Commis Sets the Bar

You know your hubby knows you well when he can already guess months ahead of time where you want to enjoy your birthday dinner.

Such was the case with my husband last month when he treated me to dinner at Oakland’s stellar Commis.

I don’t always tote a camera along to my own birthday dinner. How gauche, right? But since I had never dined at this tiny jewel box before, yet had interviewed Chef-Proprietor James Syhabout last year for my East Bay Express story about Oakland’s new-found notoriety as a dining mecca, I figured why not, especially since after opening last year,  Commis has garnered just about every accolade imaginable. That includes Syhabout’s recent honor as one of Food & Wine magazine’s 10 best new chefs of 2010.

It’s easy to see why.

The restaurant’s name comes from the French term for a chef’s apprentice, an allusion to the fact that Syhabout believes that a cook never stops learning. That may be so, but after dining at Commis, one comes away feeling that Syhabout and his crew already are miles ahead in know-how.

You won’t find any sign on the 31-seat restaurant in the newly hip Piedmont Avenue neighborhood. Syhabout jokes he doesn’t need one, as people manage to find the place just fine, thank you very much. It suits this restaurant, low-key and casual from the outside, like a designer purse that’s unadorned by over-the-top hardware or ostentatious initials. But all it takes is one peek inside at the seams to discern just how well made it is.

That’s not surprising given the talents of Syhabout, a young chef who’s already cooked at Coi in San Francisco, Manresa in Los Gatos and El Bulli in Spain.

Two dining options are offered in this contemporary, minimalist restaurant done up in a Calvin Klein palette: Six courses at one of the six counter seats for $95. Or three courses for $59 when you sit in the dining room. Wine pairings are an additional $29.

My hubby and I were there for the $59 prix fixe. It’s quite a deal, too, considering the amuse bouche, intermezzo and mignardise included with dinner.

Although some early reviews had complained about portions and pours being a little skimpy, friends had told me that was no longer the case anymore. Indeed, I found everything ample sized. And no, Meat Boy (aka the hubby) did not leave hungry.

The amuse bouche that evening arrived in a bowl looking like an egg with its yolk sunny-side up. But it wasn’t quite that at all. The egg yolk had been poached until it was solid, yet smooth and unctuous like a thick, spoon-able puree. The texture was just mind-boggling. The “white” was not egg at all, but a clever creamy onion soup. Alongside, were steel-cut oats to lend texture and dates for an unexpected subtle sweetness. If you’ve ever had the famous jiggly Arpege egg cooked in its own shell at Manresa, you’ll recognize the luxurious mineral-y, tangy and fruity flavors here, but in a wholly different form.

The hubby opted for grilled scallops with raw almond vinaigrette and a warm mousse of white beans for his starter. The silky scallops were paired with favas, picked so young that you could eat the pods, which had a robust green bean-flavor in that state.

As it was a quite toasty evening, I began with a chilled, velvety, sweet carrot soup, which was poured table-side over flowering herbs, chicory root and tiny carrot pieces glazed with sweet tarweed honey. It was the most intense carrot soup I’d ever had — so concentrated and so vivid orange that I nearly could have stopped there.

But that would have been a shame, as I would have missed my entree of monk fish cooked on the bone to lend it even more succulence and afloat in a shallow pool of creamy tarragon creme fraiche sauce that was topped with delicate borage flowers.

My husband much enjoyed his roasted Sonoma County duck, with the leg cooked sous-vide and the breast pan-roasted. The skin may not have been shatteringly crisp, but the flesh itself was fabulously silky so that every bite was sheer pleasure.

A fizzy little intermezzo followed — glasses of raspberry soda that tasted like summertime berry sorbet in liquid form.

For dessert, we had the poached white peaches served in a chilled, creamy elegant soup accented by lemon verbena and fluffy champagne “snow.” It was refreshing, with a real clarity of flavors. We also had the chocolate brioche, which was like a very soft cake imbued with deep earthiness, and served with strawberries and a fluff of chartreuse chantilly cream.

The evening ended with two bite-size, deep green squares of pate de fruits. Only these weren’t fruit-flavored, but absinthe-flavored. Yes, a potent good-bye of licorice, citrus and herbal notes.

Commis may mean apprentice. But already, it could sure teach a lot of other places a thing or two.

