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Nov 30, 2009 11:05 AM

Epic birthday dinner at Commis: just jaw-droppingly delicious (and beautiful) food

So I think I might have a new favorite restaurant.

Four of us (me and my wife, plus a former Bay Area hound and her husband) had dinner at Commis this past Friday night to celebrate my birthday. Though we weren't able to secure counter seats (despite booking a month in advance), we sat at the four-top right at the front of the restaurant, which was great because the two of us facing the kitchen area could still see a decent amount of the action.

Waiting for me on the table when we arrived was a birthday card that had been signed by the chefs and staff--a nice touch, the first of many that evening. Our server and the hostess/somellier were warm and knowledgeable--attentive without being intrusive or overly formal. It just felt so...comfortable. Up there with the best service I've ever received in any restaurant. (Also, they must have wished me happy birthday a half dozen times over the course of the evening.)

I had:

- the Shiso soda palate cleanser
- several helpings of the Parker House rolls with house-made butter
- an amuse-bouche of poached egg, with a date-based onion cream sauce and house-made granola
- Appetizer: their signature poached egg with potatoes, fermented black garlic, pork jowl and alliums
- Entree: the pork loin and pork loin, served over barley, some dark purple carrots, and a fruit compote
- Dessert: a Kombucha squash custard
- "petite fours" of absinthe gelee to end

My favorites by far were the two egg dishes. The yolk in that amuse had a texture unlike any other egg yolk I've ever had--almost like a paste. LOVED the sweetness of the cream, and the granola gave the dish a nice crunch. Anyone know if they mix the egg white into that sauce too, or if they just discard the whites?

Even better was the poached egg with pork jowl. Three of us ordered this, and all three of us had one of those "When Harry Met Sally" moments, literally moaning in ecstasy as we ate. Conversation ground to a halt. My God! Every component comes together perfectly. Our server informed us that the egg itself is poached for an hour and 10 minutes at 61 degrees Celsius. The result is the most tender, delicate poached egg I've ever had the pleasure of eating. Just perfect execution. But we all agreed that the pork jowl--perfectly crisp and full of fatty goodness--is what took the dish over the top. (The fourth in our party had for her appetizer the smoked kale soup with some kind of heirloom bean, also excellent--beautiful and incredibly complex.)

Surprisingly, my pork entree was probably the least memorable dish of the night for me--it was merely very good, not mind-blowing. In another thread ( ), grayelf mentioned getting a somewhat raw piece of pork loin--mine was actually just a touch overdone (and a little bit dryer than ideal as a result, but still quite good when eaten with the dried fruit compote). Anyway, the loin was fine, but the belly was excellent--so tender and deeply flavorful (then again, I've never met a piece of pork belly I didn't like).

For their entree, two of my dining companions ordered the chicken terrine, which I believe was another of one of our consensus favorites (though it didn't seem like a terrine to me, other than the molded rectangular shape). It was a juicy, perfectly cooked piece of chicken, served with some small radishes scattered on top and cepes (like porcini mushrooms). I only had a couple of bites (delicious), but it didn't SEEM to me that the chicken had been chopped up first before being pressed into the mold (?). Maybe some molecular-gastronomic magic going on.

For dessert I had the Kombucha squash custard, which came with a crust, a bit like a slice of really good pumpkin pie. I loved this--lots of great little components on the plate: streaks of root beer syrup, little dabs of cream that had been infused with licorice flavor, a sprinkling of sunflower seeds. (Two of my dining partners opted for the huckleberry and apple tart, which was served with a boldly flavored and memorable cheddar ice cream).

I also had the $29 wine pairing option, but since I don't know much about wines, I'll refrain from commenting too much on that. Suffice it to say I thought they were all tasty, and I'm not a big drinker so I found the pours just right. My favorite was probably a smooth Spanish red that they served with the pork.

As we were leaving, Chef Syhabout himself thanked us for coming and wished me a happy birthday. It was yet another personal touch to cap off an amazing evening.

Given the glowing reports I'd been reading on the board, I was worried that I might be going into the meal with unrealistic expectations. But if anything, the food, the service, the ambiance--all of it--far exceeded my expectations.

