Monday, February 22, 2010

Debut of Frances Restaurant by Melissa Perello

Exquisite Interpretation of the Neighborhood Restaurant
3870 17th St., San Francisco
Castro neighborhood
PH: 415.621.3870
Open for dinner, Tue.–Sun., 5 to 10 p.m. (till 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Chef/Owner Melissa Perello just can’t seem to shake her fine-dining background. The young chef, who has helmed the kitchens of remarkable restaurants such as Charles Nob Hill and the Fifth Floor, has opened what is intended to be a casual family neighborhood restaurant in the city’s Castro district.

But the French-influenced dishes that come out of the kitchen of her new Frances restaurant – named after her grandmother – are far from casual. While they aspire to be simple and comforting, the dishes are beautifully plated and tantalizing to the taste buds.

This highly anticipated restaurant, which opened late last year, has garnered so much praise and attention that it’s nearly deafening. In fact, just last week Frances was named a semi-finalist in the Best New Restaurant category for the prestigious James Beard Awards for 2010.

With so much hype, it took a lot of control on my part to manage my expectations as I went to Frances for dinner with my friend Ken last week. (Making reservations via OpenTable have already become tricky with some weeks fairly open and others extremely tight. So the lesson with Frances reservations is to be flexible and grab anything you can at this point.)

The restaurant in the heart of the residential area of the Castro was once the home of a Hawaiian eatery and briefly a Filipino-fusion restaurant. The space isn’t very large, and that’s the first complaint you’ll probably hear about Frances. The tables along the wall are squeezed to get maximum seating and people waiting for a table crowd the tiny front area in what is probably a bar if you can see past the gathering.

The décor is contemporary and warm, with a high-end touch that gets a bit of whimsy from the funky letterings Frances uses for its signage and imprint on its daily changing menu.

The menu reflects the California trend of sustainable and market-driven dishes, and Chef Perello has designed it with an interesting starter category called bouchées – five small plates each priced at $6.50.

Ken zeroed in on the Panisse Frites or Crispy Chickpea Fritters served with a Meyer lemon aioli. Because I knew fritters would be deep-fried, I didn’t try Ken’s panisse frites. But given the happy sounds coming from each bite, I got a sense that Ken enjoyed it. (Note: I’m sure Frances probably use some kind of healthy vegetable oil to fry the fritters, but I still can’t get past the idea of something bathed in hot oil.)

Since I skipped the fritters, I ordered the Crisp Pork Trotters for myself (Ken’s seafood-vegetarian so I knew he wouldn’t touch this.) I couldn’t remember which part of the pig the trotters came from (I later found out it’s part of the feet) but I remember having them at other restaurants and they were always crunchy and fun to eat.

At Frances, the pork trotters was served like a crab cake, with the trotter formed into a disc and then pan-fried and served with a gribiche sauce and pickled baby vegetables. The plating was so beautiful (as was the tiny bowl) but I felt the trotter cakes didn’t really showcase the pig. While it tasted fine, to me it didn’t remind me of pork. Cute though.

We could have gotten a few other bouchées but instead wandered into the appetizer section that featured a soup, salad and gnocchi (and one other item). Ken went for the Roasted Parsnip Soup ($8), which was a smart choice because a lot of the early buzz has been for Perello’s seasonal soups.

The soup came in a bowl with a dollop of brown butter crème fraiche in the center sprinkled with bits of pink lady apple pieces. The waiter poured the parsnip soup at the table, but unlike other restaurants that serve soup tableside, the waiter here poured the soup directly onto the center mound of crème fraiche, ruining what I thought was a beautiful presentation. (At most restaurants I’ve seen soup poured around the bowl.)

I guess the waiter was helping Ken mix all the ingredients, but basically it just ruined the photo op for me. :( The soup just looked like a beige bowl of gloop, but Ken said he enjoyed the body of the parsnip soup and thought the contrasting tartness from the apples was a nice touch. I think he called it “delightful.”

I ordered the Local Dungeness Crab Salad with winter citrus and Star Route mizuna ($12). I knew that this simple salad of greens and citrus would be light because it has to be in order to showcase the subtle sweetness of the season’s Dungeness crab, and this salad delivered.

The salad looked refreshing and elegant, with a variety of citrus from blood oranges to an unusually orange citrus that was almost like kumquat in thickness and color but was too sweet to be kumquat. I appreciated the variety of interesting citrus selected to blend with the rest of the salad.

I had to uncover the mizuna to reveal the crab meat that was all hidden underneath. Even though it was hidden, there was no denying the crab was the star. The crab was cooked perfectly, tender and lightly seasoned to bring out the natural sweetness of the crab. The restraint in this dish is the true genius in serving crab because the natural flavor is so delicate that any kind of sauce would overpower it. So while this was a simple salad, it was also a “delightful” choice for me.

Moving to our entrees, Ken ordered the Caramelized Atlantic Scallops ($22). We debated for a bit on how many scallops he would get because while we both love scallops, restaurants often give you just a few pieces despite the high cost. I guessed three, and I was right. The three seared scallops laid across a pile of toasted farro, fava greens and wild mushrooms.

I’ve read others who felt what is offered in this dish is small for the $22 price tag, but Ken said the scallops were cooked perfectly and the hearty farro made the dish feel more substantial.

