It took 26 long months but, finally, Frances is back. Since its debut in 2009, chef Melissa Perello’s cozy Castro restaurant has been a beloved dinner destination — not only because of the chef’s seasonally influenced California cuisine, but also because of the intimate nature of the slender space, with low tables stretching back into the darker recesses of the room. And even though most San Francisco restaurants, including Perello’s Octavia, reopened many moons ago, Frances remained mostly dark until just last month, when the doors swung open to reveal the dining room’s eye-catching makeover, including a striking black-and-white ombre paint job and warm wood accents all around.
But it’s not just the decor that Frances’s fans will find different after the more than two years the restaurant was away. There’s also a whole new menu format to explore: no more a la carte ordering (at least, not for the vast majority of diners); these days it’s all prix-fixe and primarily family-style. Chef de cuisine Jordan Wittrock heads up the kitchen coming to Frances after spending his pandemic days working at Tartine Manufactory and with prior experience at restaurants including Momofuku Nishi, Atera, and Benu.
It’s a rigorous job, creatively speaking, Wittrock says. With the Frances menu changing weekly and the four-course dinner encompassing between eight and 10 dishes, Wittrock says it’s a constant cycle of ideating, sourcing, and menu writing. “I just finished the menu for next week,” he says on a recent Thursday afternoon, one day into the restaurant’s current menu and just six days out from the next one’s launch. “It’s definitely a different pace.” But the restaurant’s core ethos remains the same: to find and harness the flavors of the region’s best ingredients. To not get in their way. When asked if saying the restaurant lets the idea of what’s “in-season” set the tone, Wittrock offers a little clarification: “I think it’s even more accurate to say, ‘what the farms are growing.’”
Here’s a look at how some of the dishes on Frances’s ever-changing family-style menus come together:
Green tomato gazpacho
Wittrock says he wanted to riff on classic Spanish gazpacho, using tart green tomatoes balanced out with sweet gypsy peppers and tender Persian cucumbers. A sprinkling of spiced pepitas rounds out the soup with a pleasant nuttiness, while Fresno chiles contribute a hint of heat. The dish comes in two parts — a small speckled ceramic bowl cradling sliced cucumbers and edible flower petals alongside a creamer filled with chilled soup — and gets poured tableside, making it one of the few individually plated dishes throughout the meal. Wittrock says he likes to offer a mix of both, though larger shareable plates make up the majority of the menu.
Brentwood corn pudding
Summer means corn season and in the Bay Area, it’s specifically Brentwood corn that chefs and diners prize for its sweetness. In this dish, Wittrock turns the cobs into stock, which he pairs with the less handsome kernels to make creamed corn. “So we’re getting two products out of the one,” he explains. He mixes in the more plump, pristine kernels to make a savory-sweet corn pudding, bound with flour, eggs, and caciocavallo cheese. On top, a layer of delicately fried padron and nardello peppers, blistered to an illustrious sheen, hide under a flurry of grated pecorino. Served with the green tomato gazpacho, the comfortingly cheesy pudding constitutes the second piece of the first course.
Squash blossom tagliatelle
Writing weekly menus requires a delicate balance between planning and extemporaneous creation. With this dish, Wittrock says he knew he wanted to incorporate summer squash and clams into the menu’s pasta course, but it wasn’t until he ordered produce for the week that he knew he’d have squash blossoms and arugula to play with. “Sometimes we’re ordering [ingredients] and not really having a plan,” Wittrock says. “But that’s the balancing act.” In the end, the kitchen incorporated the squash blossoms into the pasta dough, adding steamed Manila clams and sauce punched up with white miso. On top rest a handful of fresh arugula. “There’s just so many herbs and greens in summer,” he says. “You’re not doing summer justice if you’re not using them.”
Canary melon “parfait”
For dessert, Whittrock offers a light and fresh course built on a bed of whipped Greek yogurt blanketed in a layer of pale yellow canary melon granita. Icebergs of meringue rest on top, fortified with the zingy flavor of locally grown makrut lime leaves. The leaves came to Whittrock from one of his favorite growers, who often volunteers somewhat off-the-wall ingredients — like a recent batch of hops he used to bolster the flavor of roasted Cornish hens.
Ultimately, Wittrock says, his goal is to “do justice” to the ingredients. The restaurant, which works regularly with about a half dozen farms including Healdsburg’s Medium Farm and Kibo Farm in Sonoma County, doesn’t often list growers on the menu, a move Wittrock says is to keep the focus on the flavors and ingredients. “What’s more important, where it’s from or what it is?” he says. And unlike some chefs, his focus on sourcing ingredients with integrity doesn't stop him from incorporating far-flung flavors like pineapple or banana — so long as the centerpiece of each plate remains locally rooted. The menu writing is a never-ending creative process, but the chef insists it’s not as arduous as it might seem thanks to the abundance of great products to use. “It’s not simple,” Wittrock says. “But it’s easy.”
Frances (3870 17th Street) is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. The family-style tasting menu costs $86 per person with the option for wine pairings; bookings are available via OpenTable and are not refundable. There are six seats available at the bar on a first-come, first-served basis; a small a la carte menu is available for bar diners only.