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Commis, Gary Danko or Acquarello?

I've read through many, many postings, and narrowed down a location for our 20th anniversary to the three places - Commis, Gary Danko or Acquerello.

My wife is a culinary student finishing her second year in the program, and I want to take her some place that really shows off both the exceptional craft of the kitchen, with excellent service and front of house.

It doesn't have to be super-fancy or elegant, so Fleur de Lys isn't necessarily the target here. And she's not into the molecular thing, though I find it interesting. On the other hand, a "traditional" menu is not that interesting to either of us.

Fresh, local ingredients, interesting combinations of ingredients and/or preparations, and innovative presentation will rank highly. We've been to Chez Panisse for all of its simplicity and perfection, but I want something more unique (for this area) than that.

Commis is currently leading the list for me, and I am not put off by the $59 price for three courses (the debate on that thread didn't worry me - if it's good food, it's worth it). The ability to sit at the counter and watch them cook might be a real bonus for both of us, particularly if we can talk with the chef(s) about what and how they're doing.

OTOH, we've never been to Danko and it's certainly one of the high water places in SF, and would be a good reference point for a "special" dinner. I've been to both Fleur de Lys and Masa's and while they were nice, neither was particularly memorable. I've been to Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, and that was BOTH nice and very memorable. I would go back there in a heartbeat.

As for Acquerello, I've heard enough good things about it that intrigue me, and it sounds like a very reliable, very good experience all around - food and service.

I don't mind an expensive restaurant if it delivers on all counts, but I have found very few that really deliver, and I leave feeling disappointed.

Any suggestions among these three? Only suggest another one if you feel it really delivers over and above the best of these three - I have done a fair amount of reading the threads already and mostly eliminated The Dining Room, Masa's, Fleur de Lys, etc. as a result.

Our timing is mid-October, so I have allowed myself (for better or worse) about one month lead time for a reservation.

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  1. I am not going to make any suggestions but will give my thoughts on Acquarello and Danko. I have not been to Commis and am not going to rehash my thoughts on it.

    Acquarello is a nice intimate dining room, the tables are well spaced and the service is very competent. I found the food to be well executed but nothing ground breaking. For me it was solid but not spectacular. I left wishing it was a little more innovative and that the service was a little warmer and personable. My personal preference is for the server to be a little more relaxed and friendly. I thought the dessert was the weakest part of my meal.

    Danko is a little more sleek and modern vibe. I thought the service was less stuffy than Acquarello. When the food is good, it's very good. On my last visit the seafood dishes outshined the meat/fowl dishes. The dessert was also a little weak. Danko tends to be a little more hit and miss with regards to a dish's success.

    Have you considered Ame?

    1. FYI, you might give Commis a call -- I called them the other day to make a reservation for dinner around that timeframe for my birthday, and they said they *may* be having special dinners right around that time, which seems like it would be perfect for this occasion.

      1. I have not been to any of these three restaurants. That being said, it seems like Commis is most likely to change (read: get much more expensive) in the next few months/years; it still has not been given a major review yet, or in the Michelin guide, and once that happens, you can bet prices will increase.

        1. I've been to Commis and to me it is all about the food. The service is good but not fantastic and they do have their occassional missteps (like the time they opened a Champagne and the cork went flying into the wall, of course I had a friend from a wine shop put a Champagne cork into the ceiling last friday....). However the food is fantastic and I think your wife would enjoy sitting at the bar watching them cook. We sat at the bar one of the three times we have been and were able to talk with the chefs and ask questions. When you make your reservation ask if you can sit at the bar as there are only six seats so this can fill up.

          I have not been to either Gary Danko's or Acquarello so I can not comment on them.

          1. The overall experience at Acquerello was as good as I've had in SF. Food, service, and wine were all first-rate.

            1. Commis is definitely a One-Guy-Livin'-His-Dream-And-What-A-Dream-It-Is sort of place that I think if I were studying to be someone livin' that particular dream I'd really be interested in having a look into.

              1. Of the three, I have only been to Danko and can not imagine a better place to celebrate your 20th aniv. (congrats!). The service was very professional but relaxed and friendly and they scored on all counts in all the five courses my husband and I shared - though 5 courses was just too much for us and we would not repeat that gluttony again ;)

                1. I have eaten at Commis and Gary Danko in the past couple of months, the former for my birthday and the latter for my in-laws' 50th wedding anniversary. Were I booking my 20th anniversary, I'd go with Commis. Danko is extremely reliable and professional, but I would prefer the whimsy and passion of Commis.

                  1. Thanks all - I am going to try Commis - it sounds like a really interesting concept and execution. BTW, I spoke with them today to get the reservation, and it sounds like they are also heading towards a tasting menu at $110 for all the courses (about 8 or 9 dishes). Not sure if we'll do that, or just the three-course, but we are definitely sitting at the counter to watch them at work.

                    I will report back next month after we go there...thanks!

                    1. Well, we went to Commis last night as planned, so I thought I'd give a snapshot review - to give it away, it was a really fine meal, and we enjoyed the whole evening from start to finish!

                      At arrival, we were shown to our seats right in front of James Syhabout and his small team of chefs. We were able to watch, and talk with everyone during the entire meal. It was a bit nerve-wracking though, watching them painstakingly assemble some rather complicated dishes - it was as much a surgical suite as a kitchen in front of us (including tweezers for some of the more delicate operations).

                      We opted for the 3 course menu ($59 each) since we could share dishes - so we each tried 8 items (including two amuses) and had a chance to see exactly how each was prepared.

                      First was a small shot glass of pinkish "red shiso soda" - crisp and refreshing, balancing the shiso with a bit of sweetness. I felt like this would be a wonderful summer drink, and my wife is thinking about how to make it now.