I ordered the Sonoma Duck Breast ($25) because you know my rule about seeing duck on the menu. The slices of almost rear duck breast were served with Contechino sausages that added a nice savory flavor. The duck also sat on a butter bean ragout (everyone seems to be serving beans these days) with sautéed escarole. Everything on the dish was cooked nicely, and I enjoyed the sauce that pulled it all together. What was also interesting for contrasting texture was what seemed like bits of croutons sprinkled on top that added a surprising crunch now and then.

Side note: Chef Perello can be seen at the window looking into the kitchen. She spent the night in the expeditor role, making sure dishes coming out from the kitchen looked perfectly plated and got to the right tables. I think it says a lot about the kitchen staff when the executive chef’s menu is executed so well without her in the kitchen.

We neared the end of our meal and as Ken and I looked over the dessert options, there weren’t anything that intrigued me. My rule with dessert is to go for something I probably can’t get anywhere else. So that means I generally skip the chocolate cakes or crème brulee options unless they’re made with a unique ingredient.

Ken and I decided to share the Chocolate Mousse because it came with a burnt caramel sauce and I’m all about burnt caramel right now. The plate, another beauty, came with three scoops of chocolate mousse each topped with a thin cookie with powdered sugar. The burnt caramel was underneath, but not liberally dousing the dish. Instead, its smoky flavor (that reminded me of coffee) was like accents to the balanced mousse that was not too dense but not too airy. It was an impressively restrained dessert that (for me) wasn’t too sweet. (I’ve read some food boards that said this dessert was too sweet.)

I haven’t written much about the wine selection at Frances because both Ken and I skipped drinking (I’m still on my wine cleanse). But Frances has a top-notch sommelier in Paul Einbund, formerly of the two Michelin-star Coi. Along with developing a strong list of wine, Einbund has created a house blend of red and white that’s sold for $1 per ounce. So you get a decanter of wine at the table and the server deducts how much you’ve drank to determine your total cost.

Our dinner, which lasted almost two hours, didn’t feel rushed or hurried. Frances’ servers are professional and friendly, and the food really shines despite the cramp quarters. (Along with the tight space, be prepared for a lot of noise. Ironically, I couldn’t hear over the din of buzz when talking to Ken across the table, but I could hear clearly the people talking sitting on both sides of me.)

With most hyped new restaurants in town, high expectations can dampen the experience because who can really live up to such standards. But at Frances with the talents of the kitchen headed by Perello, this is one overly hyped restaurant that rises to the occasion and meets the expectations head on.

Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (A Welcomed Addition)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Frances on Urbanspoon

Food paparrazi
After I was seated at my table at Frances, out of the corner of my eye I noticed Food Network Chef and Marin resident Tyler Florence in the house enjoying dinner with two others. Given Florence’s busy schedule (he’s developing three restaurants and expanding his retail empire with his stores and organic baby food line), I was surprised to see him having dinner out. But it says a lot about the buzz surrounding Frances that it’s become a destination restaurant for the Castro neighborhood (one the neighborhood has been needing for a long time).

Technical note: To all you camera nerds, this is the first restaurant review that all the photos were taken with my Canon DSLR Rebel camera using my new Canon EF 50mm fixed f/1.4 lens. I got this lens as a Christmas gift, and I’ve been testing using it out at restaurants. I love the photos I get in well-lit restaurants serving up small portions (the lens take really close up shots so it’s difficult to capture a large plate unless I back up a lot).

I don’t know how often I’ll use my big DSLR camera because it’s still a bit awkward to be holding up the camera and taking pictures in a restaurant. I’ll probably use it for restaurants that have an open layout (where the room is big and people won’t notice me as much) and when I’m dining alone (I can pretend to be playing with my camera) so I’m not embarrassing my dining partner. So most of my reviews will probably still use photos from my point-and-shoot Fuji. See if you can tell the difference.


Hungry Dog said...

Awesome review. I've been meaning to try this place but every time I go on Open Table there's nothing available. I have a cousin who waits tables there...maybe he can hook me up. Hey, if you saw a cute 20-something Asian waiter named Jonathan, that's my cuz!

Anyway, this sounds like a fabulous place worth the buzz. Funny that you saw TF ...and got a photo too!

Amy Sherman said...

Wait a minute, you won't eat something that is deep fried but you eat crispy pork trotters? Ben you crack me up!

Koozies can coolers said...

So great post ! I gor a lot of good info from u ! Thanks for sharing !

egg to the apples said...

beautiful header photo for this post, I love it!

Kim said...

I thought the same thing about the crispy pork trotters, Amy. Doesn't "crispy" equal "fried."

And I didn't know Tyler Florence lived in Marin. Cool.

Single Guy Ben said...

HD, I saw an Asian guy working the front but not waiting. Is that your cousin? If so, he's definitely your in for a table. ;-)

Amy/Kim, is that what you mean about the trotters? That's it's fried? Let me break it down: I don't like to eat DEEP fried things like French fries and fritters. But I don't mind other "fried" things like stir-fries and pan-fried dishes because the technique means less time spent immersed in oil. I just like to reduce my exposure to grease. But Amy, if you're saying that I don't eat fried stuff but will try weird animal parts, then, yeah, I love experimenting with food! You guys should go eat with me one time, so much to learn! :)

Eggs to Apples, thanks!

Carolyn Jung said...

Tyler Florence in the house!

OK, so how are crispy pigs trotters BETTER for you than fried chickpea fritters??? (Sorry, couldn't resist ribbing ya for your no-fried-foods rule). ;)

Heather @ The Single Dish said...

I love this food paparrazi, so funny!