Sunday would be a day of small bites, baseball, and both old friends and new as the day began at 4:45am with a run through the hills of Oakland followed by a shower and a quick drive into the Mission. With much of the days eats including Knead, Dynamo, and Zuni mentioned in previous posts it was these activities that would bookend my visit to the most stunning ballpark I’ve yet to see, yet with the night still young my evening plans would see me once again at the table – actually, in this case at the Chef’s Counter of Commis with local food writer Kelsey of kelseats.com, a witty and charming young lady whose blog had led me straight to Knead earlier that day.
Having made reservations at Commis for 7:30pm but getting a late start due to my lunch with Jeff at Zuni Café and subsequent wanderings it was with good fortune that although arduous the traffic crossing the bridge was navigable and with luck on our side free parking was allocated literally steps from the door making our arrival perfectly on time as we entered the small 30ish seat restaurant, were greeted pleasantly, and led to our seats.
Admittedly not originally on my radar until I’d heard good things from a couple of friends and Kelsey had suggested it as a place she’d been meaning to try Commis is the brainchild of Chef James Syhabout, a young chef of Thai descent trained in the kitchens of such places as Coi and Manresa locally plus Fat Duck and El Bulli abroad – quite the accomplishment for a man no older than myself – but unfortunately the chef would not be in on the day of our visit, instead leaving us in the capable hands of a team of four who would spend the next two hours working quietly and efficiently in the small space directly before us.
With the room largely minimalistic in design – long and narrow with blonde woods, slate, and steel providing minimal distraction from the food (or the action in the kitchen) – it would be a short while before our server, Darrell, would greet us with the wine and cocktail list plus the night’s 5-course menu; an expected list of ingredients based on the Bay Area’s bounty prepared in the style that one would expect given Syhabout’s culinary pedigree. With a lack of allergies confirmed and opting against pairings given my tolerance (lack thereof) while each instead opting for a glass of champagne it would be moments before the meal would begin.
For our first taste of Commis, the canapé for the evening would be a bite described as Parmesan cookie with vegetable ash and arriving amongst a bed of rocks this clever meringue literally melted in the mouth leaving behind the faint bite of the cheese and a top note of smoke – a nice effect that lingered on the palate for a mere moment and then disappeared leaving me wanting more.
For the second bite of the evening we were served the only item that remains a constant on Syhabout’s menu dating back to the year Commis opened, an amuse entitled “Hard Poached Egg with smoked dates, chive, malt, granola.” Served in a deep black bowl with the hard poached yolk sitting atop a semi-solid (think flan) onion ‘soup’ which concealed smoky date puree this amuse would turn out to be my favorite dish of the evening and quite honestly one of the best amuses I’ve ever had anywhere. With the yolk smooth and creamy and the soup equally so yet mildly pungent it was the interplay of the intensely sweet date and steel cut oat granola that truly impressed by pulling everything together into a flavor that was at once familiar but entirely unique; one of those rare dishes like the L’Arpege egg that you just need to experience.
With the amuse still lingering on my lips and conversing with ease above the quiet dining room and din of the kitchen the next service to arrive from Commis was the nightly bread service – a house made whole wheat bread with a light open crumb along with salted house churned butter; a good bread, but nothing worth filling up on after a long day of eating with five courses to go.
Before moving next to the first proper course of the tasting I will note here that while efficient and generally amicable, one issue that would become apparent as the menu progressed would be Darrell’s apparent reluctance to discuss the courses at any length. While obviously not the “standard” clientele as both my dining partner and I were taking pictures and inquiring about the constituents of the courses it was not as though our questions were challenging yet despite this fact his answers would often be mumbled and at least twice even inappropriately sarcastic; certainly not the expectation at a place that has garnered a Michelin Star and prides itself on using unique (often foraged) local produce.
With that service aside noted, course one of the evening would be “Roasted carrots with peaches, cultured cream, toasted almonds, vinegar, and anise hyssop” and requiring minimal description beyond that I will note that although somewhat unwieldy at first due to the sweetness, I actually found this dish to be the sort that grew on the palate with subsequent bites – each slightly vegetal yet distinctly sweet with notes of acid and mint poking through to lend balance. A great confluence of textures this course reminded much of some of the flavors I’d experienced at Manresa though perhaps not as polished.
