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Our Lady of the Castro

Making the most of a small storefront on a quiet corner of the Castro, Frances is just a few slick tables running the length of a narrow dining room. But despite its tiny footprint, Frances has a massive reputation and a massive culinary impact. It may be one of the strongest new neighborhood restaurants to open in San Francisco in the past decade.

Two large bays of plate-glass windows pop out into the sidewalk on the corner of Pond and 17th Streets, providing space for a group table on one side, and extra seating off a tiny bar on the other.

Although this is the Castro, donít expect to hear cheap dance music blasting from underwear shops. Instead, youíll find neighbors walking their dogs under shade trees that feel miles from Market Street.

Chef/owner Melissa Perelloís cooking here is being billed by critics and food watchers as comfort food, perhaps because of the folksy name and cozy space. Compared to her creations at Charles Nob Hill or Fifth Floor, that designation may be accurate. But don't expect to take comfort in old hat hamburgers and pizza. A recent menu, for example, had as an appetizer of Dungeness crab salad with sea urchin, kumquat, and endive ($12).

A salad featured a few weeks earlier ó mixed chicories with persimmon, almond, and pecorino ($10) ó sounded simple, but was bound by a wild earthiness that turned out to be chestnut honey; an expertís touch. This isnít the kind of San Francisco restaurant where ingredients are left to speak for themselves; Perello coaxes them into full-throated singing.

One night, the flavors in a parsnip soup ($8) were so deep that a conversation spanned several tables trying to decipher Perelloís technique. Entrees get folksier, like a bavette steak with cipollini onions and chimichurri ($23), but they are still sophisticated and exacting.

The staff is warm and welcoming, remembering us after just one visit. Drinks are overseen by Paul, a particularly enthusiastic wine nerd, whose passion for Madeira had me adding bottles of it to my iPhone shopping list as we spoke. But even more remarkable is their house wine, red or white, sold by the ounce out of a marked decanter. Itís simultaneously cheap and elegant.

The crowd is mixed, but at the moment seems to be dominated by those trying to surf the wave of restaurant openings. Itís extremely difficult to get reservations here, so we were tempted to get territorial (stay away from our Frances!) but the mood is so convivial that we just poured more wine instead.

If it sounds like weíve got a crush on Frances, well... maybe we do.

California Cuisine
Reservations? Essential