Monday, November 09, 2009

Back for Seconds: Commis

This is an occasional report on return visits to restaurants that I’ve already reviewed.

Star Rising in Oakland
3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland
Piedmont Avenue neighborhood
PH: 510.653.3902
Prix-fixe dinner only, 5:30–9:30 p.m., Wed.–Sun.
Reservations recommended, major credit cards accepted

Original visit: June 2009

It’s rare that I make a return visit to a new restaurant so soon, but with Commis it’s quite the exception.

It doesn’t hurt that it’s close to where I live. Since my visit a few days after this tiny restaurant opened in the summer, it has garnered a Michelin star and several mentions in the local and national press.

A somewhat lukewarm review from the San Francisco Chronicle also made me wonder if I had been overly generous with my first take on Commis, my excitement maybe heightened by the newness and originality of what Chef James Syhabout was doing.

Since that first visit, a few things have become clearer about Commis. One is that the $49 prix-fixe I paid for the three-course dinner was an introductory rate, and it has since settled into its permanent $59 prix-fixe price point. Another is that reservations require a $30 deposit on a credit card.

I didn’t deal with the reservations deposit because I walked in early one night, just like the last time, without a reservation. And despite its popularity, I was able to snatch a seat on one of the stools at the counter facing the open kitchen in the center of the room.

Commis’ hostess also went out of her way to welcome me back. I thought that was amazing because not only did she recognize me even though I’ve only dined there once before, but she also chatted with me about how my workout went, recalling that the last time I had just come in from the gym. It’s this personable touch that I’m sure was noticed favorably by the Michelin people.

Chef Syhabout’s seasonal menu still lists only a few items, but you can make your three-course dinner out of any combinations. So you don’t have to stick with a starter, entrée and dessert. Because there have been complaints about the serving sizes being small (actually a major point of the Chronicle review), you can pick two starters and an entrée, or even two entrées and dessert.

To start my dinner that night, Chef Syhabout — who worked quietly in front of me, always focused on the details of the plate in front of him — sent out two amuses. First was a lovely shiso or perilla soda. The shot glass contained a beautiful pink-tainted drink that was refreshing, with touches of rose and hints of what seemed like Indonesian long pepper.

Then came this amazing bowl of onion-flavored foam with a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg yolk. Accented with smoked chopped dates and chives, this entire amuse awakened my senses to the many flavors and tastes ahead. Complexity continues to be a theme in the dishes at Commis, and I wished this dish was more than an amuse because it was so satisfying and creative.

For my actual dinner, I started with the roasted beet salad, served with greens and a pear sauce on the side. Some chefs might complain about how every restaurant offers a roasted beet salad, but I heart beets so I’m not complaining. But you can bet Syhabout did his best to put his own spin on the roasted beet salad.

The red beets, roasted tender, were sprinkled with tiny crunchy bits (not sure what they were but it was an interesting contrasting texture) and thinly sliced red onions. The pear sauce on the side had a subtle flavor, not overly sweet, so initially I didn’t think it added much to the beets. But that’s the mastery of Chef Syhabout because he provides complex flavors that actually progresses through a meal. So even though I didn’t get the pear sauce initially, as I continued to eat my salad and slowly blended the beets in the pear sauce, my palate slowly changed and I started appreciating the added tastes from the pears. It was, in a word, enlightening.

For my main course, I ordered the duck because you know my rule about duck on the menu. ;-) This duck (which was the last night it was served for the season) was presented two ways: 1) poached then seared and 2) braised. The duck pieces sat in a mulled broth and were served with king trumpet mushrooms, greens and cranberry beans. It was finished off with a sugar-plum condiment and a few squirts of some green liquid.

I have to say, the duck surprisingly was not my favorite dish of the night. Not that it was bad; it was just not as complex or innovative as other dishes I’ve had at Commis. Because the duck breast sat in the broth, the seared skin wasn’t crispy. And the breast pieces were more on the rare side, so it was a bit tough to cut into. The strong taste of the duck also masked any of the nuanced flavors from the broth or any of the sides.

