White Light – Commis – Oakland, CA
For some obscure reason, this evening I decided to review some food pictures from the past few months. I realized that I had not described my January dinner at Commis, Chef James Syhabout’s modern cuisine restaurant on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue. Commis has a space next to Bay Wolf, one of the most important restaurants of post-fusion cuisine of the high-energy 1980s. Bay Wolf was a temple of combinatory creativity, but as I looked at Wolf’s menu I realized how far we have come in technique and in ingredients. Children, can you remember when your fruits, vegetables, and proteins lacked a provenance?
Commis is hip to the new millennium. Of all of the restaurants striving for modernist cuisine, Commis is the most Zen of all. It is so white, so placid, so restrained that for an instant I felt that I had stumbled upon a Methodist heaven or a Jewish hell. It is neither quite: it is architecture filtered through the light of the East.
My wife and I sat at the smooth wood kitchen counter, and were pleasantly ignored, as we ate our four-course tasting menus (two choices for each course for a mere $68, which for this level of cooking is a bargain of epic proportions). Often in such circumstances one communes with the staff, chattering, chatting, and, always, gossiping. Not at Commis. These cooks worked in a focused fugue. We weren’t dismissed, just unseen. The hard-working cooks became objects of observation, not friends. That’s OK, but perhaps it led to a feeling that there was to be no Commis family. Every restaurant has its style, and focus is Commis’s. Chef Syhabout was there, murmuring to his staff. Anthony Bourdain he will never be. He’s a dish whisperer.
Chef Syhabout is a sterling chef, very much in the style of David Kinch, one of his mentors. In this, he is a synthesizer, incorporating styles, techniques and ingredient often with great aplomb. The meal was distinguished with some dishes that were remarkable, and a few that were less so. His cuisine is surely appealing enough to try again. Perhaps the atmosphere overwhelmed with its serenity. (“Serenity Now!”, sayeth Frank Costanza), but the foods had sparks and flash to balance the silence and the white light.
The Amuse: Egg Yolk, Creamy Onion Soup, Majool Date Puree, Granola. Very clever start, and totally delicious. This start represents the best impulses of a cuisine of astonishment: Cuisine Agape. This bowl builds on molecular techniques and a commitment to flavor.
Oysters and Fresh Cider in Sunchoke Cream, Ginger and Radish. An impressively composed dish with challenging and fascinating flavors, with an Asian sensibility. A profound appetizer.
Coastal Heirloom Beans in Onion Consomme, Raisins with Warm Spices. This appetizer matched its sibling in its intelligence commitment to texture and agriculture. A very successful dish in all ways. A lovely soup with surprises peeking everywhere.
Atlantic Haddock with Smoked Mussel Vinaigrette, Herbs and Cabbage. Dishes like this have become fairly standard in modern cuisine. It hasn't become cliched, but it wasn't astonishing.
Leeks and Celeriac Cooked with Anise, Citric Crab Emulsion, Wild Lettuce. Along with the amuse, this was probably the most startlingly successful dish of the evening. The crab and anise merged so well with the greens. A quietly triumphant plate.
Slow Cooked Lamb with Horseradish Yogurt, Quince and Winter Greens. Well-cooked if somewhat fatty lamb but with enough interest with the accompaniments.
Pressed Guinea Fowl, Young and Braised Garlic with Potato. This was the least effective dish of the evening. It was somewhat bland, perhaps it was too much of a classic throwback.
Chocolate Gianduja, Green Apple, Hazelnut, Absinthe Ice Cream. I enjoyed the Absinthe Ice Cream, but this dish lacked a focal center - a bit of this and that.
Panna Cotta Scented with Winter Citrus, Pomegranate, Coriander. A very pleasant modern dessert. The two desserts had less interest than the appetizers, as so often is the case.
3859 Piedmont Avenue
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