Thanks to everyone who gave their hearty endorsements in the other thread ( ). In the end, it made for the best birthday dinner I can recall--and probably, without being hyperbolic at all, one the best meals I've ever had.

My wife, who would never describe herself as a chowhound, woke up the next morning still talking about that egg dish and those pork jowls. (We're already making plans to go back for her birthday in January.) And another one of my dining companions, the non-foodie half of the couple we dined with, said that he'd like to go back and sit at the chef's counter--not even talk at all. Just sit and meditate on the food.

I think that about says it all.

3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

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  1. Thanks for the complete report! You must be a pig lover to order both the pork jowl and the pork loin. The pork jowl will probably always be in demand! As should be the amuse of onion cream. I felt like it was eating onion soup because it had such a distinct flavor. And I agree the yolk is a texture that's firm but soft, hard to explain. Just taste!

    I'm glad you had a nice birthday. They really go out of the way to make you feel special.

    1. Great report. I really love this place.

      1. Abstractpoet said it so well, I'll just add a few comments.
        Professionalism and courtesy -- each and every one of the staff were a delight. I called a bit earlier in the day to see if I could move my 6:00 reservation up to 5:30. I was told that they had a lot of people coming in at 5:30, but if we could be flexible they'd serve us an apertiff and fit us in. As it turns out we were immediately sat at the chef's counter (YEAH!!!!). The wait staff totally knew their food and wine. For example, the differences in the house churned butter v. the butter used in the actual food preparation; which eggs were used for the different dishes; where the pork came from and why Commis purchased from that provider; where the coffee came from and, again, why. Very unobtrusive yet attentive service.
        Teeeney Tiny kitchen - didn't seem to inhibit the four gentlemen manning it. What a synchronized dance and I was such an ardent voyeur. Very little talk during the night between the chefs. Chef Syhabout overseeing all of the work, stepping into a plate to garnish, etc. and then waltzing away. The two gentlemen really doing the heavy labor over the fire completely in tune. I avidly watched the preparation of our main dishes (the cod and the pork). Just a few words between them, "are your ready?' "Yeah, let's go." And off they went. Each turning to the preparation of their dish, pulling out the vegetables stored in plastic containers, poaching the cod and sauteeing the pork loin and belly; pulling tweezers from their upper pockets to pluck blossoms to adorn the cod dish and snip off herbs for the pork; dusting the pork with 10 or so salt crystals. Each dish for every customer received this minute sort of attention. I remember one of the chefs positively peering down through his glasses at the plate, gently poking and proding it to suit whatever aesthetic he had in mind.
        The pastry chef - he had his own domain off to the side and slightly away from the stove and prep/counter area. My husband ordered the custard, abstractpoet described above. The chef called our wait person over. He pointed to the dish and then to us and then back to the dish again. Steph asked the waiter when the dish arrived, "oh, oh, what's the problem?" She said, "there's nothing behind the scenes here. The chef just wanted to make sure that your dish was presented in precisely this (pointing to the dish) fashion." And that's what struck me about the whole of our experience at Commis - a fabulous attention to the detail of the food, the service and the experience of the client.
        A few minuses - and only a few. My pork loin, although flavorful, was tough and chewy - and not in a good way. I was surpised. The wine pairing isn't really a wine pairing. It's a cider, beer and wine pairing. I just really want wine when I order a wine pairing and I don't like beer, period. That's my preference. I don't remember if the menu said simply "pairing" or "wine pairing." However, the red served with the pork and the sauterne served with the blue cheese were a perfect match.
        I can't imagine that Commis will be long in this small space. On a Thursday night, from almost the moment we walked in the door until we left around 8:00, the place was full and people were graciously turned away if they had no reservation.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Cecelia

          Great notes, Cecelia. I was really blown away by the detail to the food and the professionalism and welcoming nature of the staff. My only real comparison is the wonderful service and food at The French Laundry, and that isn't a comparison I make lightly. And at a quarter of the price, what a deal! Obviously, way less food, too, but the experience was very close for me. And I was totally one of the skeptics about the price point. I hope one of my friends has a birthday soon and wants to celebrate here.

