Commis was the second fine dining stop during our West Coast trip. There’s a lot to like about this restaurant which is located in Oakland, just accross the bridge coming from San Francisco. James Syhabout has created a concept that brings together the relaxed atmosphere of a bistro with high-end cuisine. Bistronomy if you like, but rather fine dining. Anyhow, it is a place where you can relax, lay back and enjoy a meal at the highest level with lots of creativity and executed with zero flaw.
The dishes are precise in the balance of textures and temperatures, but foremost always impressing with flavor interaction. Someone understood how to find the right rules and boundaries to put his talent and creativity on the plate!
Also, I have to say beforehand how I am puzzled about how much of a bargain this place is. 110 USD for the menu is a steal. But let’s tell the story step by step:
Love for detail and compelling flavors already show in the petits fours. Caramelized onion financier with bee pollen, vinegar meringue and nasturtium with milk curd as well as salt cured mackerel and horseraddish are tiny pieces of art with very diverse flavors that distract from the stress of the day and make me curious for more. Now I’m in a dining mood.
Mussels with sesame leaf and kohlrabi. The sesame leaf comes as a spicy consommé. The mild aromatics and the freshness of the kohlrabi pair well with the sweet and luscious aspect of the mussel. Also texture- and temperature-wise (velvety, crunchy, warm, chilled) this is a thought-through dish which however can be indulged without too much thinking.
The wine pairings, offered by Thomas Smith and his colleague, are equally original as the food creations, but also work extremely well. With the Kohlrabi and mussels we are having a fresh, mild and flowery junmai dai ginjo sake.
Cured then cold smoked almaco jack, capers and cucumbers, puffed buckwheat. Another bomb. The funny thing is, althought the flavors of each ingredients are rather intense, not to say bold, the dish as a whole still transports a subtle kind of complexity. The almaco jack has a nice bite to it and functions well with the freshness of the cucumber. There’s also a play on the smokiness of the almaco jack going on that finds its counterpart in the buckwheat. Again, textures and temperatures are playing a big role, but there’s nothing too intellectual about it that impairs enjoyment.
Warm abalone with artichoke, green garlic, nori and roast chicken sabayon. A masterpiece. The abalone pieces are perfectly cooked – they have a good bite and aren’t chewy. Their flavor is enhanced by nori powder which adds a blast of umami-ness. The artichoke bits bring in ther typical vegetal, slightly sour kind of notes. The crown is put on with a warm and luscious chicken sabayon that creates a link between any of the ingredients on the plate. It complements the acidity of the artichokes, bolds-up the umami flavors, gives the abalone a velvety aspect. All flavors are seamlessly integrated. What a great dish and with immense depth of flavor. I’m speechless.
Warm lobster soup with nasturtium petals, celery, yellow peach ice cream. Another stunning dish. The lobster soup has a rich crustacean flavor while being perfectly smooth as silk. The soup was poured over peach ice cream which is starting to melt. Not only is the acidiy and the flavor of the peach ice cream working out heavenly with the lobster soup (the acidity works as a buffer or contrast, the flavor complements), it also pairs extremly well with a Mosel Riesling Spätlese by Selbach-Oster. A magical dish.
Next we are being served freshly baked bread and butter. I like how the restaurant just perfectly knows when is the right time for some bread and how it limits the quantity. That way I am prevented of emptying an entire bread basket on my own and my focus is kept on the key dishes. There’s an effortlessness in the way diners are directed to happiness. The warm bread and butter are delicious by the way.
I think this one is caviar on chickpea panisse. An extra-course we got. A nice bite although the caviar flavor is crushed a bit by the tiny chunk of dough.
Halibut confit with spring pea porridge, fumé and ginger vinaigrette. This piece of halibut is a beauty. It is confied in olive oil and paired with green and mildly spicy flavors. The fish is just perfectly cooked, falls apart in chunks that are soft but still have a bite to it. All other ingredients add spice and green flavors in a light and harmonious fashion. A very pure and very enjoyable spring dish.
Tisane of button mushrooms. A warm beef and mushroom tea before the meat course? Nothing better than that. Simple, tasty and effective.
Veal saddle cooked over charcoal with oyster, morels, celtuce and dill. Ever thought that meat courses at fine dining restaurants are lacking ideas and excitement? This one has it all. Pefectly (probably sous-vide-) cooked veal, perfect veal with slight smoke notes paired with many complex flavors, including dill. Now I never had dill with veal, but it works well.
And there’s also the wine pairing. As sommelier Thomas Smith points out before pouring the wine, the Vina Tondonia Rreserva by Lopez de Heredia from Rioja often shows herbal notes reminding dill. And he was right. This very classical Rioja with a rustic tannic structure and coarse acidity indeed shows some dill notes (the power of suggestion) and couldn’t be a better match with the veal dish.
Little lamb cheese with lavash and preserved cara cara. This is one of the most sophisticated transitional dishes I’ve ever encoutnered. It combines a cheese course and a palate cleanser. In between the mild sheep milk cheese and the wafer there is an acidic paste of cara cara orange. Not only does this bite taste good, but it also reboots all tastebuds of the palate, making them ready for desert.
Rhubarb tart with pistachio, yuzu cremeux. I feel like I’m repeating myself. Another amazing combo. The rich flavor of the pistachios kind of smoothen out the acidic fruit of the rhubarb. This dish seems simple but as all others has a particular depth.
Yoghurt ice cream with blueberries and white chocolate. Ok, now we’re bringing down the complexity of aromatic interactions, which is a good thing. This is s simple, clean, refreshing ending, nearly classical. It is paired with a beautiful Niepoort colheita Port from 1999.
I can only repeat myself. This is the kind of meal that I am looking for, it represents feel-good-fine-dining. I feel relaxed like in a comfortable bistro (actually I had to think of Copenhagen’s Relae), but with compelling, mind-blowing combinations.
And although there’s a lot of thought in these dishes, it never gets intellectual, never gets heady. You can tell which products are being used. The real art is to put all this effort into such dishes and diners can just enjoy them effortlessly.
Simplicity and sophistication is unified at Commis and so far, this is my meal of the year. And for all those looking for fine dining in the Bay area, out of the 3 restaurants I’ve visited, this is my top-pick. And what a bargain it is (Menu: 110, wine pairings: 65), especially compared to other restaurants of the area, but also globally.
Thanks to the chef David Syhabout for running this restaurant the way you are running it. I hope it will stay this way for a long time.
3859 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611
Phone: +1 510 653 3902