Commis - Oakland, CA

Dinner - Sunday, November 14, 2010

Commis is the brainchild of the young James Syhabout, formerly the chef de cuisine at Manresa (the man has also done stints at el Bulli, Mugaritz and The Fat Duck). His background clearly shows itself in the plating and flavour profiles of his dishes (see below).

The space is small - probably no more than 30-35 covers. This allows James and just 3 other chefs to comfortably handle the workload. The menu consists solely of a 4-course tasting menu ($68) that changes continuously. Each course presents two options, for a total of 8 dishes (9 including an optional cheese course) - two dishes are assigned to each chef.

On this night, we sat at the 6-person counter that directly overlooks the kitchen.

Amuse - Egg yolk, onion cream, chives, malt, (hidden) date puree
I was worried that the apparent heaviness of the dish would run counter to its purpose as an amuse - happily, I was wrong. The yolk comes from a whole egg cooked at 63.7°C, so it's just set with a thick, almost custardy consistency. The onion cream was a beautiful visual simulation of the absent egg white. Together, the textures in the dish really clicked for me. Digging down and finding the mildly sweet date puree was also very satisfying. It's flavour offset the intense saltiness from the other components. A brilliant dish and a great start to our meal.

1A - Chilled whole turnip soup
Caramelized sunchoke chips, dill yogurt, wood sorrel
The soup was poured tableside, and was light and refreshing. The "green" notes were perfectly preserved since the soup was served cool, and they played well with the sunchoke and wood sorrel. Incidentally, this is the first time I'd seen such deeply purple wood sorrel.

1B - Wilted coastal chicory and anchovy
Chervil, poached carrots, almonds
2A - Crudo of San Francisco fluke, shiitake bouillon
Sprouting radish, sea palm
I really enjoyed the slightly chewy bite of the fluke, and how well it contrasted with the crunchiness of the sea palm and radish. The bitterness from the radish sprouts complemented the umami components in the mushroom broth. As a side note, recreational harvesting of sea palm (a kelp) is apparently illegal, and it is a partially protected species in California.

2B - Pacific skate wing with leek vinaigrette
Yellow Finn potat, turnips
The fish was dusted in flour and pan-fried. A solid piece of protein, but the large potato seemed rather incongruous and the sheer amount of starch threw off the dish for me.

3A - Slow-roasted beef culotte
Fermented cabbage puree, chanterelles, vegetable ash
3B - Squab with salty mustard greens
Beet-ginger brunoise, beet chips, syrup-topped jujube
The squab breast (right, foreground) was cooked sous-vide and then seared. This was accompanied by a confit of squab leg (left, far back). The squab tenderloin was also excised and draped over the breast. To me, the strongest dish of the evening. I tried every element separately and in every possible combination with the other components, and it all worked. The salty mustard greens were a particular delight, reminding me of the salt-preserved "haam choy" from my childhood.

Intermezzo - Fizzy shot of huckleberry and eucaplytus
Eucaplytus is one of my favourite scents, so I may be unduely biased, but this this was a great intermezzo. The carbonation and slight tartness of the huckleberry popped off my tongue and literally tickled my tastebuds in preparation for the sweet courses.

4A - "Figs on a plate" - Caramelized mission figs, micro-mint, chocolate dots
Goat's milk cheesecake, powdered graham cracker, lime honey
4B - "Fire in the pumpkin patch"
Warm chocolate brioche, pumpkin pie ice cream, pistachios, burnt cinnamon meringue 
Both desserts perfectly demonstrated the seasonality and thoughtfulness of Syhabout's cuisine. Both also successfully bridged the sweet-savory divide (in 4A with the graham crackers and in 4B with the pistachios). I honestly can't decide which I liked better - both were two sides of the coin, revealing the different faces of Fall. Suffice to say that these were probably the best desserts I've eaten this year. The pastry chef, Carlos Salgado, is one to watch out for.

Mignardises - absinthe jelly dusted with sugar

A very enjoyable meal. The restaurant certainly deserves its Michelin star. Tonight, the kitchen was firing on almost all cylinders, with the weakest dish of the night being the rather uninspired beef culotte. I'm looking forward to where Chef Syhabout will take his restaurant in the next year or two - Commis is a highly personal and rapidly-evolving organism that should only get better as it ages.

The chef, at work

3859 Piedmont Ave.
Oakland, CA 94611
Phone: (510) 653-3902