Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Return Visit to Frances in San Francisco

This is an occasional report on return visits to restaurants that I’ve already reviewed.

Can this Neighborhood Spot Live Up to Perfection?
3870 17th St., San Francisco
Castro neighborhood
PH: 415.621.3870
Open for dinner, Tue.–Sun., 5–10 p.m. (till 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
($1.50 per person San Francisco health surcharge added to bill)

Original visit: February 2010

One of my favorite new restaurants is Chef Melissa Perello’s Frances, which has redefined dining out in the city’s Castro neighborhood. Opened for almost a year, it has garnered every major magazines’ “Best New Restaurant” accolades, and recently was awarded a Michelin star.

Frances’ popularity has made it difficult to get a reservation, often requiring a booking two months in advance. That’s exactly what I did two months ago when I randomly picked a date for a future reservation, and last Saturday my reservations finally arrived and I returned for dinner with my friend Hector.

We arrived for our 8:15 p.m. reservations and were quickly seated at our tiny table, squeezed in with others along the wall. I had forgotten how tight the space can be, and also how loud. At the peak of a Saturday night, the chatter around us was deafening, making it difficult to chat with each other.

We dove into Perello’s seasonal menu, which continues to highlight local ingredients in a few select dishes, starting with tiny starters called bouchees to just four large plates.

Unlike me, Hector has no problems eating deep-fried foods, so he started with the Applewood Smoked Bacon Beignets ($6.50), which were five golden brown balls served with a maple crème fraiche and chive dip. Hector said he enjoyed it but didn’t get much of the bacon or maple flavor. I tried a tiny bit and the beignet texture seemed dense but still light, and I felt the chive dip had more of a seaweed flavor for some reason. It was good but didn’t seem to taste like how it was advertised.

I ordered the Comice Pear Salad ($11), which was built on a plate of escarole and mustard greens. You probably can’t see the pear pieces, but they were warm and were mostly hidden under the greens. The pear was nice and sweet, but the overall salad was overdressed. Every green leaf was covered in the vinaigrette with pancetta, and it just seemed to mask the natural flavors of the various ingredients.

Chef Perello does a wonderful job of mixing textures, like the crispy shallots added to the salad, which included the unusual flavors of mustard greens. Still, nothing could save the salad from the drenching.

I should note that Chef Perello did not seem to be working on this Saturday night. She often can be seen expediting the dishes coming out from the kitchen, which means she keeps a keen eye on the quality of each plate. But without her at the gate, I think the kitchen was slacking as evident by the salad and my main course.

I went with the California Black Cod ($25), which was served with its crispy skin and placed on top of a pile of roasted red kuri squash puree and what seemed like regular mashed potatoes. The dish also had a sauce of melted leeks and some chanterelles. Again with the texture, Perello adds crispy greens (that looked like kale or spinach) as a garnish, which I thought was a nice touch.

The cod was good, but seemed a bit overcooked. And then while I enjoyed the mash of squash and potatoes underneath, it seemed like the sauce made everything soggy and slightly greasy because my stomach felt uneasy afterwards. Something about the plate was just off as my stomach was telling me all night.

Hector did fairly better with his Five Dot Ranch Bavette Steak ($26), which was cooked per his request of medium rare. It did look good and he really liked the butter beans served with the meat, but he felt the meat was a tad more medium than rare.

We ended our night with the Quince Upside-Down Cake ($7.50) just because we both liked the idea of trying this season’s quince. The cake was served with some fresh huckleberries and a chantilly cream. The cake had the consistency of a pound cake, and wasn’t super sweet, so I liked it. But the cream had an odd sour flavor that I didn’t enjoy. Hector thought it was supposed to offset the cake’s sweetness, but I just felt the two didn’t work well together on the plate.

Side note: Hector tried the house red wine, which since the restaurant opened has been served in the unique price point of $1 per ounce. A carafe of wine is brought to the table with measurements on the side. At the end of the meal, the server sees how much wine is left and charges you for the balance. Hector liked the wine but thought it had a light body. He still ended up drinking eight ounces.

On my return to Frances, I continue to be impressed by the creativity of the menu developed by Chef Perello. The charm of the restaurant’s décor still makes this one of the most comfortable and stylish spots in town. But my latest dinner – on a Saturday night no less – makes me think that there may be some chinks in Perello’s highly buzzed armor. It seems that when she’s not watching the kitchen, her staff can be a bit off, which is a shame given Frances’ young reputation.

Update experience (previously 4.25 stars): Hate to do it but I’m going to have to knock off a quarter star, giving Frances a revised 4 stars. It’s still a remarkable restaurant but needs to maintain its consistency in the execution of Perello’s dishes.

Frances on Urbanspoon


Kim said...

Wine by the ounce? That seems really weird.

Grubjunkie said...

Kim, the wine by the ounce thing is great. You get to decide how much you want. So for example, sometimes you just want another half glass or so when the bottle is done. In most places you'd have to order a whole glass. Plus, you don't have to flag down a server, they automatically refill the carafe when it's empty.

foodhoe said...

I haven't dined there yet and already they're going downhill... Mr. K and I will have to visit tho, we loved her Monday nite dinners at Sebo.

Carolyn Jung said...

I finally made it to Frances. I loved it! The wine program is so fun. I wish more places would serve their house wines in a marked carafe and let you pay by the ounce like that.