Commis, Oakland

As you walk down the dark sidewalks of Piedmont Avenue looking for the right address, what you’ll find is not your typical neighborhood restaurant. There are no signs or menus outside, just a brightly lit white awning topping the all-glass facade. At first glance, it looks more like an art gallery space than a standard dining room. But what lies inside is a gastronomical oasis enclosed by stark white walls.

Step in and you’ll see a modern open kitchen framed by a 6-seat counter. With orchestrated precision, the chefs move graciously in the small space that resembles a cross of a sushi bar and a modern laboratory. Absolutely pristine and quiet except for the occasional hissing sound of liquids squirted into hot stainless steel saucepans. Each dish is artfully assembled with surgical tongs. A captivating process that, not coincidentally, is staged right in the middle of the dining room.

Commis’ design is minimalist. Not a single piece of art or decoration adorn the walls and there’s no bar or lounge distraction. Diners that arrive early are encouraged to watch the kitchen while standing by the entrance. No one complains.

Including the counter seats, only 31 guests fill the dining room. The restaurant’s minimalist personality is reflected in every detail. From the naked tables to the über modern dinnerware. But here modern doesn’t mean cold. Service, for example, is extremely efficient yet very approachable.

And while most diners arrive with reservations, the bright space that once housed a more traditional eatery still draws a handful of curious walk-ins unfamiliar with Commis’ more unconventional dining experience. Some look at the menu and decide that’s not for them (more on that later).

The menu

Commis’ nightly selection changes often based on the seasonality of local sustainable ingredients. The prix fixe menu ($59) includes three courses plus amuse bouches and mignardises. There are nine options in total, four appetizers, three entrées and three desserts. A wine pairing is also available ($29).

The meal

James Syhabout’s career includes stints in some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. Restaurants recognized for their unparalleled excellence and creativity that have earned them countless awards, Michelin stars and critic praises. Restaurants like El Bulli, The Fat Duck and Mugaritz.

Back in the Bay Area, the chef worked at COI and Manresa before opening his own place overseas (across the bridge, that is). In kitchen ranks, commis is a junior chef. A position of apprenticeship–there to learn, to absorb. And that’s what Syhabout believes every chef should be, no matter how experienced he/she is. That’s how he approaches his work, with the humbleness and eagerness of a commis. That’s how he named his restaurant.

Syhabout’s cuisine is inventive, flavorful and precise. The chef’s influences can be seen reflected in some of his dishes.

Commis serves tasty small house baked rolls with Humboldt County butter.

To begin, Red shiso soda. Infused with Japanese basil leaves, the foamy drink has a sweet, brisk taste with an aroma reminiscent of green grass after the rain. It awakens and entices your palate to what comes next.

As an amuse bouche, A delicate concoction of poached farm egg, date purée, white onion soup, malt vinegar, chives and house made granola. A beautiful combination of complex flavors and textures with each individual element cooked perfectly. A memorable dish.

Braised lamb cheeks with anise purée. Oyster vinaigrette and young radishes. The tender lamb cheeks are paired with ingredients of contrasting temperatures and textures, like the crunchiness of cold watermelon and French radishes against the creamy purée.

Soft farm egg with potatoes and alliums. Fermented black garlic and pork jowl. In what may very well become Syhabout’s signature dish (it seems to be the critics’ favorite), the chef blends together contrasting ingredients that couldn’t work better together. A beautifully cooked egg that appears as glossy as porcelain yields a bright soft orange yolk. The ebony-black fermented garlic is brushed on the plate as a sweet, balsamic-like paste. Fatty cubes of pork add richness to the dish.

Guinea fowl with natural renderings. Toasted wheat berries with walnuts and maroon carrots, gourd mustard. Cooked sous-vide and finished in the pan, the lean fowl is juicy and tender. Intertwined together to form a yin and yang of dark and white meats, it is served over the contrasting texture of wheat berries cooked al dente and complemented by the sweet mustard.

Slow roasted pork loin and belly, pomegranate juice. Creamed escarole and tarragon bread crust. Once again, a nice play on contrasting flavors and textures also featuring caramelized sunchokes and spinach.

Apple-thyme tatin. Amber ale caramel, English cheddar ice cream.
This minimalist version of the classic French dessert may not be as luscious as the original but the cheddar ice cream is a worthy complement.

Warm pumpkin custard. Licorice cream, root beer reduction, pepitas. A delicious warm custard, soft and sweet. Paired with a velvety licorice cream, a caramel-like reduction and crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds.

In short

In what became a controversial move (you may have followed the tweets), Michael Bauer recently gave Commis a lukewarm review. The SF Chronicle food critic called the restaurant pretentious and concluded that Syhabout’s cuisine may not please everyone. Here’s my take. Innovation, by definition, is the art or the unexpected. And everything that surprises can be uncomfortable at first. But if done right, the surprise becomes exceptionally enjoyable. Because it brings together emotional memories of flavors you know with combinations and preparations that challenge the status quo. In my opinion, Commis does it well. Yes, the prix fixe menu, the stark dining room and the unconventional preparations may not please everyone. So what? Taste is not a universal thing. If popularity were a sign of quality, McDonald’s would be the world’s best restaurant. So Mr. Bauer, I agree that the restaurant is not for everyone but I’d say that’s a good thing. We need more chefs with strong points of view. As for being pretentious, I beg to differ.

Commis is at 3859 Piedmont Ave
Online reservations


Single Guy Ben said...

Loved your take on Commis, which I am a big fan of. I totally disagree with Bauer's review that veered on the nitpicky (even talking about the flatware). I think he looked at everything but the amazing dishes being plated. So far it seems Bauer's in the minority. (BTW, the egg amuse is one of my favorites delivered to the table.)

bertabetti said...

I cant wait to try this place, which is less than a mile away from where I live. I agree with what you said about Bauer's review. I dont think we need more restaurants that serve the masses. Some people are turned off by things that are novel and unexpected and maybe Commis is not for them. Personally, I think the bay area needs a bit more innovation and risk takers when it comes to food. Thanks for you post!

Nguyen said...

I loved everything about Commis. What a gem in Oakland. The egg amuse was amazing! I'm starting to become a foodie myself and have eaten places like the Bazaar in LA and Commis is becoming one of my favorites. I recommend this place to anyone but maybe I shouldn't and keep it myself. Enjoy!

Cheri said...

Loved Commis, and loved this post. It pretty much summed up my experience there as well - and I can't wait to go back and tell the world.