Tuesday, July 22, 2014

FRANCES IN THE CASTRO...THIS IS WHAT FOOD IS FOR

Most folks like me keep a list of some sort of places they want to try. From hole in the wall to fancy shmancy places that may require a small loan to dine at. My list is pretty long and just as I take something off 2 more come on to take its place--kind of like the mythical hydra and I trying to be like an eating Hercules getting through them all. It's a Sisyphean task to say the least but I soldier on because I like food and if it's good then all the better. One such place that's been near the top of my list for awhile is Frances. I'd heard nothing but raves about since it opened thus it is a difficult place to get reservations at unless you can go right when they open at 5pm (during the week no less!) but you know folks have jobs and stuff and it's difficult sometimes to make that work. Though me and SO finally got schedules to mesh and made our way their one weekday at 5 night--miracles happen.

We actually got there 5 minutes before they opened along with a handful of other folks but this paid off as we were lucky to get the table at the very back of the restaurant and below is why it was good. 

        This was right when we arrived and sat.....                    This was 15 minutes later--FULL!

Having heard so much about this place I have to say my expectations were very high but me and the SO were having a rare night out so I was determined to enjoy the experience no matter what. Fortunately that did not portend to any doom as we kicked off things with two amuse bouche. 


Applewood smoked bacon beignets with a maple chive creme fraiche dipping sauce (these are a regular right now on the menu). Wow. They were made to order--light and fluffy inside and crispy golden brown outside. They had a lovely flavor of smoky hickory bacon through with the little bits and were just delightful. And when you dip them in the sauce--amazeballs! The maple wasn't overly powerful or too sweet more like a hint to brighten up the tang of the fraiche. It was like pancakes, bacon, hushpuppies, maple syrup and cream all in one--just yum--could have made a dinner of these and that fraiche all alone but there was more to go. 


Roasted golden beets on a bed of smoked ricotta with shaved fennel, dried Mission olives, chives and anise. I'm not normally an anise or fennel fan but fortunately both were a light touch here and didn't detract from the delicious flavor of the perfectly roasted beets or the creamy smokiness of the ricotta. Separately they are strongish flavors--together they mesh well without over taking the other. Plus I just love a good beet and these were definitely that. Then we moved on to two appetizers. 


Chilled corn soup with Mission fig, Sungold cherry tomato, basil and a dollop of creme fraiche. We both loved this dish, it was both light and hearty all in one. Chock full of corn flavor it wasn't too cold but just the right temperature to keep the texture nicely between smooth and creamy. The fraiche adds just a nice undertone of citrus tang that you can swirl through the soup. The fig and tomato while pleasant and fresh didn't add much to the soup but I won't call it a miss-step more like I enjoyed the soup and fraiche on their own and didn't need to garnish to add to it. Still a winner. 


Next was house made linguine with prosciutto, toasted walnuts, tomato confit, parmesan and espelette. Surprisingly earthy, creamy parmesan sharpness radiated throughout this dish and the tomatoes were a sweetish tasty companion to the saltiness of the prosciutto. The walnuts are ground up and add a great texture without being just some annoying nut. So far we've both been pleased. 


Our first entree is the California white sea bass with grilled summer squash, Sungold cherry tomatoes and a Sungold tomato romesco (the bed of sauce it's on). Seasonal and fresh the SO enjoyed it but I liked it more than him. He thought the fish might have been just a tad over cooked but I found it firm yet flaky with a nice crispness on the skin. Plus when you ate the fish, squash and romesco together all the flavors seemed to blend in perfect balance---another dish where things are even better together than separate. 


Then came the Five-Dot Ranch bavette steak with piccolo faro, smoked eggplant and charred sweet peppers and wilted greens. This sadly was where things came to a screeching halt--at least as far as the steak was concerned. The meat is a flank steak cut and I asked for medium rare which is what I got but the meat turned out to be chewy and tough to cut for both of us. I'm guessing this cut of meat may have required a bit more flame or marinade to soften it up which was a shame as it looked nicely composed and I really liked the accoutrements underneath. The faro, eggplant, peppers and greens had a nice earthiness that were farmer's market fresh and would have made any vegetarian delighted. 


But we weren't deterred by the steak and had ordered a side of grilled Brentwood corn with green harissa, yogurt and coriander. Nothing like a little fire roasting to bring it all together. The herbic twist on harissa was a tasty combo with the yogurt. Plus the added sprinkle of salt and I didn't miss butter in the least. It was like a Middle Eastern roast corn cob done California style--very nice. Of course by this time you'd think we'd be full to bursting which we were close to but we've come this far so we decided to go all the way and get dessert. 


First up the Santa Rosa plum galette with creme fraiche (yes it's in several things), blackberries, almonds and toasted almond ice cream. Summer fresh and crunchy is what came to mind eating this. For the most part we liked it. For me the best part was the crust--yummy, buttery, flaky and delicious. The galette was on the tart side and off-set perfectly by the roasted sweetness of the almond ice cream. Another engaging combination of textures and flavors. 


To finish off our culinary experience we indulged in the cocoa 'pets de nonne'--dark chocolate mousse balls with hazelnut and cocoa caramel ice cream. Like a thicker chocolatier beignet covered in chocolate sauce. Rich, rich and more rich--the ice cream helps to break up the denseness of the chocolate mousse balls--a cream and a solid blending together. Definitely time for a sugar crash nap after this. Since we were at the last table in the back we felt okay scraping the plate with our spoons. 

The steak notwithstanding we were both very pleased with our food and experience at Frances, to say we would recommend this to folks is an understatement. The food has so many flavors and layers it would be worthwhile to anyone who goes and I don't think you will be disappointed. Service was also pretty good without being overly attentive. When they asked about our steak and we told them the issue they gladly whisked it away and off our bill which wasn't something I totally expected but it was a nice customer service addition. 

Some things to keep in mind: make a reservation!! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Can't stress that enough, though if you want to go soon be prepared for only 5pm seating availability otherwise you will need to look out several months in advance to get a table. Also the menu changes daily based on availability at the markets. Some things like beignets, grilled corn and linguine (with different toppings) will still be there but the rest changes. I wouldn't worry about that too much though as past and I'm sure future reviews will reveal, this is a food journey you want to go on. 

And one final note...Josey Baker bread is available by request only--REQUEST IT. It's free and unlimited. You get a large earthy full grain slice each time, served warm with plenty of soft butter that has a sprinkle of salt on top. Totally worth it




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