cider vinaigrette in the right way. Between the eggs and the gold leaf, the tuna tartare ($18) felt like it time-traveled from 1988, but the taste was certainly contemporary and on point: nice and salty with a slow-burning heat. The texture, too, was elegant, dodging that creamy-on-creamy vibe that can mire down a serving of roe — in this case, Atlantic capelin — that wants you to know it’s special.
Pasta dominates the central part of the menu, with a fettucine ($26) made with Maine lobster and ginger coconut milk being the star. I loved it for its unorthodoxy, and while a pasta carbonara ($15) is nearly always spaghetti, this portion was rigatoni, nicely cooked and full of guanciale. The egg yolks enhanced the creaminess and the black pepper brought in a cacio-e-pepe quality.
But the California pot of gold (a rice and ginger-coconut curry, $17) was an overcooked mystery — “approaching the texture of congee,” one table-mate said. Whereas ginger-coconut made the fettucine a smash, here, it somehow felt like a slightly nicer version of a Trader Joe’s Indian meal for one.
As with the arepa, the Mary’s half-chicken ($15) was understated, a sort of obligatory nod to Latin American rotisserie that struggled to find any identity. But then the truffles got spooned on, and it all zoomed to the stratosphere.
Unfortunately, the thing that really mars a dinner here is a sense of amateurishness that’s wholly incongruous with entrees that bump up against the $30 mark. There is no computer system, and while it’s hardly a mortal sin to present hand-written diner-pad checks to patrons, one gets the impression of barely controlled chaos even when Francisca’s is only a little more than half-full. I overheard the staff apologizing left and right, with supervisors coaching their subordinates in the art of placating annoyed people with the offer of a free drink.
As I’ve written before, I’m reluctant to ding busy, still-pretty-new-ish restaurants for minor shortcomings in the service realm — I don’t like hearing myself sound like some entitled Yelper, and I’ve worked in the service industry long enough to know how hard it is — but the errors really mounted here. Piles of uncleared dirties and long gaps between courses are forgivable, but at Francisca’s, they were just the beginning — and, in this context, the house practice of pouring ginormous glasses of wine starts to look unprofessional rather than hospitable.
I lost track of the objects that clattered to the floor. On one visit, while seated at the bar, a staffer stood in front of me and my dining mate polishing racks of glassware for a very long time. (It was intrusive, and there’s plenty of space in the back near the restroom for a discreet side-work station.) Worse, someone dropped something into the sink and a big, sudsy dollop of dishwater landed on my companion’s plate.
“Just water,” the employee said, which was demonstrably false.
Worst of all, you can easily get smoked out in there. It was only moderately noticeable on one visit but, halfway through another, the kitchen started generating uncontrolled fumes under the hood, so that even the recessed lights in the far side of the dining room were shining through thick clouds. Unless it’s, say, Yamo, I don’t want to smell like grease when I leave a restaurant.
Gimenez acquired a cult following for the impossibly cheap prix fixe at Mr. Pollo — and, in fact, at Francisca’s, the tasting is a family-style, four-course, chef’s choice affair for $65 — but in order to keep the bewitching quality alive, there’s work to be done.
Francisca’s, 3047 Mission St., 415-347-5747 or franciscassf.com