Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Commonwealth in San Francisco

Upscale Dining But Still With a Purpose
2224 Mission St. (at 18th), San Francisco
Mission District
PH: 415.355.1500
Dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. (Friday and Saturday, till 11 p.m.) closed Monday
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

The new Commonwealth restaurant is a far cry from the underground Mission Street Food. But funny enough, the restaurant is just two doors down from Lung Shan Chinese restaurant, where Commonwealth partner/chef Anthony Myint put on his weekly Mission Street Food dinners with guest chefs helping out in the kitchen.

With Commonwealth comes permanency. In the kitchen are Myint’s partners, former Bar Tartine colleague Jason Fox, who serves as Commonwealth’s executive chef, and sommelier Sarah Elliott. But the restaurant, which opened last month, does retain some of the social responsibility lineage of Mission Street Food. (Thus the name, Commonwealth.)

The restaurant started with some grassroots fund-raising efforts among small investors, and a portion of the earnings goes to a local charity. The contemporary design of the restaurant (which used to be a Mexican restaurant) reflects an environmental sensibility with natural woods and air plants floating in globes from the ceiling.

When you approach Commonwealth, you see a funky mural for Hunt’s Quality Donuts on one side. The mural was discovered while workers was renovating the former El Herradero, and Myint and his partners decided to keep it for a bit of nostalgia.

I visited for dinner last week with my food blogging partner in crime, Foodhoe’s Foraging. We were seated in the tiny 45-seat space and decided right away that we were going with the chef’s tasting menu. The menu goes for $60 and you can tag on the wine pairing for a total of $90 (which we did). Chef Fox plans to change the tasting menu with the seasons. (Also, $10 of the tasting menu goes to the weekly charity; on this night it was the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.)

Every table starts off with a bowl of home-made potato chips served with malt vinegar whipped up like whipped cream. Since I don’t normally eat potato chips, I just tried one piece to see what it was like. It was beautifully thin and pretty to look at, but nothing really spectacular. Foodhoe loved it, even the malt vinegar, although I’m not a fan of the pungency of malt vinegar, even when whipped up like cream.

Our dinner started with a glass of cava, the Spanish sparkling wine that I love. It was quickly followed by an amuse bouche of fluke crudo, served with tiny melon cubes and just the slightest bits of pine needles. It was nice and simple, and the pine needles do add a unique twist to the dish’s overall flavor although not something you’d want to chew on.

Our first course was a chilled summer squash soup served with a glass of Grüner Veltliner, an Austrian white wine I’d never had before but was a favorite of Foodhoe’s. The soup itself came with a fried squash blossom, which I did eat even though it was deep-fried. I know. I decided it was just this small piece, and really, summer blossoms only taste good when deep-fried, and Commonwealth’s version was perfectly fried – light and airy – and a fine companion to the chilled soup.

Foodhoe was taken aback for some reason by the chilled soup, but I’m used to chilled soups during the summer. And this one was very enjoyable, with a creamy body and interesting flavors from the vadouvan spice and drizzling of olive oil.

The next course was one of my favorites – a corn custard topped with uni (sea urchin). First off, I was mesmerized by the beautiful bowl with blue accent glaze that held the custard. Foodhoe says the custard reminded her of chawanmushi, the Japanese custard dish, and it was true because the custard was smooth and light. The uni, which I thought was quite a large piece, added more of the Japanese flavor to the overall dish, but the flavor was broadened by the chorizo and jalapeno, and a lobster emulsion on the side.

Our corn custard was served with a glass of 2004 Jean Thevenet Chardonnay. I have to say at this point I wasn’t that impressed by the wine pairings so far. Although the chardonnay was nice, I didn’t feel it complemented the silky custard. Maybe because the corn made the dish slightly sweet, and the chardonnay’s sweetness was a bit too much? (I wasn’t a fan of the earlier Grüner Veltliner either.)

Our third course was a real test for me. After already broken my rule about eating deep-fried foods (it was just a small squash blossom, OK!), I was about to break my rule about eating foie gras.

Well, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. I just generally avoid foie gras, partly because the idea of the poor fattening goose (although Foodhoe says they will still get fat even if they we’re not force-fed) and partly because the fattiness of foie gras is just wrong for my cholesterol.

Commonwealth sent out a salt-cured foie gras medallion served with umeboshi (Japanese plum sauce) and seaweed brioche. The wine paired with this course was a 2008 Eva Fricke Lorch Riesling.

