Perello hits comfort on nose at Frances 

Melissa Perello, who at 28 confidently strode into the kitchen at high-end Fifth Floor and won every star in the book, has finally opened Frances, her own California bistro.

She came to Fifth Floor in 2005 after the departure of Laurent Gras — an internationally lauded practitioner of experimental and intellectual French cooking — and turned it 180 degrees, creating dishes based on California ingredients. Improbably, she conjured home cooking against an uptown backdrop, but it worked.

Now at her new Frances, a 49-seat restaurant named for her grandmother (with whom she spent summers cooking in Wichita Falls, Texas), Perello cooks with the same clarity, but in a casual setting at moderate prices.

Her cooking radiates personal voice. She has the skill to keep things simple and the style to make them exciting.

Tender yam fries get a smoky, pimenton-pink dipping sauce that completes them in a new way. Tiny clams steamed open with green garlic, butter and muscadet, served with thin triangles of grilled bread, have never tasted so lush. The menu calls them “bouchees” ($6.50).

Her tangerine and beet salad with creamy ricotta ($10) practically levitates on your tongue in a citrusy shallot vinaigrette. A thick curl of duck liver mousse ($8) spreads on grilled bread like soft butter.

Last week, she made a roasted chestnut and fennel soup ($9), so deep in flavor and velvety it hardly needed dressing up with paper thin toasts threaded with melting lardo. But why not?

Perello understands fish and cooks it for maximum juiciness. Tender strings of flesh easily peel off a hunk of skate wing ($23), mixing it up with Brussels sprouts, baconlike bits of chorizo, Meyer lemon and brown butter. Each bite is a dream.

On another night, a thick, snowy piece of cod, wrapped with crisp pancetta ($24), melded with orange-squash puree and an exquisite apple and Brussels sprout sauté.

Nothing hits the spot on a wet night like Perello’s slow-roasted beef ($23), robust, fork-tender morsels paired with voluptuous pureed potatoes and, one of the best dishes on the planet, creamed winter greens.

Any ingredient Perello puts on the stove ends up tasting better than it ever has before. She’s a magician.

She calls on others with special powers, too. Ice creams from Humphry Slocombe complete her homey desserts ($6.50).

Her dad, a shop teacher, flew up from Arizona to help her build the restaurant.

Her partner, Paul Einbund, is not only one of the best wine pickers in town, but a buoyant dining room presence. He must have channeled his own inner Melissa when choosing his bottles.

Rarely have I encountered such a comfortable match of food and wine. Notable are $18 carafes of very drinkable house red and white.

Thoughtful details, not opulence, make Frances so compelling. Hand-made walnut furniture, hand-sewn coasters, hand-thrown side plates, thin glassware and soft lighting make a dining room that quickly feels like home. The gentle, professional staff nurture this impression, but it’s the honesty of the food that really grabs everyone.

Perello’s ingredients have not traveled far or spent very long in the kitchen. The farm-to-table ethic runs strong at Frances, yet there can be no doubt about the transformation. With each bite you know that she has gathered, thought about and cooked everything that day — just for you.

Frances

Location: 3870 17th St. (between Noe and Sanchez streets), San Francisco
Contact: 415-621-3870
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Price range: Starters, $6.50 to $11; main courses, $17 to $24
Recommended dishes: Yam frites, clams, duck-liver mousse, slow-roasted beef, all fish, creamed winter greens
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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