Monday, November 15, 2010

Fine Dining at Commis

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Commis is a fine dining place that makes do with less. In that sense it is quite au courant. Foodies may be in a frugal state of mind these days but some still look for a fine dining experience occasionally, though not at French Laundryesque prices. Commis provides the answer.

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The $115 nine-course tasting menu I had at Commis delivered the kind of eats that felt almost double that price. How is this possible? The restaurant has a Zen-like economy and simplicity. And most of all Chef James Syhabout’s skill and imagination transform modest ingredients into sublime dishes.

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Mr. Syhabout (see-ha-boot) serves up his refined, conceptual cuisine in a spare, gallery-like space. Everything is casual and relaxed. The restaurant's bare walls and plain black-and-white décor—broken only by the blonde wood table-tops and counter—create a contemplative atmosphere that is conducive to the compositions that the kitchen presents.

Each of the dishes is a delicious sketch of a scene. The halibut tartare floats below kelp and sea plant-like flowering coriander. A salad of green tomatoes is a verdant vista with twin upright basil leaves standing like trees in the middle of a garden. The watercress soup appears like a tide pool hemmed by the rocky edges of shaved shiso ice complete with a growth of colorful nasturtiums and sorrel.

My senses are totally engaged by the dishes, and my mind is as well. The experience is like gastronomic meditation.

Mr. Syhabout runs a neat, efficient kitchen. Aside from just two cooks, a pastry chef works alongside him. They operate together harmoniously without fuss and in silence.

Not knowing what menu to expect, I was fortunate that the two wines I brought matched the food marvelously. Both bottles were 1969s kept since release in cold storage. One was a Burgundy, a 1969 Domaine Coron Beaune Clos du Roi 1er Cru. It drank fresh and clear, filled with red fruits and subtle spices, still dense and powerful. But the other bottle qualifies as one of the most amazing wines I've ever drank, a 1969 Beaulieu Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon "Georges de Latour Private Reserve". It had stunning finesse and complexity, and a most surprising delicacy. It was hard to believe this was a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, much less from forty years ago. Its persistence and length was very satisfying. Wine is indeed full of surprises.

Commis Restaurant
3859 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611

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