It’s been a long 26 months, but finally Frances is back. Since its debut in 2009, chef Marissa Perello’s cozy Restaurant Castro has been a popular dining destination — not only for the chef’s seasonally influenced California cuisine, but also for the intimate nature of the sleek space with low tables stretching to the floor Darkness stretch niches of space. And though most San Francisco restaurants, including Perello’s Octavia, reopened many moons ago, Frances mostly stayed dark until 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 France’s fans will find different after more than two years that the restaurant has been gone. 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); Nowadays everything is fixed price and above all family style. Chef Jordan Wittrock is leading the kitchen, which comes to Frances after spending his pandemic days at Tartine Manufactory and previous experience at restaurants like Momofuku Nishi, Atera and Benu.
It’s a tough job, creatively speaking, Wittrock says. According to Wittrock, with the weekly changing Frances menu and the four-course menu with eight to ten dishes, there is a constant cycle of brainstorming, procurement and menu creation. “I just finished the menu for next week,” he says on a recent Thursday afternoon, a day after the restaurant’s current menu began and just six days before the launch of the next. “It’s definitely a different pace.” But the core ethos of the restaurant remains the same: finding and utilizing the flavors of the finest local ingredients. In order not to get in their way. When asked if saying the restaurant keeps the idea of what’s ‘in season’ sets the tone, Wittrock offers a bit of clarification: “I think it’s even more accurate to say ‘what the farms grow’ .”
Here’s a look at how some of the dishes on Frances’ ever-changing family menu come together:
Green tomato gazpacho
Wittrock says he wanted to spice up the classic Spanish gazpacho by using tart green tomatoes balanced with sweet gypsy peppers and tender Persian cucumbers. A sprinkling of spiced pepitas completes the soup with a pleasant nuttiness, while Fresno chilies add a touch of spiciness. Composed of two parts — a small speckled ceramic bowl with sliced cucumbers and edible flower petals alongside a milk jug filled with chilled soup — the dish is poured at the table, making it one of the few individually served dishes during the meal. Wittrock says he likes to offer a mix of both, though larger sharing plates make up the bulk of the menu.
Brentwood pudding made from corn
Summer means corn season, and in the Bay Area, it’s Brentwood corn in particular that cooks and diners appreciate for its sweetness. In this dish, Wittrock turns the corn on the cob into broth, which he combines with the less-than-lovely corn kernels to make creamed corn. “So we get two products out of one,” he explains. He mixes in the plumper, more untouched kernels to create a savory-sweet corn pudding that’s bound with flour, eggs, and caciocavallo cheese. On top, a layer of tenderly roasted padron and nardello peppers, puffed to an illustrious shine, hides beneath a flood of grated pecorino. Served with the green tomato gazpacho, the pleasantly cheesy custard makes up the second slice of the first course.
Squash Blossom Tagliatelle
Writing weekly menus requires a delicate balance between planning and impromptu creation. With this dish, Wittrock says he knew he wanted to incorporate summer squash and mussels into the menu’s pasta course, but it wasn’t until he ordered the week’s produce that he knew he’d have squash blossoms and arugula to play with. “Sometimes we order [ingredients] and don’t really have a plan,” says Wittrock. “But that’s the balancing act.” Finally, the kitchen incorporated the squash blossoms into the pasta batter, added steamed manila clams, and a sauce infused with white miso. Place a handful of fresh arugula on top. “In summer there are just so many herbs and vegetables,” he says. “You’re not doing summer justice if you don’t use them.”
Canary melon “parfait”
For dessert, Whittrock offers a light and fresh dish on a bed of whipped Greek yoghurt, topped with a layer of pale yellow Canarian melon granita. Icebergs of meringue rest on top, infused with the tangy flavor of locally grown Makrut lime leaves. The leaves came to Whittrock from one of his favorite growers, who often provides slightly offbeat ingredients — like a new batch of hops that he’s used to enhance the flavor of roasted Cornish chickens.
Ultimately, according to Wittrock, his goal is to “do justice” to the ingredients. The restaurant, which regularly works 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 focus on the flavors and ingredients. “What’s more important, where did it come from or what is it?” 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—as long as the heart of each plate stays locally rooted. Creating the menu is an endless creative process, but the chef insists it’s not as tedious as it might seem, thanks to the wealth of great produce to use. “It’s not easy,” says Wittrock. “But it’s easy.”
Frances (3870 17th Street) is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. Bookings are possible via open table and are non-refundable. Six seats are available at the bar according to the principle “first come, first served”; A small à la carte menu is available for bar guests only.