Chef James Syhabout of Oakland’s Commis and Hawker Fare plans to open a new restaurant called Box and Bells this spring in the Rockridge neighborhood.
While I wait for his latest venture to open, I thought I’d make a long-overdue return to his first gem, the one-Michelin-star Commis on Piedmont Avenue. The last I visited, Syhabout was doing a three-course prix fixe menu for $59. It has morphed into an eight-course tasting menu for $75 (still a great value considering some of the pricier tasting menus in town). Wine pairings are available for an additional $45.
When I returned to dine with my friend Jessie, the entrance was still shrouded in secrecy — no signage is on the front and the windows are now shaded — and the kitchen crew in the tiny open kitchen seems to have turned into a mini army.
Despite being busy making plans for a new restaurant, Chef Syhabout was still behind the counter precisely placing elements onto the dishes. He even came to our table mid-meal to deliver an intense mushroom tisane prior to the main meat course.
The beautifully plated dishes all had a strong sense of Oakland, mostly because of the locally foraged elements worked onto the plate. It starts with the amuse bouche that was a delicate bite of trout roe with cream on a thin chip that was topped by a local flower. Everything melted in my mouth, including the flower and chip, just leaving the essence of the nearby fields after the morning rain.
Syhabout’s classic starter of a 62-degree poached egg continues to make an appearance on the menu, but the chef has played with the presentation and now serves it in a large white bowl with a prominent but light potato broth, with the sweet and savory spices providing a complex bite but in flavor and texture. The egg yolk is still impeccably cooked to a soft but firm texture.
I enjoyed virtually every course, except for possibly the course of calf’s saddle roasted in salted butter and served with young green garlic and grass. The meat was more gamey than I would have liked and the added grass really made me feel like a cow.
The Last Bite
Still, the rest of the dishes excited and pleased my palate, from the pacific oyster submerged in a green mousse of pea leaves to a wonderful early spring dish of onion curd with artichokes, thinly sliced asparagus, spring flora, and roasted crab broth.
Commis has continued to grow while still staying true to its delicate and inventive plating style from its early days. I’m looking forward to checking out Syhabout’s new Box and Bells when it opens, but am glad to know this gem is also still in my neighborhood.
Commis, 3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. PH: 510.653.3902. Open Wed.–Sat., 5:30 p.m. to close; Sun., 5 p.m. to close. Reservations accepted (with credit card deposit required at time of reservations). Major credit cards accepted. www.commisrestaurant.com
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