The fabulous Frances restaurant in San Francisco

by Carolyn Jung on December 27, 2010

Chicken liver at Frances restaurant, San Francisco

Chicken liver at Frances restaurant, San Francisco

It may be only a year old, but Frances restaurant in San Francisco, has garnered just about every accolade around, including being a finalist for “Best New Restaurant” in the nation by the James Beard Foundation. It’s easy to see why.

Chef Melissa Perello’s compact restaurant on the edge of the Castro district, a short drive from the Holiday Inn Civic Center in San Francisco, is like your favorite pair of jeans. When you step into it, you feel comfortable and relaxed immediately. You want to return to it often because it’s reliable and just fits so well.

The snug, 45-seat restaurant is named for Perello’s beloved grandma. Perello’s mom sewed the pillows with the big buttons that grace the long, wood banquette that her father helped build.

A great way to start the evening is with one of the restaurant’s ever-changing “market shots” ($3 each). Fresh fruit from the farmers market is combined with wine for a unique little cocktail. On the night we were there, the shot was roasted Bartlett pears muddled with vermouth. It was like a spiced pear cobbler in liquid form.

Frances also has one of the most fun house-wine programs. Choose red or white and a carafe will be set down at your table. Etched on the glass are lines measuring every 2 ounces. You pour as much as you want and at the end of the night, your wine tab is tabulated, based on how much you’ve drunk. The price is $1 per ounce, which is pretty hard to beat for wine at a restaurant at this level.

Grilled calamari with preserved lemon and Sicilian olives ($6.50) was tender, smoky and imbued with bright Mediterranean flavors.

The chicken liver mousse ($10) was as rich and smooth as whipped cream. A Sierra Beauty apple compote alongside provided a sweet, fruity contrast.

Applewood smoked bacon beignets were heady with porky flavor and a fluffy interior akin to French toast. Dunk it in the accompanying maple creme fraiche and don’t even think about the calories.

That goes the same for the wonderful “Panisse Frites” ($6). I’ve had chickpea fries elsewhere, but none ever like these. Crisp on the outside, and with a custardy, almost pudding-like interior, these log-shaped fries might just top potato ones.

Next, caramelized Bartlett pears in a salad with peppery greens and a shower of fried shallots. It was a little sweet, a little savory, and all around satisfying on a fall night.

My entree was moist California black cod ($23) with sweet, roasted red kuri squash, chanterelles and melted leeks. The skin on the fish wasn’t shatteringly crisp, but the roasted kale leaves more than compensated.

My husband’s Five Dot Ranch bavette steak ($26) was tender and juicy. The richness of the meat was cut by the zingy piperade. The bed of butter beans was so creamy that I kept stealing spoonfuls from his plate.

For dessert, I couldn’t resist the semolina and almond crostata ($7.50) with wild huckleberries and pears with vanilla bean ice cream. Unlike the rustic, free-form, open-face tart I was expecting, this version was more refined, made in a rectangular tart pan, strewn with slivered almonds, then cut into neat slabs.

The name of the “Lumberjack Cake” might scare you into thinking it’s some leaden, heavy sweet. But it’s really a wonderfully moist cake made with French butter pears and Medjool dates and served with a scoop of maple-walnut ice cream. It tastes like a holiday in your mouth.

The restaurant is always packed. Reservations are hard to come by. And word has spread so far and wide that even the likes of Ruth Reichl are making a beeline to dine here.

All it takes is one visit to understand why.

– Carolyn Jung of FoodGal

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