Project 80

Is it possible, or even desirable—not to mention socially responsible—to attempt the feat of dining at 80 different restaurants over a period of 80 days? Being almost halfway through this task of epicurian proportions, following is an account of #35.

Saturday, December 3, 2011. I arrived in front of Frances at 4:43 pm, the first one in line, thereby assuring me a seat at the counter when they open at 5:00. My equivalent to queuing up for a new iPhone. I’m thinking this will be my definitive visit—or maybe not. I’ve been going to Frances, a now legendary San Francisco restaurant, since it opened 2 years ago, not as often as I should, and most times I’ve left rapturous, although a couple of times I have been mildly disappointed. This time we will see. My perceptions and tastes have been sharpened by my current project—to visit 80 different restaurants in 80 days. A frivolous mission, you might think, the meaning of which I’ve had to wrestle with, although not profoundly. I’ll do it anyway. Its my personal economic stimulus package. If the western economies all collapse—which I regard as inevitable at some point—people will still have to eat. Restaurants employ a lot of people—from farm to table, as they like to say—and we are blessed to live in what will probably be someday viewed as the golden age of dining. So enjoy!

Frances occupies a small space on the corner of 17th and Pond in the Castro District. Tables are closely packed together for those fortunate enough to have a reservation. Those who do not can jockey for a space at the counter—and there is always a line. Standing outside by the front door in the darkening twilight I can I can hear a woman’s voice inside going over tonight’s menu with the staff. Is it Melissa Perello, the beautiful young chef/owner who makes this all happen? Probably. I could peek through the door but I don’t want to be too obvious. Meanwhile, I turn around and notice there are now several people in line behind me, talking of course about how hard it is to get a reservation. And then, happening all too fast, Melissa herself strides out the front door, stopping as whe walks past me to say hi. She seems to recognized me, says its nice to see me again, flashes her beautiful smile. Five minutes to go!

5:01. They’re always a little late opening, but never by much. I’m in, first seat at the counter, the choice spot in the entire place, which fills up rapidly. It doesn’t take long to scan the menu and decide on the clams, the celery root soup, and the Sonoma duck breast. As usual, I order the house blended red wine from Miraflores Winery in a carafe where they charge you according to how much you drink, $1 per ounce. Great wine, great deal! Soon the clams arrive and I am in heaven. Two large shells filled with minced cherry stone clams baked with winter greens, fennel, and scallop and bacon cream. No sooner do I dive into the clams than a runner arrives presenting me with an order of the calamari salad as a gift from Melissa. Now I really feel special!

Next course: celery root soup with chestnuts, baby turnips and chanterelle mushrooms. The broth arrives in a separate pitcher and is poured over the other ingredients by the server. I pause to enjoy the smell wafting up from the bowl—the smell alone is worth the price.

And then: nothing less than the best duck I’ve ever had in my life. Thick little rectangular cubes of amazingly tender and perfected cooked Sonoma duck breast served in a bowl with cotecchino sausage, sauteed escarole and Italian butter beans, pulled together by the light but flavorful au jus sauce again poured from a pitcher by the server.

All this time a small crowd swirls around behind me, people arriving with reservations, or people without reservations but with high hopes. Two young women chat standing by the door, drinking wine. One of them starts a conversation with me, a delightful creature named Jennifer whose husband is waiting outside. They recently married after he proposed to her in Paris. A bit tipsy, I join her in waxing ecstatically about how wonderful everything is.

Dessert. Normally I would get my old favorite, the lumberjack cake, a creation not to be missed. But tonight I opt for the chocolate almond ‘clafoutis’ which is not exactly a clafoutis but more like a round of chocolate cake with a carmelized banana in the middle and salted caramel ice cream atop burnt caramel on the side. In a nod to moderation I left a small bite uneaten, paid my bill and said goodbye to Jennifer whose party is now seated next to me. But before leaving I walked back to the window opening to the kitchen to say goodbye to Melissa. “That was the best duck I ever had in my life!” I exclaimed. “Yes!” went Melissa. And so I departed into the night, restaurant 35 out of 80, a meal that will not soon be forgotten!

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~ by PB on December 3, 2011.

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