                      Next was one of the more clever items of the night - it was a slow-cooked hens egg yolk sitting in a whitish savory pool of a mushroom-flavored cream sauce- it looked like a fried egg in the bottom of the bowl, complemented with a small dollop of home-made granola, and some herbs. A wry take on a breakfast bowl, and very tasty - especially the perfect consistency of the egg yolk.

                      This was the first of several dishes where we sopped up the flavors with their house-made "Parker House" rolls- super fresh, with house-churned butter - as others have said, you could just make a meal on these rolls and butter!

                      Next up were our starters - I had the soft poached farm egg with pork jowl, a delicious, rich and fatty combination that was also evocative of breakfast - great flavors and presentation. There was a "smear" of fermented black garlic on the side of the dish, which was a wonderful tart accompaniment to the flavors of the egg and pork - almost like garlic Marmite! The whole dish was scattered with small flowers - alliums of garlic and onion plants. Beautiful presentation and great combination of tastes.

                      We also shared the sunchoke soup with a lobster mushroom custard at the bottom, which also had a "foam" of mushroom around it - super smooth flavors and textures, quite rich and luscious mouthfeel. We both enjoyed the soup, and though it at first seemed like a small portion, was more than ample, especially with the courses to follow.

                      For our "mains" we shared the poached then seared duck breast with duck confit, chantrelles, and cranberry beans in a mulled broth - with a small dollop of plum sauce sitting in the broth. Wonderful rich autumnal flavors, all perfectly complementing each other. The duck breast was perfectly and consistently pink all the way through, due to the sous vide pre-cooking, and we cleaned the bowl thoroughly of the delicious jus.

                      The other dish was a filet of cod cooked "ala plancha" on the flat top - perfectly smooth and cooked all the way through, with a crispy, salt-crusted piece of skin attached, it was definitely one of the best pieces of fish in recent memory. The dish appeared with a carefully assembled "scene" of braised lettuce, large clams (out of shell) and some seafood emulsion "foam" in such a way that it looked like a tidepool scene. The flavors all complemented one another and the quality was stellar, with the possible exception of the large clams which seemed a tiny bit tough to me, but tasted fresh as can be.

                      We were actually pretty full at this point, but continued to dessert. She had the " Black Mission Fig Tart" - their pastry chef is clearly a perfectionist, and watching him was like a combination of surgeon and watchmaker in terms of the precision and detail with which he assembled the three desserts on offer. The tart was beautiful with nice "lavender crusted almonds" as a crunchy counterpoint to the smooth unctuous fig filling. The small tart crust was perfectly composed and crusty, and the entire affair was a great mix of tastes and textures.

                      I chose the "White Cheddar Cheesecake with pink pearl apples" and this was one of the best desserts in a long time. A small rectangle (1.5 x 2 x 0.5 inches" of tart, cheddary cheesecake sitting on top of a 1/8 in thick layer of rosemary crust, topped with a collection of tiny chopped pink pearl apple bits that had been soaked in simple syrup to turn them pink. Then some small rosemary flowers scattered onto the apples. On top of that were a bundle of 'threads" of crispy fillo dough that had been baked in butter. Slightly larger than a hair in thickness, they looked like "hay" on top of the pearl apples. The dessert was served on a slab of stone tile, and it looked like a piece of modern art, and we (almost) didn't dare touch it.

                      Once dessert was finished, we declined coffee as we were really full at that point. My overall reaction was that this place is the real deal - great and inventive food, served by people who really care about food and service, in a calm, simple and unpretentious environment. It doesn't have any of the "look at me!" aspects of many of the high-end places in the Bay Area, but for me, it was certainly at that level with food and service. Our servers were the right blend of friendly and professional, and everyone in the small restaurant (my wife counted 21 seats) clearly is trying to make this a destination for serious foodies.

                      Overall I don't have any complaints - my advice is try it if you are intrigued - I hope they can survive with this mix of food and lack of attitude - I wonder if there are enough people who don't need the fancy presentation that can keep them going. The good news is their overhead must be low given the Piedmont location and size, and the small number of staff. Cost for the meal was $145 with two-three course meals ($59 each) plus three glasses of wine), plus tax and tip. I felt like it was a great value for the quality of food and attention to detail, with the bonus of my culinary student wife being able to see how everything was made.

                      -----
                      Commis
                      3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: RichInMV

                        Thanks for the great report. Hopefully the fact that it's in Oakland will help keep it from being over-run by the urban types who are more interested in a place being "hot" than the food.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I don't know, at this point I'd be glad for it to be overrun by anyone, I was a little nervous that it was so empty last Friday night.

                          1. re: JasmineG

                            It was half full (half empty?) last night (Wednesday) - we arrived about 6:30 and left about 8:30. I was calculating turns and tables in my head. I think it might be close in terms of "can they make it"

                            Definitely worth checking out if you are looking for interesting and high quality dining without a lot of fuss and attitude.

                        2. re: RichInMV

                          Hi. FYI - Pink Pearl apples don't need to be soaked to turn pink - they are pink inside. The season is over for this year, but I hope you'll look for them next year at Farmers Markets - pastel on the outside, and either uniformly pink inside or splashes of beautiful reds and pinks. They're quite tart. I also loved the cheesecake - and everything else - at Commis.

                          1. re: neu

                            For those who have been recently. Is there any truth to the rumor that they are offering a tasting menu now?

                            1. re: oysterspearls

                              Actually, they mentioned that it was available (I forget the cost, maybe $100?) but since my wife and I ordered different dishes, we covered most of the menu between us. I did see some other dishes being prepared (one involving squid) that night, so there may be other items that are offered with the tasting menu.

                              1. re: oysterspearls

                                I called early this week and they are offering a tasting menu. I didn't ask for anything detailed about it but the tasting menu is 8 or 9 courses.