San Francisco: Frances

It’s dusk on a Saturday as I slip in the door of Frances, chef Melissa Perello’s restaurant nestled snuggly in the Castro district of San Francisco.  It is a small space made larger with clean white walls, clear glass pendant lamps and a beautifully stained wood bar that seats the first-come-first-serve crowd, of which I am a member.  Within minutes, a single spot at the bar opens up and I squeeze happily into a much-coveted window seat.

A square piece of paper is handed to me, hand-stamped with today’s date.  It is a simple menu, no fancy French words or adjectives tossed in, just a straight forward listing of ingredients. The only embellishments are geographic descriptors, “Five Dot Ranch Bavette Steak,” “Fifth Crow Farm Broccoli.”

I request the house white, which at Frances is truly the house wine.  As in, they made it, themselves, in-house.  A streamlined glass carafe etched with notches arrives in front of me.  Each notch represents two ounces, and you are charged $1 per ounce consumed.  I am, perhaps, in heaven.

After very slight deliberation, I settle upon the Applewood Smoked Bacon Beignets, served with Maple Creme Fraiche and Chive; and the Caramelized Atlantic Scallops with Sunchoke Puree, Roasted Fennel and Nicoise Olive.  As I wait for my food, I eye the crowd around me.  (Surreptitious people watching is enabled here, by means of a mirror.)  There are couples, friends, and gentlemen of the bow tie persuasion.  It is definitely a West Coast urban hipster sort of vibe, with a bit of local produce thrown in.

Almost imperceptibly, a finger bowl of warm roasted rosemary almonds appears in front of me.  This is so far and above the common bread basket that I actually look to the server for confirmation that these nuts were intended for me.  She raises an eyebrow and gives a nod.    Seconds later, my beignets arrive.  They are heralded by this earthy, salty, sublime scent.  It is as if two fingers were hooked in my nostrils and drawn deep into oil and dough.  My first bite reveals their lineage.  These beignets are clearly the love child of an uptown brioche and a downtown hush puppy.  There are five of these lovelies in front of me, and I am but one diner.   I know I should only have one or two, but I can’t help myself.  They are so delicious on their own that I dip them into the creme fraiche out of obligation rather than desire.  I sweep up stray crumbs with a fingertip.

The scallops come next, with no garnish to hide their perfectly caramelized crust.  There are only three of them sitting on the bed of puree, but sadness is fleeting as I cut into one.  Every bite is substantial and I’m fulfilled before I’m through with the first.  Perhaps the dish might have benefited from a touch more acidity and texture to cut through the richness, but this was easily remedied with sips of $1-per-ounce house white.  My perfect mouthful was a quarter scallop with a single leafy green mortared on with sunchoke puree.  Unfortunately, there were only four of those single leafy greens to be had.

Even so, this meal sets a high bar for four days in San Francisco.  I would easily go back, if only to try the unlisted duck mousse or to nibble on just one more beignet.

Frances.  3870 17th St, San Francisco, CA 94114.  (415) 621-3870.  Reservations recommended, bar seating available.

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