In Oakland’s most ambitious new gallery, the walls are bare and the art appears on plates. Everything about Commis, the much-anticipated ultra upscale restaurant that opened earlier this year, aims to draw attention to chef James Syhabout’s meticulous preparations. If your dining aesthetic is informed by MOMA and Zen sensibilities as much as it hinges on gustatory satisfaction, then Commis is just what the curator-monk ordered.
Architect Douglas Burnham remodeled the Piedmont Avenue storefront (previously occupied by Jojo) with a sleek, super modern interior design that recedes into planes of grays and whites. Stark geometrical shapes and patterns dominate the long, narrow, high-ceilinged 31-seat space. Ovals of light are projected on naked walls, and the floor is made up of small hexagonal tiles. The plates are large and white and wide, and the sculptural “flatware” contorts into spirals (which unfortunately makes it impossible to balance a fork or knife on the edge of a dish).
What could tip over into forbidding sterility is relieved in part by the introduction of a few natural elements — white oak tabletops and bar, black leather chairs and small slate serving tiles bearing house-churned butter — and ultimately
by the food.
The 29-year-old Syhabout has cooked under Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck outside London, Daniel Patterson at Coi in San Francisco and, for almost five years, David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos. He is a wizard at making a potential overabundance of ingredients work on both the plate and the palate. Like Russell Moore at Camino, Syhabout limits his frequently morphing menu to what’s fresh in the markets, offering choices of only seven starters and entrees and two desserts. But he has made his dinners prix fixe — three courses (which can be mixed and matched in various proportions) for $59; and where meals at Camino can feel like a communal gathering in a rustic lodge, dinner at Commis is more like a fashionable and sedate art opening. Neither is populist, by a long shot, but Commis — which earned a star in the latest Michelin ratings, making it the only starred restaurant in Oakland — wears its elitism more coolly and severely.
Not long ago I was perusing online blog accounts about meals at the renowned Fat Duck and the “new Nordic” Noma in Copenhagen. I forwarded a link, replete with stunning photos from a special Noma dinner, to a local chef friend, asking, “Who eats this stuff?” He replied: “I had a dinner prepared by the chef [René Redzepi] that hosted this event. It mostly sucked vis-à-vis flavor and texture — lots of parlor tricks however!”
Syhabout’s sleight of hand in his dramatic open kitchen, which dominates the middle of Commis (with six ringside seats at the counter/bar), also results in dazzling eyefuls on every plate, from (on our visit) the lovely little amuse bouche glass of strawberry-infused red shiso soda to the post-dessert cubes of Concord grape and ginger gelée. After making our choices from the night’s menu (in a padded flip-book folio), Robin and I were consistently impressed by the smooth delivery and presentation of each visually absorbing course.
The warm sunchoke soup was poured, at the table, over lobster-mushroom custard and garnished with toasted sunflower seeds and braised summer herbs. The soft-cooked farm egg was nestled into an arrangement of potato chunks, cubes of luscious pork jowl and a smear of fermented black garlic, draped with a seared green onion and garnished with little yellow allium flowers. A thick crispy-topped square of ling cod seemed to stir up foam in its bed of sweet corn curd, crawfish butter and horseradish. Slices of poached-then-seared duck swam in mulled broth along with chanterelle mushrooms and cranberry beans, sugar plum puree and broccoli flowers. A cylindrical black mission fig tart was topped by an egg-shaped scoop of beeswax-scented ice cream. And a unique cream of summer melon dessert soup was poured over cubes of compressed melon and blackberry and a ribbon of berry jelly; lemon balm and chamomile snow added to the refreshing flavors. It would be hard to find prettier food anywhere else in Oakland.
Granted, especially when you’re dealing with relatively small portions, it’s a fine line between pretty and pretentious. But I found Syhabout’s and pastry chef Carlos Selgado’s creations almost unanimously triumphant in making the arresting ingredient-intense amalgamations pay off in delicious flavors and textures, whether subtly balanced, intriguingly harmonized or carefully contrasted. (The servers were inconsistent about explaining all the elements when delivering dishes; but when asked, they confidently demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the food and wines.) For me, the meal became a kind of meditation,
an exercise in concentrated awareness. For Robin, however, the preciousness of it all overwhelmed the enjoyment of eating. Neither of us came away with that sense of contentment we get from the East Bay’s homier, more rustic high-end eateries.
We might have found more satisfaction if we’d sprung the $29 each for the wine pairing instead of ordering a 2007 Cabernet Franc ($43) that turned out sharper and less food-friendly than expected. Then again, at the tables next to us, the pairing pours did not look all that ample. And that might be a key to the restaurant’s fate — whether Commis can cultivate a sense of generosity and neighborly warmth to match Syhabout’s inarguable ingenuity.
Commis. California. Serves dinner 5:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Wed., Thu., Sun., 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-3902, commisrestaurant.com. Credit Cards accepted, Beer & Wine, Reservations Accepted, Wheelchair Accessible, $$$$