With perhaps 15-20 minutes between courses as the kitchen staff worked methodically with tools ranging from mortar and pestle to an ISI canister our evening would be a leisurely progression landing next on “Monterey Abalone, young potimarron, sea lettuce, basil, and purslane,” a dish that I actually enjoyed at first but grew less interested in after a few bites and a course that Kelsey felt failed to allow the Abalone to shine…an accurate assessment in retrospect as I found myself noting that in fact I felt the abalone was acting more to garnish the buttery sweet risotto of squash rather than the other way around. Again leaning heavy on the sweet as opposed to the savory I liked the concept, texture, and in general the flavor but a bit more brine would have been welcomed.
Moving next to something a bit more substantial, “Petrale sole, fresh shell beans, and grilled clams with licorice aromatics” would be the second time that our server would largely neglect questions about the dish, but thankfully a member of the kitchen staff overheard our questions and was happy to discuss what was, save for the amuse, my favorite dish of the night. Beginning first with the Petrale sole –flaky and moist having been poached in its own juices and touched with basil it was a very nice piece of fish but all the more so for not being buried in butter but rather complimented by a savory sweetness from the shell beans – a horticultural heirloom variety served as a puree mixed with baby scallop sauce. With mild on mild yet plenty of nuance already present between the fish and its sauce the final touch – at last a bit of brine – of three Washington State Littleneck clams really acted to bring the flavors to a focus.
Again turning my attention to the kitchen and the conversation it was at this point that Kelsey realized she knew the person sitting to her right – conveniently a server at benu where I’d be eating two days later – and after some discussion of the Bay Area restaurant scene and his admiration for what Syhabout is doing at Commis “Roast Chicken with Caramelized Pig’s blood, foie gras, bee’s wax jus” would arrive as our final savory of the evening. Here described at length as Roasted Chicken with a reduction of its jus enhanced with lemon, thyme, and basil the chicken itself was a fine example – mild and perfectly cooked – but what was truly intriguing on this plate was the accoutrements; an assortment of textural and gamy blood sausage, smooth and unctuous duck liver, fibrous button chanterelles, and foraged wild mustard flowers adding a spicy top note. While indeed “just chicken” in a sense, for someone who generally prefers game bird and fowl to heavy red meats as a main course this was a nice finisher, though for the third of four courses the sweetness was just a bit too pronounced even with the myriad ingredients acting to temper the honey.
Happy with the evening overall but not *wowed* as much as I had hoped by the food to this point our palate cleanser would arrive next as Cucumbers foam and Eucalyptus cream – a clean and refreshing ounce of liquid that accomplished a similar effect to the first dessert at Crenn the day before, though much less showy and surprisingly entirely lacking in sweetness save for the natural notes of the eucalyptus.
With the cheese selection lacking novelty and each of us electing the sweet dessert our final course of the tasting would arrive in the form of “semi frozen nectarine chiboust with gem marigold snow, white chocolate” and at this point clearly expecting questions the constituents of the plate were described as Semi Frozen White Nectarine milk sorbet, white chocolate pudding, golden nectarine puree, marigold snow, and candied peanuts (complete with a snippy “yes, ::pause:: like ::pause:: the flower” when asked about the marigold.) Featuring one of my favorite fruits in two different forms the flavors of the nectarines were spot on even when those back in Ohio are starting to lose their summer sweetness and although I did not detect any floral notes outside those intrinsic to the nectarine itself I appreciated the variety of textures and temperatures plus the manner in which the light cocoa came through on the finish.
Sitting and chatting some more as the restaurant remained full and the kitchen remained busy our final bites of Commis would arrive with the bill in the form of two Plum Gelees, sugary sweet and seemingly appropriate for that very reason.
With the bill paid – just over $100 each with tax, tip, and three glasses of champagne – we bid farewell to our new buddy from benu and made our way to the car where the drive back to San Francisco to drop Kelsey off led to the inevitable discussion of what we’d just experienced, a good meal and a good deal but not a “destination” meal and a meal I think I favored more than my dining partner for one specific reason; the fact that although I have the opportunity to travel frequently I live in Ohio where produce like that being served at Commis (or any number of other Bay Area establishments) is available three months of the year at most and with substantially less variety even then. Sure things may have been better and the food more balanced (less sweet) had Syhabout been present that evening and all things being equal I certainly would not hesitate to return for the quality, price, and experience but at the same time based on this one experience I’d prefer spend a bit more and visit out James’ old bosses at Coi or Manresa or at a similar price point head over to Plum where the food is just as good (if not better,) the options more various, the setting a bit more fun, and the service a perfect balance of informative, fun, and professional.