Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dish on Dining: Commis

Innovative Tasting Arrives in Oakland Neighborhood
3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland
Piedmont Avenue neighborhood
PH: 510.653.3902
Prix-fixe dinner only from 5:30 p.m., Wed.–Sun.
Reservations recommended, major credit cards accepted

I usually wait for a restaurant to be open for at least a couple of weeks before I go and check it out. But when a restaurant is headed by a “Rising Star” chef who once cooked at a two-Michelin-star restaurant, I knew I had to get in a visit before it becomes too hot to even ask about a reservation.

That restaurant is Commis, the long-awaited solo venture of James Syhabout, a 29-year-old chef who was named one of San Francisco Chronicle’s 2007 Rising Star Chefs. Commis was the chef de cuisine at the noted Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos and garnered rave reviews when he headed the kitchen in San Francisco’s Plumpjack Café.

Commis also happens to be in my Oakland neighborhood, so when I heard that it officially opened its doors last Thursday, I walked in for dinner the next night on my way home from the gym.

The restaurant is in the former Jojo space, a cozy neighborhood restaurant that closed down a few months ago when the owners decided to leave at the height of its popularity. While some wonder if anyone can fill the shoes of the popular Jojo, I believe the foodies in the area are going to go crazy for Commis.

I don’t know if it was planned this way, but the exterior is very minimal with no signage out front. When I walked in, I was able to score the last walk-in table despite the fact that the restaurant was nearly 90 percent empty. That’s because many of the tables in the tiny space were already reserved.

Commis is French for “apprentice” or “trainee,” which I guess is Chef Syhabout’s humble way of saying that he’s still honing his craft, constantly learning and evolving. But with the design of the restaurant, there’s no doubt that he’s commanding the show as Syhabout cooks with his chef de cuisine in an open kitchen right in the center of the room, surrounded by counter seating.

Despite being just two days old, you sense that Syhabout’s experience in fine dining has been drilled into his staff. The servers are all very professional and friendly, and are all well-suited to explaining the restaurant’s concept and its menu.

Commis offers only a $49 three-course, prix-fixe dinner showcasing seasonal ingredients, some foraged from the nearby Oakland hills. The server says the menu will stay the same during these early days, but the chef plans to change it regularly, even daily, down the road.

On its opening menu, each course offered about three to four options. The only course with limited options was dessert, which offered just two choices.

I also opted for the wine pairings for $29. Because I was doing the wine tasting, I was brought out this glass of German sparkling wine as an apéritif. It was infused with a slice of ginger and some peppercorns. I wasn’t a big fan of the flavor of the wine, but loved the idea of the fresh ginger.

My dinner started with this amuse bouche, a shot glass filled with a pretty peach puree topped off with green foam. The green foam was made using a native plant that starts with an “N.” The server pretty much said the name four times and I still couldn’t recognize it or understand how to spell it. All I know is that the bright orange petal on top comes from the plant and it’s grown in the wild in the East Bay. Whatever it’s called, it provided an herbal-like contrast to the sweet peach puree underneath. The two flavors complemented each other beautifully and it was a refreshing drink on what was a very warm summer night.

The wine that went with my first course was a French Chardonnay. I wish I had all the specifics about the winery and vintage, but it all went by so fast. This particular French wine was slightly dry but buttery with a sweet undertone. This and all the other wine pairings worked well with each course.

For my first course, I had the option of a squash soup, gem lettuce salad or smoked mackerel. But I went with the Soft Farm Egg with Potato and Alliums because it contained crispy pork jowl, which is the cheeks of the pig.

The plate came out looking like a playground of flavors. There were cubes of pork jowl with golden potatoes topped with the soft egg and grilled scallion. Off to one side was a smear of black garlic with pretty purple flowers that I’m guessing came from the alliums.

I really enjoyed the pork jowl, which was slightly crispy but so creamy when you bit into it. The farm egg was soft boiled, so it didn’t necessarily ooze out as much as it was just tender. I would sometimes drag my fork into the black garlic just to get a burst of flavor that I’ve never experienced before. Even the potato cubes had an added dimension of flavor that I couldn’t detect but enjoyed. This emerged as a theme for the night as Chef Syhabout sent out dishes that were complex yet beautiful.

For the main course, there was an offering of roasted chicken or aged beef loin but I settled for the Morro Bay Cod with English Pea Porridge. Another beautifully plated dish with coriander blossoms highlighted the perfectly seared cod, which still had its crispy skin intact, and which I ate every bit of. But I really felt the star of the plate was the English pea porridge that was bright in flavor and smooth in sweetness.

Now, I have to admit that I picked this dish because one of the ingredients listed was “delta crayfish.” And I just liked the idea of seeing a little crayfish on my plate. But as you can see on the picture, there wasn’t one. And I didn’t think about asking about it because I was so intrigued by the different flavors.

