Frances: San Francisco’s latest neighborhood gem serves luscious Mediterranean-inspired dishes

Photo by Jennifer Yin*

Frances is chef Melissa Perello’s latest venture. Perello was the celebrated chef at Fifth Floor who earned 3 stars from the SF Chronicle. But like many young chefs, she decided to strike out on her own. The result, Frances, is impressive precisely because it is small, intimate, and seemingly effortless in serving the kind of food that people forget can be served in tiny, intimate places that do not confer any kind of status upon the diner.

I would say the dishes are Mediterranean-inspired, although others refer to them as “Californian cuisine”. The menu is small (thank heavens) and changes often, as Perello uses ingredients that are available locally and in season. The menu is divided into four parts:

  • Bouchées: small plates such as applewood smoked bacon beignets with crème fraîche and chive, albondigas con salsa verde (ground lamb, pork, kale and Moroccan spices), and more. These are priced at $6.50. I found the portions of these bouchées to be quite sufficient for starters but others (like my dining companion, a man with a hearty appetite), may differ. We tried the albondigas which were spiced just perfectly – enough to make them savoury but not overwhelming the flavors of the meat.
  • Appetizers: I call them bouchées for men with big appetites because the portions are larger and for those who would rather just share small plates, these are perfect. We ordered the semolina gnocchi with duck confit and braised cavolo nero. The gnocchi are half-finger sized little numbers that melt in your mouth, unlike the robust chewy versions (I am ashamed to admit) that come out of my kitchen. They are served in a light broth with my favorite winter greens – the cavolo nero. I would come back to Frances again and again just for this gnocchi dish. The other appetizers on the menu were chestnut soup with roasted cipollini and pancetta; roasted beet salad with mizuna, tangerine, fennel and ricotta salata; duck liver mousse with pickled currants, cress and grilled levain; county line chicories with fuyu persimmon, almond and pecorino. Prices: between $8 and $12.
  • Entrées: We ordered the lacinato kale and crêpe cannelloni filled with leeks, mushrooms and crescenza which is not your typical cannelloni dish. These are delicate crêpes filled and then rolled up like fat egg rolls. The filling is light and airy, delicately spiced and quite balanced — the leeks did not overwhelm the mushrooms. The crêpes were more memorable than the lardo crusted Atlantic cod, the other dish we ordered, which was good but nothing special. By this point in the meal, my dining companion and I agreed that vegetables and other non-meat items are the strongest point of the kitchen. Prices: between $17 (for the cannelloni) and $25 (for the cod).
  • Sides: I am not one to order sides most of the time because I get filled up very quickly but my dining companion decided to try the Iacopi butter bean ragoût. It was creamy and savoury, but did not bowl us over. I am not crazy about butter beans as I prefer smaller cannellini beans. Priced at $6.00.
  • Desserts: The desserts looked divine but we were too full to try any. There were three on the menu: Valrhona ganache tart with McEvoy olive oil ice cream and candied citrus, lumberjack cake with warren pear, medjool dates and maple-walnut ice cream; and buttermilk panna cotta with poached huckleberries and shortbread cookies. Prices at $7.50 and $6.50.
  • Wine list: Good, with a number of Italian reds (Barbera). The house wine (from the Central Valley) was a bit too sweet for my taste, but the Barbera was excellent.

Now about the location and ambiance of Frances. It is tucked away in a residential section of the Castro, in a space formerly occupied by the Filipino restaurant, Palencia, on 17th Street. Parking is non-existent so it’s better to take the metro to Castro Street station and walk down 17th street, or to take a cab.

The only serious criticism I have of Frances is the awfully tight seating arrangements. Because the dining area is a long narrow corridor, tables are placed mostly on the right-hand side of the restaurant. There are too many tables next to one another, squeezed so tightly that at first glance, the diners seem to comprise one big happy group. On closer inspection you realize that they’re different parties and they are all probably eavesdropping on one another’s conversations. Thankfully that evening we were seated at the left side of the restaurant where there are two tables that accommodate parties of two. If you are only two persons dining at Frances, ask to be seated at the left-side (the kitchen side) of the restaurant. There’s also a bar with stools and you could sit there, but even there, they put too many stools so you are elbow to elbow with other people.

The service is excellent. There are enough staff to serve this crowded restaurant and they are attentive but not obtrusive. Unlike many other SF restaurants, the staff do not rush you.

All in all, I would highly recommend Frances and would come back again.

Frances
3870 17th Street
(between Pond St & Noe St)
San Francisco, CA 94114
+1 415 621 3870
frances-sf.com

*Photo credits: Jennifer Yin

About Esme Vos

Esme Vos is the founder of Mapplr, a travel site featuring boutique hotels, luxury resorts, travel guides and restaurant reviews. You can find her on and Twitter.