commis shot out of the gate with a thunderclap.*
James Syhabout opened this tiny, tiny restaurant on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, California in June of 2009. Four months later, it earned its first Michelin star, and half a year after that, Syhabout was named one of Food + Wine’s Best New Chefs. Barely opened for a year, commis was eagerly proclaimed one of America’s best new restaurants by just about every publication in America.
Unbeknownst to me at the time I made my reservation, my friends and I would be eating at commis on the restaurant’s last night of service before a 2-week closure, during which Syhabout and his staff would take a 2-week sabbatical, and after which the format of the restaurant’s menu would change.
At the time of our dinner, the restaurant offered both an à la carte menu, as well as a six-course tasting menu ($95), which was served exclusively to those who reserved one of the six seats at the counter overlooking the small, open kitchen. Having reopened, commis now only offers a four-course prix fixe menu ($68).
chuckeats, Miss. O.M.G., and I sat at the counter, naturally. We had the last tasting menu served at commis.
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CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal. Or, click on the course titles to see the individual plates.
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Onion soup, date jam, steal-cut oats, chives.
Cool Fennel Bulb Soup
Fresh butterbeans, basil, and nasturtiums.
Local Albacore Tuna in the Raw
Okra and scallion, heirloom pepper with lime peel.
Line Caught Wild Hake
Squash congee with clams, fennel pollen and herbs.
Monterey Bay Abalone
Lobster mushroom, potato with seaweed.
Slow Roast of Beef Sirloin
Rendered bone marrow, fire-roasted eggplant and cabbage.
Charentais Melon Cream
Compressed honeydew, blueberry, and frozen creme fraiche.
Absinthe Pâte de Fruit
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The food at commis was well-executed and delicious. Some of it was truly great. But overall, it didn’t quite come together as I had hoped.
Lacking a definite perspective, the tasting menu felt like two different dining experiences in one. Book-ended by wonderfully thoughtful and finessed dishes, the middle courses sagged in comparison, weighed down by unremarkable compositions and over-sized portions (an over-reaction to early reports from diners leaving hungry?).
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The amuse bouche was fantastic, as was the frothy fennel soup that followed it. Actually, they were both excellent. Served cold, the soup was poured over a collection of creamy butter beans, golden raisins, and a fruity olive oil. It was refined, elegant, and sophisticated; delicious too (“Cool Fennel Bulb Soup“).
The amuse bouche brought sweet and savory together with a warm onion soup poured around a half-cooked egg yolk set atop a spoonful of fig jam. Normally, I dislike the waxy, clay-like texture of half-cooked yolks (think Wylie Dufresne’s “Eggs Benedict”). But here, I thought it helped give some muscle to the otherwise soft textures. Crunchy bits of uncooked steel cut oats and the seeds in the fig jam also helped bring some textural diversity to the dish.
The middle courses seemed to take a strangely rustic turn away from the more refined opening acts. The portion sizes doubled and flavors and textures dulled. In comparison to the first two dishes, these felt clunky and restrained. There were lots of worthy components and good ideas on these plates, but they struck me as either mismatched or not fully developed.
Among the tuna, hake, abalone, and beef, the the beef was, by far, my favorite dish (“Slow Roast of Beef Sirloin“). Sauced with a rich jus fortified with marrow, the meat was nicely cooked; rosy, juicy, tender, and full of flavor. Though the sweet eggplant puree was quite good, and the purple haze carrots were excellent as well, they didn’t quite square with each other, or the meat. The dish didn’t cohere.
The “Local Albacore Tuna in the Raw” dish seemed to reach for something more in terms of flavor (I especially liked the combination of the mustard seeds, lime peel, and fried okra) despite the odd (if not sloppy) plating. With piles of chopped tuna inelegantly plopped down in the middle and radishes – a superfluous cast member – seemingly out of place, the composition verged on l’art pour l’art, focused more on a diversity of colors and flavors than a coherent message. The tuna was the least interesting thing on the plate.
The “Monterey Bay Abalone” served with lobster mushroom cream sauce and roughly mashed potatoes threaded with seaweed was unnecessarily heavy. I tired of it after the second bite. A bit one-dimensional, this dish needed something else; a touch of sweetness, a punch of acid – something.
Brimming with squash flavor and having the texture of well-cooked grits, the “squash congee” that came with the “Line Caught Wild Hake” was a bit bland (helped along with some nicely seasoned clams), but comforting. If the pungent Chinese chives, used as a garnish, were meant to seal the Asian food reference, it didn’t work. The squash “congee” was just very good squash “congee,” and the chives were just chives, there was very little dialogue between them.
Technically sound? Yes, the fish was silky and soft – the way hake is at its best – and its skin was nicely crisped. But it wasn’t terribly remarkable.
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If our dessert was representative of the type of work that springs out of Carlos Salgado’s head on a regular basis, then I’d say he’s a rising star to watch.
His “Charentais Melon Cream” was sublime – a light, colorful, and fragrant summer dessert of compressed melons, sugared blueberries, and frozen crème fraîche. A lovely balance of sweet and tart, it was a blessedly light dessert after a rather heavy meal.
Packed with anise flavor, the absinthe pâte de fruit was as soft and delicate as the best Turkish delight I’ve had – not at all the stodgy, dense pâte de fruits that are status quo.
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I can’t complain about the service. It was pretty spotless.
And I can’t imagine wanting to sit anywhere other than the counter, especially if you like to see action. The restaurant is fairly spartan, long and narrow without much detail or personality.
The kitchen staff at commis is a wonder to behold. They are tremendously coordinated.
Smaller than my bathroom, the kitchen, with the attached counter seating, sits in the middle of the dining area. Food is prepped in the back of the restaurant and shuttled to and fro.
There’s one sink. It’s hardly big enough for hand-washing, let alone scouring pots and pans. Yet, they manage to do it.
They also manage to cook and plate everything in that tight quarter, all while shuffling around each other without incident.
Chef Syhabout, a very calm and collected fellow, was sometimes expediting, sometimes plating; always in the kitchen.
I walked away from commis satisfied, but not dazzled. The highlights were at the beginning and the end. If only the middle could have kept up, it would have been a truly spectacular meal.
Syhabout is clearly talented; I think he has a lot of potential. He has trained with the best – among his mentors is David Kinch of Manresa. I look forward to seeing how he develops as a chef and where he takes commis in the coming years.
To read about the other meals I had on this trip to the Bay Area, CLICK HERE.
3859 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, California 94611
* “Commis” is the French term for an apprentice in a kitchen.