Although San Francisco is regarded as one of the most exciting dining destinations in America, The Castro is not a neighborhood that often comes to mind. Just a few blocks from the epicure Mission district, in a quiet, dark corner of 17th street, is a newly opened neighborhood restaurant that promises to light up the local dining scene. And attract Bay Area foodies like moths to the broiling flames.
The small dining room has a lineup of sixteen narrow tables arranged closely together like a Parisian coffee shop. Diners squeeze in with an economy-class-like proximity that may upset the eventual claustrophobe. But the charming atmosphere and stellar service more than make up for it. And when you’re eating well, suddenly nothing else matters. When was the last time you complained about personal space while dining in Paris?
On the walls, black & white prints depicting vegetables and fruits look like artful x-rays of edible flora. Perhaps a nod to the chef’s celebration of local ingredients.
Behind Frances is the talented Melissa Perello; a multi-award-winning rising star chef that once headed the fine dining kitchens of Charles Nob Hill and Fifth Floor.
Perello serves New American fare with local ingredients and Franco-Italian inspiration. Portion sizes are just right, especially if you order four courses. Begin with bouchés, small size starters ideal for sharing; there are five to choose from ($6.50 each). Four appetizers ($8 to $11), four entrées ($17 to $23) and 3 sides ($6 each) may not seem like a lot of options for an à la carte menu, especially if you plan on a few returning visits. But everything I had was really good. So good in fact, I was happy to have it once more.
While bread is served upon request, Rosemary, sage almonds start every meal.
From the bouchés, Applewood smoked bacon beignets, crème fraîche & chives. Who says you can’t deep-fry bacon? These savory little fritters are crispy and tasty. Definitely a good start.
Panisse frites, crispy chickpea fritters, Meyer lemon aioli. A thin, crispy crust is all that is between you and this creamy snack. Perfect for sharing — although you may not want to.
Grilled calamari, Musque de Provence pumpkin, preserved lemon & currants. A light salad with perfectly cooked calamari.
From the appetizers, Roasted winter squash soup, maple scented crème fraîche. A smooth soup with nicely balanced flavors.
Semolina gnocchi, duck confit and braised cavolo nero. Pan seared for a lovely golden crust, the dumplings are beautifully complemented by tender duck and black-leaf kale.
Chicken liver mousse, frisée, currants and toasted bread. This is the kind of appetizer that has a curious blinding effect on me — the type that makes me ignore all the surrounding dishes. “Order me, order me.”, I hear it whispering me from me menu. It took me 2 visits and a canceled reservation to finally try Perello’s CLM. It was worth it. Served in a quenelle, it has the delectable texture of a semifredo and a complex flavor with hints of red wine and a delicate sweetness. Like Range’s, an appetizer so good you can have it for dessert.
From the entrées, Grilled bavette steak, cipollini onions, green garlic “chimichurri”. This fibrous cut of meat is marinated and sliced across the grain to achieve the tenderness of more noble beef. The result is a flavorful steak, here complemented by sweet onions and drizzled with a fresh take on the classic Argentinean sauce—originally made with parsley.
Caramelized Atlantic scallops, creamy fingerling potatoes, wild mushrooms. Simply put, one of the best scallop dishes I ever had. The sweet mollusks are combined with the earthiness of the mushrooms, a hearty sauce and finished with delicate herbs.
Sonoma duck breast, butter bean ragout, sautéed escarole, cotechino sausage. Tender duck served with beans cooked al dente and slices of lightly spicy pork sausage; an Italian good luck charm.
Lacinato kale and crêpe cannelloni, maitake mushrooms, Andante “Cadence”. Made with a chefs-favorite pungent cow & goat milk’s cheese from Andante Dairy, earthy Japanese mushrooms and dino kale; the only vegetarian entrée on the menu is likely to indulge even the most loyal of carnivores.
From the desserts, Bittersweet chocolate mousse, chocolate sea salt cookies, burnt caramel crème. The chocolaty, creamy mousse is nicely complemented by the caramel and salty, paper-thin cookies.
Buttermilk panna cotta, winter citrus compote and shortbread cookies. Another very good dessert.
Olive oil ice cream, Olivestri Siloro olio nuovo. Frances serves ice cream from Mission-based Humphry Slocombe. But here, chef Perello transforms a good flavor into a great dessert by the simple addition of olio nuovo, a seasonal olive oil available right after the November harvest. Bottle unfiltered, it has a fruity, peppery flavor that highlights and perfumes the ice cream.
Perello’s neighborhood eatery with fine dining pedigree offers flavorful dishes in a casual setting and at reasonable prices. Frances is another successful new restaurant that should be added to everyone’s must-try lists. The kind of place you think about going back before you even finished eating. All the rave reviews following the restaurant opening are guaranteed to make Frances the next Flour & Water — a neighborhood gem virtually impossible to get in. I, for one, with a sort of insider’s trading benefit, already booked my next visit.
Frances is at 3870 17th Street