When James Syhabout opened Commis last July, he brought a unique culinary voice to Oakland’s burgeoning restaurant scene. The 29-year-old chef, whose credentials already ranged from Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli (routinely described as the world’s greatest restaurant) to Los Gatos’ Manresa (one of the few restaurants in Northern California with two Michelin stars), had developed a unique and accomplished approach to flavor and texture. At Commis he’d be able to showcase his cutting-edge creations. Now the restaurant has earned a Michelin star of its own, and Syhabout’s three-course prix-fixe dinners, crafted from locally grown, harvested, and foraged organic ingredients, are on every local foodie’s must-try list.
The thirty-seat restaurant is located on Piedmont Avenue in a sparse, simple setting of white walls, blond-wood tables, and black leather chairs. Six counter seats are available to diners who want to watch Syhabout and his team in their small, open kitchen as they assemble pickled shallots, green lemons, black garlic, caramelized allium nectar, parsnip milk, crawfish butter, wild anise, and beeswax ice cream into striking mosaics on big, bone-white platters. Such dazzling creations tend to outshine their perfunctory surroundings (a bit of ambient luxe wouldn’t be out of place here, especially at these prices), but the house cuisine — bursting with rich, bright flavors in largely unprecedented contrasts and combinations — is a rewarding adventure.
The meal begins with a basket of pillowy house-baked rolls, a crock of hand-churned sweet butter, and tall flutes of warm, frothy, herb-infused broth designed to cleanse and invigorate the palate. Our seltzer du jour was touched with chamomile, ginger, and strawberry purée; its bright, floral flavors paved the way for Commis’ signature amuse-bouche, a poached egg. What sets Commis’ poached egg apart from all others is the key to what makes the restaurant unique. First of all, the egg itself had a uncommonly creamy, custard-like consistency. It was served in a ramekin on a bed of puréed dates that mingled with the silky egg white and added a touch of sweetness and heft. Sprinkled on top were crescents of minced spring onion and toasted steel-cut oats, adding pizzazz and crunch to this perfectly balanced, culinarily startling yet delectable dish.
The first-course options were equally inventive. The soup of the day starred broccoli romanesco, a rarely encountered vegetable that tastes like a nutty, mildly pungent variety of cauliflower. Here it was puréed into a light, creamy broth enhanced with bits of smoky speck and yellowfoot chanterelles foraged from the Oakland hills. At the table the hot soup was poured into a big white bowl strewn with fried leaves and florets from the titular veggie: a nice piece of culinary showbiz. Another less successful starter featured two velvety veal sweetbreads, perfectly crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. Their unconventional platemate was a bed of hot rye-berry cereal, a creamy kasha-like preparation with a mild sweetness that complemented the honeyed richness of the sweetbreads. But the dish was topped off with half a dozen equally sweet and creamy braised garlic cloves when it could’ve used a bit of smoke, pepper, or snark.
Some say a restaurant is only as good as its simplest fish dish, and in that respect Commis delivers. The grilled Fort Bragg lingcod was not only perfectly moist and tender, but it retained the fish’s fresh, delicate, almost ethereal flavor. Bright little rounds of daikon radish, an earthy fennel vinaigrette, a lusty white-bean purée, and (best of all) a smoky, salt-sprayed bacon-and-seaweed-infused broth jazzed up the fish without overpowering it.
Our favorite dish on the menu was the Muscovy duck prepared two ways. Slender slices of roasted breast meat were fanned against a stack of corned and pulled leg and thigh meat that was as dark and richly flavored as the breast was pink and tender. Peppery braised greens, pungent puréed parsnips, and sweet, supple dried black cherries added piquant contrasts to the savory, succulent meat.
Pastry chef Carlos Salgado offers three dessert options each night. (One of them is usually an elaborate cheese course involving things like black-pepper pastry puffs and lavender onions.) Our goat’s milk panna cotta was an ivory-colored dream in cream and sugar, absolutely light and silky with a mildly tart afterbite. The suave texture was accented with crunchy little candied pistachios and the barely sweet flavor with a quenelle of brisk, earthy beet-blood orange sorbet. The chocolate “tile,” a small brick of Vahlrona’s bittersweet, high-octane Caraibe in fork-tender fondant form, was astonishingly mood-enhancing, particularly with its lily-gilding sprinkle of crunchy cocoa nibs and scoop of burnt vanilla ice cream. A cube of sweet, palate-cleansing (if not particularly fruity) fruit gelee arrived with our check.
Although most of the pre-dessert dishes on Commis’ menu tend to feature fish, fowl, or meat, the kitchen will create a special flesh-free meal for vegetarian diners. Just let them know your preferences when you make your reservation. Food allergies and other dietary restrictions can be accommodated as well.
A 33-bottle wine list is available for those who don’t want to invest in the prix fixe’s wine-pairing option. Many of the selections come from boutique vineyards in France, Spain, Germany, and our own back yard, and were chosen to complement Syhabout’s intricate flavors. Most are in the $30-$50 price range (the eight by-the-glass options are on the steep side, however). The star of the even briefer four-item beer list is London Porter, a rich, earthy chestnut-brown brew that accented the sweetness of the sweetbreads beautifully. Teetotalers can enjoy a nonalcoholic Vignette Wine Country Soda in chardonnay or pinot noir, or something from the restaurant’s unusual tea list: a Yunnan gold tea with fermented leaf tips, perhaps, or a caffeine-free Bu Bao Cha infused with goji berries, red dates, and ginseng root.
Finally, it bears noting that while Commis’ delicacies are exquisite, they’re also conservatively apportioned. Plan accordingly.