by thedishandthedirt on December 14, 2010

With reservations made two months in advance, I was a bit skeptical about finally going to dinner at 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening (if you can call 5 o’clock evening) at Frances.  I kept thinking, “It’s not like this place is French Laundry, so either this place is really super small or it’s really really good.”  I actually do remember when Melissa Perello was at Charles Nob Hill, a totally hot restaurant in the late 90′s, then made her move to the equally hot Fifth Floor, where she earned Fifth Floor a Michelin star as its Executive Chef.  She was this young chef, garnering lots of attention and lots of nominations (like James Beard) and then poof!, sort of disappeared off the radar for just a bit before opening Frances, a Castro neighborhood restaurant, to some serious fanfare and even more serious accolades.  Frances garnered a Michelin star this year, was named Restaurant of the Year by Eater SF, and earned a place on Bauer’s Top 100.  So you can imagine, by the time I entered the doors to Frances, I was wondering if it would live up to all the hype.
The Dish:
Well, ends up that the restaurant really is super small.  There’s a single long banquette seating mostly twos and fours, and some tables for walk-ins at a small bar.  The restaurant’s popularity remains uber-high and even at 5pm (when they open), there were people jockeying for tables at the bar and a few people who were even eating while standing at the bar.  The restaurant is cozy, with a neighborhood casual feel and friendly, humorous service to match.

The menu is divvied up by bouchees, appetizers, entrees, sides, and dessert.  Looking at the bouchees, we couldn’t resist opting for the bacon beignets (yes, I said bacon beignets!!!); I also chose the panisse frites, despite hardly knowing what to expect.  The bacon beignets were much lighter than I anticipated and gave you the essence of bacon without giving any oily mouth-feel.  While they were served with maple creme fraiche & chive, I preferred the airiness of just the beignet without the weight of the creme (although I did think that a dash of powdered sugar could up the ante on this dish even more, although I guess some people don’t like the breakfasts-foods-for-dinner-thing as much as I do).  The frites were made of chickpea puree and served with a garlic tomato aioli.  The frites, as with most fried things, were out of this world and the chickpeas so creamy and luscious that I actually forgot what they were and asked my dinner companions “What was this made out of again?”

Poufs of bacon-y goodness.
Looks like mozzarella sticks, huh?  But chickpea frites aren’t on TGIF’s menu.

Next up, the celery root soup with chicken confit and sunchoke.  When you see a soup like this, you know two things 1) it’s going to be good and 2) it better be good because the wheel isn’t exactly being reinvented here.  Well, it was good, better than good.  The soup was thick and warming (dur) and redolent (I’ve been waiting to use that word, how do you like it?) of autumnal earthiness.  And I thought the confit added a creative touch often lacking in these pureed soups (if you put another dollop of creme fraiche and chives, just shoot me); the chicken confit added some fattiness and a welcome meatiness, but without inserting any greasiness.  The thinly sliced sunchoke is not bountiful, but its presence is known, adding a nice root vegetable flavor and some textural lightness.  To make the dish a little more special, they pour it tableside so you can appreciate the confit and sunchoke before they’re bathed in the creamy soup.

Terrible picture, but Iphone plus candles = blechy photos
My husband had the ricotta gnocchi, dense little things with some seriously amazing chanterelle mushrooms
Finally, the entree:  California black cod with melted leeks, chanterelles, and kuri squash.  The cod’s crispy skin was by far my favorite and I anxiously scraped off anything wet off of it so that I could save and savor that skin.  The dish was hearty and earthy, with a mound of pureed squash, crispy kale leaves, and melted leeks.  The veggies on the dish, oddly, were not really intermixed, but rather, placed next to each other like basketball players sitting on a bench waiting to be called in for the big game.  Like many people, the dish doesn’t photograph well.  And I have to admit, it wasn’t my favorite dish of the evening.  By no means was it not tasty; but after a line up like the beignets and frites, coupled with the fact that I’m a sucker for appetizers — well, the black cod didn’t have a chance (never mind the increasingly small space I had in my tummy for more food).  
What, pray tell, is this?  Sorry black cod, you have no future on television.
Bavette steak with butter beans and piperade — husband’s dish and more photogenic.

Dessert was the lumberjack cake because I liked that it was called a lumberjack cake and plus, it was served with some Humphrey Slocombe maple-walnut ice cream.  The cake had medjool dates and french butter pears, and was quite light, despite its name.  I loved that it wasn’t overly sugared, pushing the dates to the forefront instead of having all that artificial sweetness.  All of the above plus a bottle of Chateauneuf du-Pape, and I was a happy camper…even if dinner ended by 7:30!

The Dish:
Good gracious, after a 2 month wait, the food better be damn good, right (and yes, I used good gracious and damn in the same sentence — I’m complex)?  The food was, in fact, good.  The underlying philosophy behind the food felt clean and pure; taking great ingredients, putting them in delightful combos to reach maximum enjoyment of each ingredient.  Easy philosophy, not so easy to implement.  The laid back feel of the restaurant masks some seriously thoughtfully-devised and perfectly executed dishes.  I loved getting terrific food in an environment where I could unbutton the first button on my pants while eating (not really, but you know what I mean).

The clinical dirt that I received was that you should opt for the flu shot over the nasal spray; our physician friend chatted a bit about the efficacy of shots vs. sprays.  The less-than-clinical dirt I learned is that you should never leave a four year old, scissors, and his two year old younger brother alone.  One quick trip to the bathroom by mom equals a new hairdo and in fact, dinner out that evening meant another haircut for the poor 2 year old when the babysitter took the time to blink.  Four year olds have very, very fast hands.

Bauer’s two cents here.

Frances on Urbanspoon

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