          1. re: Cecelia

            Thanks for the great details about the chef's counter experience specifically, Cecelia. When my wife and I go back, just the two of us, that's definitely what we want to shoot for, as it seems like that adds a whole other dimension to the experience.

            And totally agreed about the value here, JasmineG: I've had a couple of meals for twice this price that I didn't enjoy as much (despite getting more food).

            During my meal the pairing was all wines, so maybe that varies from night to night. It would be nice if they warned you beforehand if they aren't all going to be wines, though. I actually would have probably enjoyed a cider and a beer mixed in.

            It seems like the only recurring criticism I've seen in a couple of the threads is some issue with the meat entrees being either over- or undercooked. A few people with pork loin issues, and a couple complaints about the duck. It seems like this should be something that would be easy enough for them to get straightened out.

            1. re: abstractpoet

              I think eating at the counter is absolutely the way to go -- if you're not on a date night or other romantic eyes for your partner only kind of evening.
              Given the thoughtfulness that the Chef and his crew have devoted to absolutely every aspect of the dining experience, I hope that the problem with the meats will be resolved. Frankly, I could kick myself for not politely mentioning it.
              I'm not sure I would go so far as to equate Commis with TFL or Manresa or Cyrus, but only because of the lavishness of those dining experiences (in terms of the number of courses you can opt for). In terms of the quality, as opposed to the quantity, and with the exception of the pork loin, I think a healthy competition now exists. As an Oakland native I have to say, "Go Commis!"

          2. I love this place and think the desserts are some of the best out there. I will say again that I cannot believe that food of this caliber is happening in Oakland!

            6 Replies
            1. re: pastryqueen

              Here's my take on this restaurant. Overall, a very enjoyable evening. Nothing mind blowing, but I will return, sooner rather than later.

              Service - it ranges from as professional to as friendly as you might want it to be. I enjoyed it very much, including the wine paring service (more on that later). Changing/clearing plates/utensils/glassware at the counter can be awkward at time, but not a deterrent to sitting there.

              The "welcome" lemongrass soda was really nice. More would have been nicer!

              The amuse was the egg in the onion and date paste, etc. as described above. It might have been my favorite savory item. This came with a french cider, which was quite tasty.

              They had run out of my starter, so I had the barley with pork jowl dish. It was paired with a burgundy-ish red. This dish isn't in the normal repertoire of what I usually like, including the wine selection. But it is something I wanted to try here. I was in the mood to try interesting food. It was enjoyable, and I would not order it again, but can see how some people would just love it.

              My main was the fish, with clams and turnips. I really enjoyed this. The fish had a lovely texture, maybe some would have wanted it cooked a few seconds longer - the green garlic sauce really was the best part. It paired with a California Sauvignon Blanc quite well.

              I was not expecting the dessert to be the real standout, but this huckleberry tart was really great. It was paired with, I believe, a Bugey Cerdon, which was very nice.

              Dinner finished with a absinthe pate de fruit.

              Prior to ordering, I asked about the beverage pairing, and the waiter went item by item through the menu with what would be paired with each. I'm glad I did the pairing once, and probably wouldn't do it again. Tonight, I wanted interesting. But I did not think the $29 was necessarily a good value, given the pour size - especially with the starter. Next time, I think I bring a bottle and buy a bottle, and we'll be satiated in the wine department, even if it won't be as varied and maybe not paired quite as well.

              The odd thing while I was sitting in there was a sense that I didn't know quite where I was - because I didn't feel like I was a short drive from home, I didn't feel like I was in Oakland. It doesn't feel like SF, either. But maybe this is what Oakland feels like now. I've been in other cities where certain chefs try and pull off what Commis does, at a higher price point, and it just works better here. I think it helps that there are only 3 choices from each part of the menu. I also liked the fact that for me, this was a very comfortable setting, and as much as this could be a nice special occasion place, it can also easily be a last-minute "what's for dinner" place (assuming a seat is open).

              I can tell that this kitchen will serve me a dish that will be a real wow at some point. Tonight wasn't it, but I ordered out of my normal zone with one course.

