“It was a sublime evening sitting in front of Chef Syhabout and his team.” “The educated love of food is evident in every offering.” “… studied grace of the kitchen …” “I was left speechless and incredulous.” Reading people’s comments on Commis sounded as if Ferran Adria himself had moved to my neighborhood. So before he decided to move shop from Oakland to somewhere where there is more there there, I decided to sample what others had been raving about.
With the help of opentable we got a reservation, read (some of) the breathless reviews on the web, and with some spit on our shoes and polish in our hair, off we went to Commis. For us ADD afflicted folks here is the summary – “Very good food with some minor issues. But the amount of hype Commis has received far exceeds the quality of food. Good service. Minimalist to the point of being IKEA-ish decor. Something should be done about that sodium vapor yellow/orange street light right outside the place.”
We started with a glass of terrific Burgundian sparkling wine, so take the rest of the review with salt according to taste. Once we were done curing our livers, they served us the first amuse bouche. It was a shot glass of hibiscus-jasmine soda with a very intense jasmine flavor. The second amuse bouche was called a financiere, but resembled a tiny loaf of bread, and tasted like a cheesy gougère.
So far we had had nothing that set Commis apart from the many excellent restaurants in the Bay Area. Extracting edible flavor from flowers may be new to some, but such flavors are not uncommon in foods from the middle east and India. Even a middle-eastern grocery store in your neighborhood might have rose flavored ice-cream. Of course, Pierre Hermes is incorporating rose in his pastries now, so maybe this is fashionable. The financiere’s novelty seemed to be in its lego-sized form factor rather than its flavor. We were beginning to realize that even though the meal would be quite competent, there was a mismatch between our expectations and reality.
The first appetizer course was baby abalone with brown butter on a bed of farro and decorated with Levain foam. The foam for once added a relevant dimension to the taste by playing against the mild farro. The abalone was a little chewy but not dry and had an almost ebony sheen on it with the brown butter. Good looking and good tasting dish.
My wife had pork jowls on a bed of greens. And that was the first slight misstep of the evening. I understand the theory of adding greens to cut the fattiness of pork jowls, but it did not work out as well in practice. The greens had been dressed with a little too much fat, so that instead of cutting the richness of the dish to manageable levels, the greens added to it. This failure of technique might have passed by unnoticed at lesser places, but stuck out at Commis.
My entree was Lamb with lamb belly, purple carrots, potato puree, fennel, and dirt. Sort of a slight sideways move from the traditional pairing of lamb and mint to lamb and fennel. Cute. The lamb was gamey as is lamb’s wont, the veg was fresh as is California produce’s wont, and the potato puree was fluffy and buttery otherwise eat it I won’t. The lamb was garnished with a couple of very young, uncooked, and crunchy purple carrots, with their green fronds still attached. The “dirt” was a fennel-ly powder – probably made from fennel seeds – artfully arranged to look like dirt that sometimes clings to farmer market produce. It may have added to visual impact on the plate, but tipped the taste balance of the dish towards too much fennel. But this kind of playing with food attracts foodies, and you have to sell to them if you are going to survive in the bay area.
My wife had Guinea Hen with Cauliflower puree and Chanterelles. Everything was expertly done – juicy meat, Chanterelles soaked in butter – but the dish was strangely not satisfying. The expectation was something soul-satisfying along the lines of a simple roast chicken and potatoes dish but with a twist. Sous-vide meat provided the twist but missed on the satiation essential to a well conceived meat-and-veg.
The dessert of beet, cara cara orange sorbet, orange segments, pistachios, and citrus foam was the most intense dish of the dinner. A distillation of the essence of orange, as it were. It was far better than the one unpeeled tangerine I have sometimes been served at Chez Panisse for dessert.
Our second dessert was Valrhona chocolate ganache with lemon curd and mint. The pastry chef gets props for choosing Valrhona, the lemon curd was appropriately luscious. But again nothing that knocked our socks off.
Our meal ended with an Absinthe gelée. It had the right chewy texture and was thankfully not too sweet. An adult version of a gummi-bear.
Our expectations of Commis were that not only the individual components of a dish would be expertly cooked but that the components would come together in a satiating whole, such as Chez Panisse and Terra often achieve. It has less to do with new cooking techniques and more to do with a sense of bringing together the right flavors and textures. Props to Commis for experimenting but they need to keep at it for a little longer.