Friday, April 15, 2011

FRANCES - Tiny Neighborhood Gem Sparkles with Flavor

Chick pea fritter "sticks" w/ Chile Aioli
FRANCES is exactly what one would expect. It is a quaint and unassuming little neighborhood bistro tucked behind a fairly nondescript storefront. Barely visible from the street, Frances would seem to be the kind of restaurant that survives only on word of mouth; a local secret patronized primarily by those who can get there without a car of a more pleasant evening, one when San Francisco isn’t blanketed by layers of chilly fog keeping people indoors. Except that it’s not.

Bacon Beignets with Creme Fraiche
  The secret is out. Melissa Perello’s tiny little wine bar and eatery is a neighborhood gem that has blossomed rapidly into a happening. And in San Francisco, the birthplace of the first “happening,” there is something truly serendipitous about so many hungry diners apparently all finding FRANCES pretty much in unison, causing a conflux of great food and hard-to-secure reservations. It seems uniformly agreed upon that FRANCES, this little bistro-that-could in the Castro— is the new place to eat— to see and be seen, in San Francisco. As an Oakland native and budding Oak-o-phile, I don’t get into San Fran all that much. When I do venture across the Bridge, I’m a flutter trying to work through a long list of “to-do’s” — places I must eat, all representing my top “can’t miss” foodie experiences. They accumulate over the weeks I spend on the other side of that less famous Bridge, the one the quake of ‘89 almost toppled into the Bay.

The occasion for this particular jaunt was the arrival of two long-time friends from Indiana. One was a Former Associate of our law firm, accompanied by her husband, a Successful Software Executive. The pair had moved away from SF several years ago to raise their young children closer to family. The FA was originally from Indiana, and we would eat out and discuss the culinary advantages of living in or near San Francisco. At the time our FA lived here in SF, she worked with us in Oakland, but it was barely a whisper in the local foodie vocabulary. She was excited to be back and to try new places in both cities. Returning to visit old haunts and old friends, catching up on our lives apart over wine and conversation and good food. We were gathering to celebrate the simple beauty of life itself.

Duck Pate

It so happens that the Former Associate was one of the first people to teach me the “ropes” of fine dining. She has always understood and appreciated a good meal. A food writer herself, she inspired me to take on the mantle of culinary correspondent I now wear as a second skin. We share a love of all that is edible, and a passion for those among us who are passionate about eating (and cooking) well.

When she asked me to come up with an adventure fit for our reunion, I felt a need to do some research, to rise to this occasion and show the mentor the student has learned a thing or two. This opportunity to repay her in kind for her many great recommendations required that I come through with only the very best choices for dining in the City. Fortunately, I knew exactly where (and to whom) to turn. I turned to one of my “go to” sources: @TheDapperDiner. I know if he liked his meal, normal humans will reel at the experience. He recommended Frances (which the FA had heard of all the way in Indiana, since she keeps abreast of dining news for her column) and we were on the hunt for a reservation. I had to calendar myself an alert to call exactly two months ahead of time to obtain a reservation, but was successful immediately. Come March, we would be guests of Chef Perello, experiencing for ourselves all that she had to offer.

Little Gem Salad
 Nothing worth doing is effortless, and there really is something to be said for anticipation. Things that come too easily are never quite appreciated. Once the date rolled around, all the snags along the way faded to dim memories, and we arrived with our appetites in tow.

@TheDapperDiner had suggested we check in with @Bobiwithani (the resident sommelier at FRANCES) and as luck would have it, our primary waiter for the evening. A charming guy and a knowledgeable server, Bobi took us through the various refreshments with an ease and affable charm that I find enhances my appetite for the experience, as well as the food. The BH and I were just recently discussing the significant rise in the talents of wait staff with the advent of so much competition. Simply put, servers are getting better and better at the art of serving. In me they will find an appreciative diner.

After Bobi took us through the evening’s drink options, the others opted to begin by sharing a carafe of the FRANCES house white wine, which was crisp and refreshing. Always a contrary type, I began with a different beverage, titled simply the “Market Shot.” This option was presented as a tiny cup of an elixir that I believe consisted of pear beer (or pear and beer) and something bubbly that tickled my nose. Bobi had billed it as the perfect palate cleanser with which to begin a meal. I have to agree that it was.