Partly I was also too self-conscious to ask my server. Sometimes at a fancy and pricey restaurant, I feel like I’m asking too much if I almost question the chef. Where’s my crayfish? Why did he say crayfish but I don’t see any on my plate!? Yes, I’m sure there’s a polite way to bring it up. But I didn’t want to look stupid. I will say, however, that the foam in the dish had a distinct shellfish flavor, so maybe the crayfish was meant to be only in the broth? What would you have done? If you go to Commis in the next few days, let me know what you find out if you’re brave enough or smart enough to inquire.

The wine with the fish was also another one from France; this time a sauvignon blanc that I enjoyed more than the first wine. It was crisp and young and perfect for the weather and food.

The final course was dessert, which was a Chilled Strawberry-Watermelon Soup with fino basil, black pepper ice cream and bits of vanilla. (The other option was a semi-frozen homemade crème fraice.) The soup was served with the same German sparkling wine that came as an apéritif but served naked without any added elements like ginger or peppercorns.

The strawberry-watermelon soup was very enjoyable and, again, really perfect for the warm evening. It tasted more watermelon than strawberry, but that’s a minor point. I enjoyed the little pearls of watermelon and the ice cream was a luxurious addition (although it didn’t really taste that peppery). Overall, it was an elegant ending to a delightful dinner.

Keep in mind that Commis’ three-course dinner is very French in presentation, which means creativity in small portions. I consider this more of a tasting menu instead of your typical three-course dinner you’d get at a neighborhood joint. But if you’re open to the innovations of Chef Syhabout, then you’ll be treated like a prince (or princess) as you dine on elegance and complexity.

Syhabout’s venture reminds me a lot of Chef Dennis Leary’s Canteen in the city. These two remarkable chefs are hands-on, making fantastic dinners for their customers in a tiny spot. Granted, Syhabout’s space is more refined and fancy than Leary’s homey and eclectic diner, but the intimacy is there.

I think I was smart to try Syhabout’s dinner so soon after his opening because with his experience, the meal was perfectly timed and orchestrated. The problem now is if I want to come back for more, I’m sure I won’t be as lucky in scoring an open table.

Commis’ entry to the neighborly Piedmont Avenue may seem like an odd location for Syhabout’s first restaurant. For years the nearby Bay Wolf (just a few yards away) was the recognized leader of fine dining on the street, but now it can only dream to plate dishes like Commis. What Syhabout has done by opening up in a tiny indiscreet location is create an emerging food destination with Commis at the heart.

Single guy rating: 4.5 stars (A special place)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Commis on Urbanspoon

Related reviews:
Canteen: “Make Dennis Leary Your Personal Chef”
Coi: “The High Price of Eating with All Your Senses”
La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar: “Nine (Plus) Courses to Remember for a Lifetime”


firsttimers! said...

I think that flower may have been a nasturtium. I had a sauce made of them poured over veal sweetbreads at Petrus in London - and it was amazing.

foodhoe said...

ooh, just made reservations for our 5 year anniversary. The reservation taker was so nice, even if I asked for the window table... Can't wait!

Single Guy Ben said...

Worldfoodie, that's it! Nasturtium. It was a really long word so didn't know how to spell it and never heard about it until this dinner. You're good!

Foodhoe, I think Commis will be really nice for your anniversary dinner! Casual but still elegant. And with two, you guys can switch off on the options so you'll have double the photos of the food there! Definitely order the pork jowl if it's on the menu when you go! And although you'll have dessert at Commis, you should still walk up a few blocks to check out my favorite gelato place, Lush, right across the Piedmont Theatre. Try any of the herbal flavors like basil or fresh mint! Happy anniversary!

Carolyn Jung said...

You are speedy! Can't believe you already made it there to eat. But then again, when some place with so much buzz is just steps away in your neighborhood, might as well pay a visit. Glad you did so that you could give us this great report.

Jenster said...

I used to be a little intimidated about asking questions in nicer restaurants, too, but then I realize that the better restaurants want their diners to be educated, so they would probably want you to ask about the missing crayfish instead of wondering throughout your meal where it had gone! *LOL*

I'm usually very polite and I don't pepper busy staffers with too many questions, but the few times I've asked they've always been very professional and helpful.

The amuse bouche in your photo looked amazingly delicious! Wish I could try some first-hand.

jmyg said...

Great review, Single Guy--I had the luck to get into Commis last night on a friend's reservation, and it was stellar. Noticed some changes from the dishes you describe, and the menu has gone up to $59 for three courses. That said, it still seems right for the price, especially considering they gave us the option of picking ANY three courses--so our group, eating early, decided to forgo dessert, and each picked either two apps and a main, or one app and two mains (the first main was an app-size portion). Rumor has it Commis is going to shift to an 8-course tasting menu that will surely cost a lot more, so I would encourage those who haven't tried it to go now!

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks for the update about the pricing JMYG. It's odd that they raised the price so soon after opening. That reminds me of Michael Mina's RN74 upping its prices after opening too. But I do like the concept and the food at Commis, so I think I would probably pay the $59 still. I like that there's more flexibility on the selection across courses.