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  • I am dying to try Commis, it is on my list of must-eats. Your post just sealed the deal. I love the idea of the raspberry soda as an intermezzo as opposed to a traditional sorbet. The duck looks fantastic as well. I have got to get there soon!

  • Oh that looks fantastic. What a wonderful significant other you have! I will admit I am most smitten with the duck as reliably it is a favorite of mine.

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  • We’re going to Commis for our anniversary later this month, and I’m so excited. Very glad to hear that it lived up to your expectations!

  • What a lovely birthday dinner, everything looks so pretty!
    Hope you had a very happy birthday.

  • So glad you enjoyed Commis. We had the same amazinf amuse bouche and pate de fruits (omg, absinthe!). I wished we got to try the monkfish and scallops instead. Gorgeous images as usual. 😉

  • Glad you finally made it out to Commis, and happy belated birthday! Did they know it was your birthday, because when they do they always seem to make the dining experience even more special, not that it isn’t every single day. I want to go back and try the counter chef’s tasting!

  • Oh my! Please don’t think it’s gauche to take your camera to such places – after all you would deny us the pleasure of drooling over your dinner with our morning cuppa, no less!

    What a marvelous meal. I am always humbled by the sheer creativity and talent that surrounds us. Happy belated Birthday!

    Muah Muah,

    Devaki @ weavethousandflavors

    PS – Amahzing pics

  • Thanks everyone for the bday wishes! Makes turning one year older sooooo much nicer. 😉

    Single Guy Ben: Nope, Commis didn’t know it was my birthday. But Chef James did send out a couple small flutes of champagne to welcome us, after we chatted with him a bit before sitting down.

  • My goodness! I’m going to be in town for the next two weeks and I’m definitely putting this onto my list of places to dine. The meal looks wonderfully inventive, creative and avant garde.

    Happy belated birthday!

  • It all looks luscious, of course, but it’s those steel-cut oats which grabbed my attention. I just bought a large bag of same, with the intention of upping our oat intake a bit, and have been meaning to google around to see what one can do with them besides, well, oatmeal. In your picture, those appear to be somehow dry-cooked and maybe a little toasty. Intriguing.

  • Happy super belated birthday! That really looks like a fantastic meal. My mouth is watering over that egg dish!

  • Happy Belated Birthday! May you wish come true!

    Those dishes looked explosive! simply lovely!

  • A good choice by Meat Boy I must say! And Happy Birthday Carolyn-I hope it was a truly wonderful day! 😀

  • Oh my…this restaurant looks fabulous! I wish I lived closer. 🙂
    Belated Happy Birthday, Carolyn!

  • Happy birthday Carolyn!

    Yes the husband really did get this one right…what a fantastic restaurant! I love the meaning behind the name but I think you’re right when you say that Commis is miles ahead of a lot of places. That carrot soup has me swooning.

  • Oh my goodness, do you think if I forward this to my hubby, he’d pick up on where I now want to go for my birthday? Hhmm, worth a shot. What an amazing sounding meal, and Happy Birthday!!!

  • Wonderful post, thank you for the lovely descriptions, I will definitely put Commis on my list.

    And happy birthday!

  • happy birthday, carolyn!
    meanwhile, the texture of that carrot soup is like nothing i’ve ever seen before!

  • awww happy birthday girl!
    that faux egg white posing as onion soup? AMAZING. i love love love when you do posts like this one. i would have had a couple more desserts, just because.

  • What else do you expect from a chef who cooked at El Builli before?! Wow, your hubby is SO thoughtful! What a great meal! And happy belated birthday, Caroline! 😀

  • Happy Birthday, Caroline!!

    What a beautiful place to wine & dine!!

    thanks for sharing!!

  • Happy Birthday, Carolyn!

    Worth bringing your camera : ).

  • Happy Birthday Carolyn hope you had a lovely one. The food certainly looked perfect, especially the desserts 🙂 x

  • Wow, looks like Oakland has an up-and-coming food scene. Love the playful take on the slow cooked egg.

  • What an exquisite meal! Thanks for taking us along. That carrot soup sounds so amazing.

    Happy Birthday!

  • What a nice looking meal. The techniques involved certainly doesn’t fit the restaurant name. Sounds like you had a nice birthday dinner. I might try making a carrot soup after looking at that picture.

  • Hi! We love Commis too! Your pictures are just great. May I ask what camera you use?


  • Hi Kelly: I use a Canon Rebel XSI.

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