When Melissa Perello opens Frances in the Castro in late October/early November, it will be her first full-time restaurant gig since she left Fifth Floor on New Year’s Day 2007 But it won’t be her first time back in the kitchen. She’s been cooking special prix-fixe dinners more or less monthly at Sebo for the last year or so. This coming Monday’s (a benefit for fire-damaged Soul Food Farm) will be her last, and while it’s sold out, you won’t have to wait long to taste what she’s been cooking. Perello has been using these dinners to road-test dishes for Frances, weeding out the duds and refining the gems. We caught up with her on the phone to find out what to expect from Frances, and why the semi-regular Monday Night specials might not be over after all.
What have you learned from these dinners that you’ll put into practice at Frances?
It’s a prix fixe, and at Frances we’ll be doing an a la carte menu. People like the prix fix, so I’m toying with the idea of continuing with the Monday dinners. The idea now is to do Tuesday through Sunday and be closed on Monday, but I’m toying with the idea of opening one Monday a month… Maybe do specific farm dinners or bring in guest chefs, or do winemaker dinners.
What have you had success with that we can expect to see on the menu at Frances?
We’ve done a lot of braised dishes. People seem to be really excited about really simple, classic food. Braised short ribs seem to be a really big hit … We’ve done a fun play on a chicken cacciatore dish — a combination of seared chicken breast and then taking the legs and braising them in a ragout with some porcini mushrooms and red wine and olives.
What do you have planned for this Monday?
I think for this Monday I’m planning on doing albacore. The local albacore is really beautiful right now, so we can do a crudo and some end-of-season tomatoes. Those early girl tomatoes are really nice right now.
Have you had any strikeouts?
Everybody’s been receptive to things, but the problematic dish we had was sardines. I was surprised because sardines are really popular, especially when they’re in season in San Francisco. They’re locally procured and you see them on menus throughout the city. We did a really simple escovitch. It was kind of a split night where 50 percent were in awe, head over heals, so excited to see sardines, and the others were saying “I loved everything but I’m not a big fan of sardines.”
So what’s your elevator pitch for Frances?
The concept is to create a comfortable neighborhood environment where people can pop in for a glass of wine and a bite or stay for a whole meal. We’ll take reservations for about ¾ of the restaurant and the bar will be open for walk-ins. We’ll have a pretty sizable wine list with a fair selection at an approachable price-point, but some higher-end bottles for when you’re in the mood to splurge. Same with the menu… All entrees will be well under $30, probably averaging closer to $22-23.
Will any of the dishes you’ve tested at Sebo make it onto the menu as regulars?
I’ve never been one to have a signature dish, but in this style restaurant it’s going to be necessary to have a few dishes that do stick around on the menu and become signature dishes or staples. But I think those are going to present themselves to us as we move along.