COMMIS, Oakland – Commis is Oakland’s shining star of culinary excellence and experimentation since James Syhabout put it on the map with multiple awards as Best New Chef in Food & Wine magazine, among countless other accolades since it opened in Summer 2009. There isn’t much new I could add to the din, other than to share dinner highlights on my last visit.
The three course prix fixe, at $59 per person, seems like a good deal for fine dining-quality food, with a very reasonable wine pairing of four wines for $29, but the bill adds up quickly. The understated, compact dining room runs like a tight ship in the hands of skilled staff. Certainly food is the star, as it should be, but I sometimes wish higher prices secured a memorable or at least spacious, comfortable surroundings (Commis is tiny, packed, minimalist) alongside excellent food.
All that aside, the pinnacle of the meal was actually the amuse bouche: a delicate Farm Egg over Medjool dates with malt and onion cream. This malty, creamy mini-dish (more than just a bite) was savory with a whisper of sweet. Downright perfection. Paired with a Brut French Sidre, it’s enough to convert one to Syhabout’s cooking immediately.
First course included New Alliums (in the onion family). This dish highlighted the succulence of onions, both melt-in-your-mouth fried and fresh onions, with slices of albacore tuna. The dish reached perfection with warm white bean mousse and seawater with espelette pepper. Zucchini Tartare was artistically rolled up with Shasta porcinis, sweet basil puree and smoked country ham emulsion. Paired with a stand-out 2009 Slovenian Verus Furmint Stajerska, the wine’s floral, crisp notes brought out the Summer freshness in both dishes.
Mains consisted of Roasted Sonoma County Duck accented by caramelized fennel bulghur, peach, green peppercorn, and Slow-cooked Heritage Duroc Pork melded with cauliflower, toasted cranberry beans, sea lettuce and lemon pork jus. Though both dishes were expertly executed and in every respect very good, neither held the excitement or promise of the first two and the amuse.
A welcome palate cleanser of Blueberry Soda with rose geranium was tart and refreshing… another highlight in a meal that seemed perfected in its accents and surprises more so than in the main dishes.
Dessert unexpectedly raised the bar again, first with a rose-hued, nearly violet Patrick Bottex NV Vin de Bugey-Cerdon sparkling rose. It’s lightly sweet, tart, gentle effervescence shone alongside “Things We Lost In the Fire” Chocolate Brioche. Though the combo of strawberries and chocolate is ho-hum, these strawberries are roasted in rescoldo/mesquite embers. It’s accented by mint, salt, chartreuse chantilly and burnt vanilla ice cream. A dream dessert for me of salt, earth and sweetness. How could the bright, fresh but comparatively bland Chilled Cream of White Peach with caneberries, sorbet and lemon verbena snow keep up? The brioche stole the final scene.
SWEET FINGERS, San Leandro – I’ve been attempting a trek out to San Leandro for a couple years to try Sweet Fingers, a Jamaican restaurant with the spirit of a Caribbean dive bar.
Without much in the way of authentic Jamaican food around, it’s exciting to find a place run by Jamaicans, especially one that serves what are rarities here but national dishes in Jamaica, like Saltfish and Ackee (also at Hibiscus in Oakland), and excellent drinks like tart Sorrel Juice ($5) or an intense House Ginger Beer ($4)… next time I want to order “Ja Clive” ($10) a cocktail of overproof rum, sorrel juice, ginger beer, lime.
Chef Clive himself is a friendly, engaging guy with a history in NY and the West Coast, and passion for cooking his native country’s foods. Jamaican flags, bright reds, yellows and greens, and plenty of Bob Marley imagery and music, make the otherwise dingy place festive.
No particular dish stood out in a culinary sense but it all made for an engaging Jamaican feast as a whole, with ideal sizing options so you can try more. They weren’t making Saltfish & Ackee this visit, but next time I’ll call ahead and order. I sopped up everything with bland Cornbread ($2) and a plain but surprisingly tasty Festivals (Jamaican cornbread fritters) ($2), just right dipped in Curry Goat sauce ($10 half order, $16 full order). The goat was fatty and messy, but rich with flavor. Jerk Chicken ($6/$10/$16) is a signature dish and a fine version. Spanish Town Scotch Bonnet Shrimp ($10/$16) exhibit heat from Scotch Bonnet peppers, smoothed out with coconut milk and veggies.
“Every little thing is gonna be alright,” or at least so it feels here as you settle into the chilled out, Jamaican vibe, sipping soothing Sorrel Juice to cool of the hot sauce heat.