Dine About Oakland: Commis

September 27, 2009

Okay, I continue to be incredibly behind in posting (which is mostly due to being incredibly swamped at work, and incredibly overwhelmed by the list of “house things we absolutely MUST do before it starts raining again,” so what can y’do….)—but here’s a quick taste of Commis, one of the newest additions to Piedmont Avenue and the Oakland restaurant scene.

We’ve been wanting to try Commis (pronounced “commie,” from the French for apprentice chef) since we first started reading about it months ago, and finally had a special occasion dinner a few weeks ago that warranted heading out to the somewhat-pricey spot. Commis, opened this summer by Oakland-raised chef James Syhabout, has a prix fixe concept: dinner is $59 for three courses, and that’s all there is. You can choose a wine pairing for another $29, or can fly solo with just a glass of wine or beer for a more modest amount. But it’s not the kind of spot where you can drop in for an appetizer or dessert, and you need to plan ahead, because the tiny place books up pretty quickly. (It’s in the spot that used to be JoJo on Piedmont near BayWolf; JoJo was tiny and a bit cramped, and Commis continues to be space-challenged….you have to look first before opening the door, that sort of thing.)

The night we tried it, we had a choice of four appetizers, three entrées, and two desserts. It’s worth noting that, out-of-the-box, this is not a great spot for vegetarians; none of the entrée choices were veggie the night we visited, and only one appetizer was. (Notably, when I made the reservation, the hostess did ask if we had any special dietary needs that should be accommodated, so I imagine you might be able to request a special vegetarian dish.) Everything sounded incredible, and we had the good fortune of sitting at the bar where the food was being assembled in front of us. It was pretty astounding: a team of four ran the show, deftly grabbing containers from the carefully labeled stacks and measuring out just the right ingredients for each dish, which they then prepared individually as people ordered. The stove had half a dozen tiny saucepans in motion at once. One box of herbs—an ingeniously re-purposed hardware bits box with separate compartments for each herb or garnish—appeared on the scene as things were plated, and the cooks carefully and precisely cut seasonings for each dish. The whole process really blew my mind—I only wish we’d watched it for a bit longer before ordering, since we got a sense for each dish as they prepared it.

Here’s what we settled on, though:

  • Complimentary shiso soda as a starter—still a bit fuzzy on exactly what this was, but it was interesting and tasty. We had fun watching them prepare these tiny tastes from soda and cream bottles, too.
  • Cured Monterey Bay sardines—D. loved these (which is good because he was the one who ordered them!) I thought they were good but would not have wanted a full plate of them.
  • Soft farm egg with potato, alliums, and pork jowl—An incredible appetizer that is, true to its name, VERY soft—not a good choice if you’re uncomfortable with soft eggs, but extremely good if you are. I am, D. isn’t, so it worked out perfectly.
  • Lamb with lentils (I think?) The details on both this dish and the cod elude me—this is why I should write these up in a more timely fashion!—but both were excellent. We also watched a duck dish get prepared, and regretted that we couldn’t have tried that too—next time we’ll have to draft a third person to join us!
  • Ling cod with corn curd and summer squash. The sides that accompanied the fish were very, very good, and the fish itself was tender with a crisp edge.

In a rare departure from our usual sharing mode, we ordered identical desserts: a black mission fig tart with beeswax-scented ice cream (bizarre, I know—but so yummy!) (The other option, a melon soup, was less up our alley.) The crust was melt-in-your-mouth good, and the ice cream, in spite of sounding like an odd concept, was wonderful. The only challenge was that we were a bit too full to really savor dessert—normally we split an appetizer and a dessert if we’re each getting an entree—but that’s a danger of a prix fixe menu, I guess.

In all, this was an outstanding meal—expensive, yes, but not overpriced, which is an important distinction. Everything was perfectly prepared—meats were tender, nothing over or under cooked. The only thing we’d do differently in the future is to forgo the wine tastings and simply have a glass of wine (or a cocktail?) instead. The wines were fine, but nothing that blew us away, and I found myself rushing to finish various pours—or worse, running out mid-course—which wouldn’t have been a problem had I been ordering by the glass. (I’d also pace myself on the dinner rolls, which were very good, but a danger because a new one would appear as soon as you finished one….) Since we’re light eaters, we also might space our courses out a bit more—either by lingering on the last or by asking them to slow the delivery, since they pretty much timed them to a tee as we finished each dish. And at $200+ for the two of us, it’s definitely a special occasion spot—but with the tiny dining room, that’s perfect.

Edit: So, not two hours after I posted this, I sat down with the Sunday Chron, which featured Michael Bauer’s review of Commis. I thought this was particularly interesting, both because two of his issues—too little food and too little description of said food upon serving—were so counter to our experience (our waitress bordered on too much to say about various dishes!) and because his review harped on one issue that we did have that I’d completely forgotten about: the flatware and dishes. They’re terrible! Now, maybe this is just because we’re in the midst of shopping for new flatware and dishes so I’m acutely aware of the shortcomings of different styles, but it really, really bugged me. The water glasses are tear-drop shaped and heavy, which means that when they’re filled with water and there’s condensation on the outside, you struggle to keep the glass from slipping through your hand. The flatware is fine in and of itself, but the style of the plates combined with the shape of the flatware prevents you from setting your fork or knife down while you’re eating—it immediately slides into the center of your plate. I had to fish mine out and wipe it off several times over the course of the meal. (D. clued into this early on and just held his fork and knife through the entire meal, but that seems a little silly!) So, yeah. There is one area that could be improved—and quite easily, too.

Update (12/9/09): Friends went recently and say the flatware issues are all good now (so either they’ve been changed or I’m just too picky!)

Grade: A
Cost: $$$-$$$$



  1. I note today that Commis is in the just-announced 2010 San Francisco Bay Area Michelin Guide, at one star. They seem to have shared your experience. 😉

  2. Yep, I noted the same—that would also be Oakland’s first-ever Michelin star. So kudos, Commis!

    Also new to this year’s guide are several East Bay spots that earned the “bib gourmand” designation—Michelin’s favorites for a good value. They are: Brown Sugar Kitchen, Camino, Corso, FIVE, and Picán. Oliveto and Tamarindo fell off the list. (I haven’t been to Oliveto in a while and it’s certainly on the Chron’s blacklist right now, but Tamarindo was just as good as ever when we were there a few months back—maybe it’s just not as novel anymore?)

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