Side note: Sitting at the counter, you get to watch Chef Syhabout and his sous chefs meticulous prepare your dish. In a way, it was a bit awkward because whenever they finished a plate, I kept thinking is it coming to me? And it’s not like sitting at a bar where you can chat with the bartenders. Although the chefs are pleasant, they’re extremely focused and you almost feel like you don’t want to bother them. They work like artists, using tweezers to pick a twig of wildflowers and then perfectly place it on the dish. I didn’t want to be blamed if one flower was off centered because I distracted the chef.

For my final course, I went the traditional route and ordered dessert, specifically the cheddar cheesecake with green apple. Out came a small rectangular piece of cheesecake bejeweled with tiny candied bits of green apple and tiny flowers. Also on top were cracklings made from something I totally forgot, but it was like shredded wheat but more fine.

Although I thought there was too much of the shredded wheat, I totally enjoyed the piece of cheesecake, which was creamy and soft. The tiny bits of candied gems just added little burst of sweetness now and then, making it a wonderful end to another amazing dinner.

A note about wine: the last time I did the wine pairing for an additional $29 but this time I ordered a glass of red from the wine list. As a nice medium-body red wine, I ordered a glass of the La Casaccia Barbera de Monferrato 2007 ($11), which turned out to be a smooth compliment to everything I ate.

Looking back at each course and the enjoyment I got out of each one (even the duck), I decided that the $59 price point is a real value for what you get. I didn’t feel hungry or disappointed, and in fact left rejuvenated and inspired. It’s the kind of dinner that makes you want to go talk to people about dining and life. So it’s no surprise that Commis has a lot of people talking these days.

Update experience (previous 4.5 stars): Still delivering at the high standard set from day one.

Commis on Urbanspoon

Other reviews of interest:
Ubuntu: “What’s Growing this Fall in Jeremy Fox’s Garden”
Coi: “The High Price of Eating with All Your Senses”
Five: “Berkeley Hotel Dining is Reborn”


Carolyn Jung said...

A meal that leaves you totally rejuvenated? I'd say, that's a bargain no matter what the price. Not many meals can do that to you. Ahh, still hope to get to Commis soon-ish. Your meal looked fab.

Nate @ House of Annie said...

Do Michelin reviewers (or professional reviewers in general) like being remembered? I thought that anonymity is preferred.

Single Guy Ben said...

Carolyn, you gotta make your way to Oakland soon!

Nate/Annie, I was trying to make the point that I bet the Michelin people appreciated the personal touch, like how the hostess remembers details of your last visit. I'm sure the Michelin people were anonymous, but I bet the hostess still remembered them as a guest who dined earlier and treated them like a neighbor.

winebookgirl said...

That egg amuse really was amazing.

Hungry Dog said...

Nice review. I've been wanting to check this place out (I think I just saw a blurb about it in Food and Wine?), how lucky that it's in your 'hood! Sounds like you had the perfect perch for observing/eating/enjoying. And did I mention, I *always* order duck when it's on the menu? It's one of my favorites.

foodhoe said...

oooh, I like that the food made you want to go talk to people about dining and life! that's awesome. was the egg dish an amuse? I love how it looks just like a poached egg, but that it's actually a yolk floating in onion foam... very amusing! that cheesecake sounded very righteous too.

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, the egg was just an amuse, but I wish it was more! :) And the portion size for that cheesecake is just right for my cholesterol! ;-)

A said...

Are u going to the Big Idea party Sat?

Single Guy Ben said...

A, I'm not planning on going to the Big Idea party at Yerba Buena this weekend. It sounds like it'll be fun but I'm in total "can't get my ass off the couch" mode. Been this way for a few weekends ever since I had family visiting in September and October. So you should go and tell me what happened! :)

Hungry Hedonist said...

Sounds like an excellent meal. Hopefully they haven't blacklisted me by now since I've had to cancel twice!