Chef Manny Torres Gimenez has owned four restaurants in the Mission now, with different degrees of success (arguably, Mr. Pollo — his tiny, ridiculously affordable, wonderfully quirky, prix-fixe place — may have been his most popular.) Francisca’s, named after his grandmother, is his and wife (and FOH staffer) Katerina de Torres’ latest endeavor, billed as an Italian/Venezuelan restaurant.
The food is meant to reflect Torres Gimenez’ South American background, as well as his travels in Europe after closing his last restaurant, Coco Frio. The chef’s illustrious background cooking at Coi, Spruce, Quince, A16 and SPRQ precedes him. (Two of his protégés own and run the Guamanian restaurant down the street, Prubechu.) And his passion for cooking is evident. He often helps out with service, warmly greeting his guests and explaining the dishes.
That Francisca’s has risen in the space of another of his former restaurants, The Palace — which closed after a fire — is emblematic to me that Torres Gimenez wants to continue to reinvent himself. The space (which “officially” opened four months ago, according to his wife Katerina, though I think they’ve been operating since late 2017) was completely remodeled and is modern and, for me, a bit cold, with concrete floors and restrained décor. There is a bar area where you can sit and watch the kitchen’s goings-on, or indulge in happy hour, which I believe features a $35 prix fixe menu (normally $65, and the whole table must participate.)
On our first visit, we ordered the Forager salad to share.
A beautiful plate, but for some reason, the word “forager’ had me thinking it would be primarily a mushroom starter. Instead, there was only a tiny pile of mushrooms on either side of the plate, atop a cream of asparagus. This was curious, as there was also a cilantro cream dressing for the salad greens and roasted cauliflower. There was no evidence of the balsamic listed on the menu, and we found it odd to have essentially two competing dressings on the plate. It was all tasty enough, just a bit confounding. Plus, unless I ask for dressing on the side, please dress my salad in the kitchen.
The BF ordered the Kobe steak.
The ultimate in tenderness, napped with a little jus and topped with chimichurri. I loved the flavor but BF disliked it, saying it tasted “fishy,” like mussels. I personally think this was due to the power of suggestion, as we were debating about ordering the mussels as our starter. Also on his plate were some rather strange and yet quite delicious little gnocchi de yuca, but there were only about 6 or 8 pieces. There were also some salad greens and favas. A mish-mash indeed, but not unenjoyable, to me.
I got the carbonara.
The pasta was rich and funky from the guanciale, but it was a little tight — I think I prefer a slightly looser sauce. Still, I had no real complaint about it, but ended up bringing most of it home for the BF to finish.
The restaurant was only half full on a Friday night. And while the service was warm and friendly, it was a little slow. Not terribly, but with it not being crowded, we had to wonder why. Nonetheless, we went with open minds for our second visit.
We started with the allium soup, which the kitchen kindly split for us.
Another looker. The soup was described as a blend of ramps, leeks, etc. — you know: alliums. I found it very mild in flavor, not oniony at all. Also, I found it curious that a chef would use a relatively difficult-to-find, short-seasoned ingredient like ramps that people go nuts for on the East Coast, and would not feature them more prominently, make them the main attraction, or at least not put them in a muddle of a cream soup that could have been peas, could have been asparagus. It was a tasty, inoffensive dish, but … you want more than that, right?
Luckily, the BF’s pork shank was TO. DIE. FOR.
Look at that beauty! Fall-off-the-bone tender (we didn’t need the steak knife they provided), flavorful, in a wonderfully homey broth, over super-cheesy polenta. The only quibble the BF had was the red -eaf lettuce strewn over the top as garnish, which became unpleasantly wilty in the heat. But, overall, it was really very good, the BF loved his dish. I did too. It reminded me again what Chef Manny can do.
For my main, I had the cod.
It was perfectly cooked, despite the skin being perhaps a bit dark. I actually said to the server when she brought it, “Is that burned?” She didn’t really answer, so I went for it. While there was a slightly acrid flavor to the skin, it was perfectly crispy and the fish itself was tender as butter, sweet, just lovely. Underneath was a beurre blanc (a French wine/butter sauce, here annoyingly called “burro” — the Italian word for “butter.” Again, trying to tie to the Italian theme, I guess), which was absolutely delicious. I could have rolled around that plate and licked myself clean.
My market vegetables, however, while nicely al dente and tasty — especially the fabulous one bite I got of a nutty sunchoke slice — were nevertheless an odd component of the plate. The zucchini, the one Brussels sprout, and whatever other veggies there were, were lukewarm, and mixed into them were even colder bits of tomato, and avocado — almost like a salsa had been tossed in as an afterthought. It didn’t work, and was unnecessary. I would have much preferred a simple, elegant side of those sunchokes with the fish.
But, since we were mostly happy with our dinners, we thought we’d push our luck and try dessert.
“Tres leches” tiramisu. Despite de Torres informing us that the Chef’s take on tres leches (“three milks”) consisted of condensed milk (no dulce de leche here), evaporated milk and cream, this tasted like any normal tiramisu, no more, no less. The strawberries were particularly good, at least.
Service on our second visit was, again, slow — we were there for more than an hour before our entrees came. Ms. De Torres was apologetic and gracious, and it gave me enough time to have a second glass of a very good Tempranillo.
We really wanted to be big fans. I’ve been rooting for Chef Manny for years now, ever since Mr. Pollo. For both of us, the problem seems to be one of focus. Many dishes suffered from having too many disparate things on the plate. Perhaps Chef Manny could take a hint from that old Coco Chanel adage, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” There seems to be an over-reach, a desire to do too much — to put too much — on a plate. But we want to keep rooting for him, following his career, seeing his smiling face in the kitchen, cheering him on.
And you should, too. We all should go out and support our local chefs, particularly those who keep trying to stay in our neighborhood. The rewards may be uneven, but they are there.
3047 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110