              And one final comment - when I first came in, and saw the dishes coming out, I wasn't confident I'd actually be full when I was done - but I was.

              1. re: lmnopm

                Could you describe the pate de fruit?

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Traditional texture, a small bite with a distinct but subtle absinthe taste.

                  1. re: lmnopm

                    I don't know what the traditional texture would be. Is it something like candied fruit?

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Like a gumdrop, but a bit firmer and less sticky (if what lmnopm is describing is the same absinthe "gelee" I had).

                      1. re: abstractpoet

                        Well, it was renamed "pate de fruit" for my meal ;), and yes, is the same thing.

            2. Great post! I had to sign up to reply, we are going to Commis tonight as a combination anniversary and moving celebration dinner. It was originally planned for Manresa but coming of a move and unemployed stint Commis was much more appealing to our wallet.

              Thanks for the great review!!

              4 Replies
              1. re: Foodie.wannabe

                Congrats on your anniversary and your move, and welcome to Chowhound. Please do report back on your meal and let us know if Commis lives up to your expectations!

                1. re: Foodie.wannabe

                  How was the dinner? Another place that recently opened and is similar is Eve on University in Berkeley. Every dish on the menu is $11, so you pick and choose to put together your menu out of nine dishes. Just another thought for the budget concisous.

                  1. re: rworange

                    I recently dined at Eve, and while the food was very good (and the desserts outstanding), I think we may be doing it a disservice by comparing it to Commis at this point. That would definitely be setting expectations too high. The clams, pork belly, and fish were good. The gnocchi were actually pretty bad (unless you like chewy gnocchi), and the desserts were fan-freaking tasting. Service was sweet and earnest but a bit awkward. The dining room looks great in pictures, but it is not very comfortable. The tables are very heavy, making it hard to move them to leave the built in bench seating. The benches are a few inches too high, so they feel funny to sit in. Worse yet, they're a couple of inches taller than the chairs, so I towered over my dining companion.

                    I'm not recommending against going to Eve. I liked it a lot and I'll be back. I just think it would be cruel to raise diners' expectations and cause them to expect something as precise as Commis. And I don't mean cruel to the diners, but cruel to Eve. I'd hate to curse a nice, new, and trying very hard restaurant like Eve with the nasty comments that can result from overly high expectations.

                    1. re: lexdevil

                      Having been to both restaurants in the past month, I agree that Commis and Eve can't be compared.

                      Commis exceeded my expectations; I'd had some concerns about the starkness of the room and wondered whether the food might be more about style than substance. Commis easily dismissed both of these concerns by providing stellar but not stuffy service and food that was intriguing and far more than the sum of its parts (including the much-discussed egg amuse). I also thought the portion size was appropriate, not petite. I can't wait to go back.

                      I, too, wondered how Eve might compare, given that the reviews here and in the East Bay Express had suggested some similarities and Eve describes itself as offering "gastronomie avant garde" (whatever that means). I came away from my dinner wanting them to succeed (the owners seemed very nice and committed to what they were doing) but somewhat doubtful/disappointed. I'd try it again but not too soon.

                      The detailed descriptions of the menu items provided by the chef/owner and server sounded delicious. But the food fell short for me. The ingredients were good but didn't come together. I had a farm egg appetizer with kimchi grits, and pickled chanterelles that was exactly that but didn't add up to much. The only element that added texture to the mix (other than soft) was a toast that didn't seem to have another purpose. The smear of a kimchi sauce was tasty and spicy; having also tasted my husband's monkfish curry entree, I think the spicier choices were most successful. My own shortrib entree featured farro, cabbage (turned out to be shredded red cabbage), chopped parsnips, and a prune. All of these ingredients make sense together but didn't add up to more than this list. The most cohesive and interesting dish I had was the cheese and phyllo dessert; in contrast, my husband's chocolate souffle cake with candied pumpkin was dull (we agreed on this, and he loves chocolate). I thought dessert was the weakest course visually.

                      Getting back to that comparison with Commis, I don't expect the execution of dishes at Eve to reach the level of Commis, but I do hope it can improve.