Food: Commonwealth’s Japanese-inspired fare is for all

Everything about Commonwealth, a small, smart, Mission Street dinner house, embodies what’s happening right now in the new generation of  chef-owned restaurants.

The 35-seat dining room with a 10-seat, L-shaped counter next to the kitchen reveals nothing of its former identity as a Hunt’s Donut shop and then a taqueria.

Now, all is blond wood, white wall, sky light and frosted glass front windows that block out the street. Three intense chefs in clean white jackets precisely cook and plate in full view under the direction of Jason Fox, former chef at Bar Tartine.

With kaiseki-like artistry, they weave Japanese ingredients into preparations that focus on seasonal local products.

Though the cooks play around with techniques that change the texture of foods, their dishes have both body and soul. Someone actually imagined eating them.

The gorgeous contemporary look belies reassuringly traditional flavor. You know what and why each thing is on the plate.

Finally, Commonwealth breaks new ground by institutionalizing giving. After five weeks of business, the restaurant donated over $2,000 to community causes.

Unable to get a reservation one Sunday night, three of us walked in and sat at the counter, the best seats in the house, and ordered from a concise, a la carte menu.

My first bite of food here, a shattering, seaweed-flecked potato chip, salted to a turn for a dip into sharp malt vinegar mousse, which  looked like shiny soft-serve, made my heart soar. I knew we were in for something extraordinary.

Each morsel of raw albacore ($14) — piled on a slab of black slate, dressed with crumbled almonds, a whisper of chile and a slash of green onion puree — was crunchy, nutty, tart and savory.

A Japanese  bowl full of crispy whole smelt ($6) scented with Vietnamese herbs and sauced beneath with tart tomatillo and onion relish was as addictive as the potato chips.

Pressed cubes of watermelon and spiky wild arugula huddle at one side of white ceramic expanse, mixing it up with caramelized seaweed crisps, shiso, tofu foam and a white miso dressing ($11) — it’s a juicy, expressive salad.

A smashing tomato salad ($13), the peeled flesh of many hues dotted with congealed puddles of white cheese, black olives turned crunchy from dehydration, and a sheet of smoky, micro-thin toast, all made tomatoes taste more like tomatoes.

One of our local treasures, squid, were stuffed with bone marrow, grilled, and then sauced with tamarind and cilantro to balance the richness of it all ($13).

The classic Spanish combination of velvety chicken with pristine spot shrimp, cut in half lengthwise through their shell, were united by a shellfish reduction resonating with bitter chocolate and almonds ($16).  

On another night, a $60 six-course tasting menu, $10 of which goes to a weekly changing nonprofit, brought a combination of regular menu and special dishes.

For dessert ($8), frozen green tea meringue magically crumbles and then melts on your tongue. By the way, those billows of smoke come from the beaten-to-order Narwahl ($11), a melon aperitif made with liquid nitrogen, an excellent dessert.

These exciting and luscious dishes give us a thrillingly high experience at approachable prices. Buoyant Jason Fox and his dedicated staff cook for the common good.

Patricia Unterman is the author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

Commonwealth

Location: 2224 Mission St., (at 18th Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 355-1500; www.commonwealthsf.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Price range: $6 to $16; $60 prix fixe
Recommended dishes: Tomato salad; watermelon salad; chilled squash soup; albacore crudo; marrow stuffed squid; young hen; frozen matcha meringue
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Accepted

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