Michelin-started restaurants are usually uptight for us casual dining folk. However, we couldn’t pass an invite from the Laffs to join them at Frances, the highly acclaimed modern Californian spot in the Castro. Despite having only been open for a year, Frances received one Michelin star and requires reservations months in advance, partly because there are only 16 tables.
We joined the Laffs on a damp Sunday evening – Frances is located in an indistinct street just east of Castro St. Its décor is elevated casual, and good luck having a quiet conversation, tables are literally on top of each other. Unfortunately, I was not impressed with the food.
The menu is seasonal modern Californian, a hallmark of Chef Melissa Perello, a multiple time James Beard Award nominee and SF Rising Star Award winner. There bouchees, appetizers, mains, sides, desserts. We ordered a mix of items for pseudo “tasting menu” and here’s the review.
Crispy chickpea fritters – We were expecting free-formed fritters, a la India pakoras. We received were five mozzarella stick looking objects. The chickpea filling was extremely dense and had the consistency of whipped smooth mashed potatoes. There was an interesting aftertaste which the impression of added cream or eggs. Consensus was we would not order again.
Roasted red beet salad – Chunks of red beets with an accompaniment of greens. Despite being a bouche, the portion was huge and we were not expecting that. Overall can’t really go wrong with a salad, but Sheila and I would take the one at Delarosa or Beretta over Frances any day.
Grilled asparagus and chicory salad – This was the best dish of the evening. Asparagus was good through and had a light smoky flavor. Chicory and greens were light and fresh. Serving portion was right to share. My only complaint was that it was bit heavy handed with the salt and vinaigrette. We should have asked for it on the side.
Risotto with mushroom – A mix of oyster and chanterelle served on a bed of creamy risotto. It was Sheila first time having risotto, she thought it good. For my taste, it was a heavy handed on the parmesan, which coupled with the inherent saltiness of the mushrooms made it very difficult to finish. I felt dehydrated after 5 bites! This is pure speculations, but I think this dish caused the roller coasters our stomachs the next day. One of the best risottos I’ve had was at Aqua (now closed) in Financial District. Sheila should use Frances’ as the barometer, unless she wants to set the bar low.
Roasted squash sides – rings of roasted squash rubbed in salt, pepper, thyme, and other herbs. It would have been better if not for the Sodium overload experienced earlier. The squash was fresh and severed slightly crunchy. As a side portion, there were still leftover even though Sheila and I split the order.
Lumberjack cake with maple walnut ice cream – apple and date cake served with a scoop of Humphrey Slocomb (HS) ice cream. Who knew maple walnut could be so tasty as ice cream! HS, with its wacky flavors that can sometimes include tofu, vinegar, and beets, pulled off a great one with maple walnut. The cake was layered beautifully with apples. We’d all order this again, however something tells me it won’t be a Frances.
Chicory root panna cotta with mandarins and sea salt cookies – The panna cotta was silky smooth on its own and had an espresso layer at the top. And then you bit into the mandarins, and the sourness took over. I understand the concept of introducing citrus flavors to counter the sweetness in desserts, but this was a miss when combined. We ended up eating the mandarins on their own after picking them from the panna cotta. On the plus side, the chocolate sea salt cookies were divine!
Total bill for the four of us was $160+, not bad for amount we ordered. We all believed that the food would be elevated much higher based on the accolades pouring in. Perhaps it’s because we ordered vegetarian dishes? Perhaps modern Californian cuisine needs meat? Whatever the case, I'm surprised this placed earned a Michelin star. We’ll stick with our tried and true favorites instead.