The foie gras had a creamy texture, although it wasn’t exactly like butter. It was a tad harder than butter, but still nice when spread on the brioche. Foodhoe and I both agreed that we probably would have liked it if the piece of foie gras was seared a bit, creating some caramelization of the fat. I wasn’t thrilled by my first bite, but the taste slowly grew on me, especially when I dragged it along the smear of umeboshi.

Our main course (this was course No. 4) was goat cooked in hay. It was presented two ways – loin medallions and a belly piece that was almost like bacon. The belly piece was delicious and perfectly cooked, and I enjoyed the whole dish, which came with fresh chickpeas and yogurt presented in some interesting molecular gastronomic ways. But my favorite part was the roasted nardello peppers because it was my first time tasting this pepper and I’m always excited when discovering new ingredients. The pepper was mild and slightly sweet, but a wonderful complement to the goat meat.

This dish was served with a red wine, the 2007 Château des Tours Côtes du Rhône blend.

With our main course done, we transitioned to dessert. And as a palate cleanser we were served a lovely plum sorbet that sat on a bed of almond granita. The almond granita was a bit chalky, but the sorbet was perfectly reflective of the season and did the job to clear our palates for the main dessert, and our sixth and final course of the night.

Our dessert plate included squares of cardamom marshmallow, cinnamon mille feuille and a bitter chocolate square that was almost like a ganache. Everything was complemented with a scoop of burnt honey ice cream. Our dessert course was served with a pretty glass of Los Bermejos Malvasia from the Canary Islands.

The dessert was a mixed plate, with the marshmallow tasting chewy like marshmallow (I’m not a fan of the marshmallow texture) but the mille feuille providing a delightful crunch to offset the creamy chocolate on the plate.

Side note: Our server was excellent, very friendly and helpful in explaining the dishes. The front of the house staff did seem to be easily overwhelmed or maybe they’re still getting used to the system since the restaurant is still just a month old, but it did seem to take a long time to figure out where we would be seated.

Because the space is tiny, the tables are very close to each other, so you can expect to overhear a lot of conversations. Or in our case, expect to spy a lot of dishes. I kept noticing the courses coming out from the regular menu, which looked really enticing and maybe more satisfying in portion size than our tasting menu.

In the end, I felt the tasting menu was inventive and creative, but it seemed to be working on a refined and delicate position instead of bold and assertive. I have to admit that I did feel a bit hungry afterwards (such is the case with some tasting menus when the portion sizes lean on the small side) but when I remember that $10 from the $60 price tag goes to a charity, then the meal seems worthwhile after all.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (refined small bites)

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

Commonwealth on Urbanspoon

You can read Foodhoe's take on our dinner on her blog here.

More like this:
Lafitte: “Not Quite a Revolution but a Revelation”
eVe: “Tasting Menu of Local Flavors”
Commis: “Innovative Tasting Arrives in Oakland Neighborhood”


foodhoe said...

Great pics! I regret that we didn't stop at Sycamore for the pork belly donut afterwards...

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, one day soon we have to get that donut! :)

Carolyn Jung said...

What a fun dining experience. But I tell ya, I cannot fathom how you could stop at just one potato chip. That's inhuman. ;)

Nate @ House of Annie said...

Thanks for taking us along, and for taking the cholesterol hit. The dishes seem pretty inventive, especially the foie gras with umeboshi sauce. But overall it seems to me that the dinner trended on the sugary sweet side.

Constance C said...

I'm really happy to see you had a chance to try Gruener! and it sounds like it was a wonderful pairing - Foodhoe's palate is definitely in the right place ;)

what did YOU think of the wine?

anthony said...

Thanks for the greatly detailed review. I have to agree that sometimes the tasting menu isn't always the best option, and that there are some much more adventurous options on the main menu. I guess it gives you an introduction though, and makes you want to go back next time for some more!

Single Guy Ben said...

Carolyn, you have to stop at one, because once you eat more than one chip, then that's when you can't stop.

Nate, the food actually wasn't all that supery sweet. It was pretty balanced, but I do like the sweet-savory taste profile.

Constance, I liked the wine but didn't LOVE it. It was more wet and watery than a sauvignon blanc but too sweet. It was nice but not amazing.

Anthony, I really do want to try the regular menu. Probably better for my pocketbook too! ;-)