Bass w/ Risotto
 My friend had warned me not to miss the Duck Paté. Fortunately for us, though it was not on the regular menu, Chef Perello was offering the dish as a special that evening. Officially titled Quenelle of Duck Paté the dish was plated as a lovely soft egg-shaped serving of paté, accompanied by lovely slices of thick, toasted bread slathered with a generous coating of delectable fig jam. Along with the duck paté were served our two other appetizers, one a small dish of Crispy Chickpea Fritters and a Calabrese Chili Aioli. They manifested in the shape of lovely square tubes of fried cheese sticks, the exterior covered in a light, crunchy crust and the center soft and barely resistant, a little like melted butter, but with the flavor of the chickpeas balancing nicely with the heat of the aioli. The second appi was an Applewood Smoked Bacon Beignets with Maple Creme Fraiche & Chives, which took the form of heavenly dumplings of bacon flavored dough, that retained the rich bacon flavor even when blanketed in the sweet creme fraiche dip that came with. The beignets were a savory dough, but the creme fraiche sweetened the flavor profile nicely. I thought Chef did a perfect tightrope act of straddling just the right amount of sweet and savory in this dish.

For my soup / salad course I chose the Little Gem Salad - of Tarragon Vinaigrette, Fennel, Kumquat, Mandarin, Haas Avocado. Simple but delicious, this salad had a lovely texture to it, the crunch of the vaguely bitter kumquat and the sweet of the mandarin really played well together. Each popping off the other in a lovely little garden dance of happy in the mouth.

Duck w/ Butter Beans
 My main was a duck preparation, which for some reason has been foodie gold for me lately. Chef Perello’s Liberty Farm Duck Breast, Italian Butter Beans, Sicilian Olive, Braised Escarole was no exception. Something about duck lately. The last several times I have ordered it, the presentation has been an epiphany — either I have seriously fallen for duck, or duck is getting better lately. Either way, it’s clear that the chefs really know what they are doing. In this case, the fat was rendered perfectly and the flavor profile was stunning. There was a gentle background of a bacony flavor to the duck meat, as though it had been gently smoked over a hickory wood fire. The butter beans were perfectly done, each bite toothsome, rendering a salted buttery flavor all their own. I really enjoyed this dish. The escarole was a nice texture additive to the soft butter beans, giving another level of flavor and earthy taste to the mix. Along with the duck I ordered a glass of wine, an Anoro Malbec recommended by Bobi with an “I”. It was perfection in a glass. Clean, fruity, not at all heavy, this wine really balanced out the richness of the duck.

Caramelized Scallops
BH had the Caramelized Atlantic Scallops which lay neatly gilded on a bed of sunchoke puree, melded beautifully with roasted fennel, a few nicoise olives. These were some beautiful scallops, caramelized to perfection, the flavors rich and savory, the crisp of the fish giving way to the moist flesh within. Just beautifully done. Another of us tried the Bass with Roasted Spring Onion, Carnaroli Risotto, & Cipollinni Onion Soubisse. Another dish recommended as a can’t miss by my friend @TheDapperDiner, Perello’s bass was a fluffy white piece of fish on a bed of creamy onions cooked into the consistency of a marmelade. The two forms of cooked onion atop a creamy risotto, made a lovely bed for another perfectly done slab of fish.

For dessert we shared three choices. The first a Lumberjack Cake - Pink Lady Apple, Medjool Dates, Maple Walnut Ice Cream. The cake had a nice body to it, and the ice cream with hidden bits of date inside it was surprisingly good. The frozen maple treat kept them chewy and cold so they melted when they hit the tongue and began to warm.

The second was a Chocolate ‘Clafoutis’ with Candied Kumquats, Burnt Caramel, and Creme Chantilly (Bobi with an “I” says that’s Basque for bowl of gooey wonderful heavenly chocolate-y goodness and indeed it was). This dish was a massive chocolate goo orgy. The “clafoutis” tasted like a chewy brownie soaked in caramel, and then there was additional caramel sauce meant to be added. This one was as mind-blowing as chocolate desserts go. If you love caramel or chocolate, it’s a guaranteed high.

We completed the meal with a Chicory Root Panna Cotta, Page Mandarin, Espresso Gelee, Chocolate Sea Salt Cookies. The panna cotta was creamy, but the chocolate cookies were perfect. With a nice chewy texture, the little burst of salt crust on the top provided another sweet salty contrast, one of my new favorite things about the modern cookie.

FRANCES was a delight. The food was excellent, and the service was amazing. Really professional, a lovely evening spent with my favorite kind of people. Good ones. I say you must check it out.

3870 17th St
(between Pond St & Noe St)
San Francisco, CA 94114
(415) 621-3870

Tables: adequate
Noise level: boisterous
Cost: Moderately Expensive