At Frances, sometimes less is less

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.

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.

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.

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.

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