For all the fervor that the Mission’s restaurant scene has generated in the last decade or so, only five restaurants in the neighborhood currently hold Michelin stars: AL’s Place, Aster, Californios, Lazy Bear, (the only one to be upgraded to two) and Commonwealth. (Draw a line connecting all five, and they make almost a perfect cross shape, centered on Valencia Street.) Established in 2010 by Bar Tartine alumni Anthony Myint and Jason Fox, Commonwealth is not much older than the other four put together — although the tasting panel bestowed its accolades upon all of them in 2016. In other words, in a neighborhood characterized by flash, the Mission Chinese-adjacent eatery with the doughnuts and carriage-house lamps painted on its side remains a steady beacon.
But in spite of the acclaim and the tasting-menu arms race that causes prices to creep up around town at a rate of inflation approaching that of private-college tuition, Commonwealth never seems to have been in it for the money. For one thing, the house donates $10 from every tasting menu to local charities such as Project Open Hand and the SF-Marin Food Bank. But more importantly, that $10 is not coming out of a $300 pot. The 15 courses — or, technically, 13 plus two amuse-bouches — on Commonwealth’s menu are but $85 or $140 with wine pairing. By the bizarro-universe metrics of San Francisco dining, that’s simultaneously a lot (in absolute terms) and a shocking bargain.
The value can’t be overemphasized. Kick off with a bowl of chips with Aleppo pepper and malt-vinegar foam to whet your appetite. (At last, a use for foam that doesn’t feel like an unnecessary garnish moonlighting as a disgusting kitty accident.) Then it’s time for a low-pH adventure in geoduck. Near-translucent under tweezed strata of cucumber, lovage and Szechuan pepper, it was mild enough not to make your lips go numb and paired with a 2015 Glera that we were hastily assured is superior to any Prosecco in spite of being the same grape. A tiny garland of the heirloom broccoli known as spigarello got nutty and thyme-y in a bath of cheddar-beer fondue and puffed farro, but the second full course was even better.
Kokuryu Junmal Ginjo “Black Dragon,” sake brewed in a prefecture of Japan that’s noted for its soft water, had the most exquisite mouthfeel, and matched up flawlessly with lightly smoked trout with its roe plus potato and chilled pea soup. Judged on color alone, the pale pink and orange against the deep spring green has a Rothko-esque quality, but of course, it’s all about that fish, adorned with just enough dill to suggest a quick pickling but still fresh.
Things kept coming, at a brisk pace: asparagus with a buttermilk sorbet and a touch of wheatgrass oil, beef tartare with sunchokes and purslane, a scallop with yet more asparagus (plus shiso, scallions, ginger and dashi).
The scale this kitchen works in is admirable, external artistry holding hands with internal harmony. Take the first asparagus, a lengthwise shave of the spear bent back to lend support to the herbs and give it an airiness. The sorbet mirrored the milky geoduck from earlier, too. You have to acknowledge the use of hints and whispers on the plate even when the wines are full-throated and assertive. The best dish was likely the most labor-intensive, the thin, noodle-like ribbon of scallop, pounded and sous-vided then warmed back up in a broth — and as to whether this asparagus is there to complement it or vice versa is up to you.
A few pairings sputtered into incongruence, like a saline La Cigarerra Manzanilla fino sherry with grilled octopus. Both were better on their own. Also, there’s sometimes little sense of forward momentum. A beautiful but arctic-cold plate of cauliflower with favas and radish would make a great second course, but it’s not the most exciting seventh course — especially when the cauliflower’s preparation was a wan echo of the scallop. The body hungers for beefier things.
You get it, or something zestier at least, in the form of a cheddar tuile, a hole-filled cracker like an Islamic screen with artichokes and olive tapenade. (It’s buddied up with Fort Point KSA, a Kolsch beer that was one of the rare light moments.) Things were firmly back on track with the sablefish with black chickpeas and squid ink butter, a presentation that turned its lack of visual appeal into an asset by arranging things in alternating light-and-dark formation. Like an exploded dumpling, it was among the most inventive courses.
Pork belly arrived, tasty but much too tough, with a 2014 Croatian Piquentum that had a bloody essence owing to the iron-rich soils it grows in, plus those white strawberries that look like they lost their life-force in transit (or maybe Bunnicula got hold of them). Blood-red was the way of the lamb shoulder with walnut butter, beets, garlic, and ropy seaweed that was endlessly chewy yet somehow enjoyable. Matched with a mentholated, medicinal Languedoc, the entire thing was a creative yet gratifying final savory course, and druidic somehow. (That’s a compliment.)
Dessert is in three acts, starting with a bracing variation on a New York Jewish staple: a palate-scrubbing verjus soda with celery sorbet. Then came a peanut-buttery almond-milk pudding with pink-and-yellow bits like Dippin’ Dots on top, followed by salted date ice cream with pumpkin seed croquant and black sesame caramel. In ordinary terms, that last part was basically a caramel sundae. Put it with a 10-year Madeira and you have the best possible closer, something sophisticated that makes your inner 6-year-old happy, too.
Apart from some flabbiness in the middle — that’s probably a function of the season — the meal’s overall structure followed the right arc. One issue that became more acute throughout the meal, though, was the stiff, serious team service. As any tasting menu unspools over almost three hours, you’re going to feel a little jovial downing one paired course after the next, and the impulse to get a little chattier is only natural. But almost without exception, Commonwealth’s knowledgeable servers are crisp, unsmiling and eye contact-averse. They recite their scripts, then bolt. This might sound like I was being an icky creepster — nope, promise! — but contrasted with the superabundance of warmth at Lazy Bear around the block, it was weird to feel a little iced out. But Commonwealth is nothing if not generous in spirit. There’s a match between technical excellence and ardor, and a gratitude for all the short-lived gifts of spring.