Nothing reveals the Michelin guide’s metropolitan bias quite like the fact that there is but one restaurant east of Treasure Island with a star to its name. Plenty of places — Camino, Wood Tavern, Comal — might all be contenders, if only they happened to have a West Bay address. (Chez Panisse had one until about seven years ago.)
That’s not the Michelinistas’ only blind spot, of course. I’d say Nido and Cosecha might belong in that category, but the gastronomes don’t seem to regard Mexican cuisine highly, even at the uppermost echelon. (How can Cala, Gabriela Camara’s Hayes Valley dynamo, possibly not have a star?)
In any case, the one East Bay establishment to earn Michelin love has not one star but two, and that restaurant is Piedmont Avenue’s Commis. Chef James Syhabout, who put in time at Coi and Manresa — as well as The Fat Duck in London and the now-shuttered El Bulli in Spain — before opening Commis back in the late aughts, is an Oakland native of Thai and Chinese descent who earned his first star less than six months after Commis opened. Although far more than the $59 bargain it was when the New York Times first took notice, the tasting menu remains fairly affordable as such things go: $149 for eight courses plus $80 for the beverage pairing. While there’s a formality to the room that borders on severity at times, there’s every reason to be serious — and with few exceptions, there’s a playfulness and a versatility and a personality to each dish. You might get a minute-long explanation of your wine, but you won’t squirm in your chair.
An amuse of peas in their pods on a bed of pebbles plus a financier with sour cream and chive sets the tone, as it’s meant to enliven the palate as well as soothe it. The nautical trope of the sea-scoured pebbles continues into the second half, fried anchovy with buckwheat that’s presented over miniature rope or cargo net, with a separate dollop of grass-green California bay emulsion that seems very deliberately proportioned relative to its slate-gray serving bowl (as dollops go). With the possible exception of Benu, few restaurants take quite this much care when choosing the right vessel — and as with Benu’s minimalism, Commis’ metallurgical palette runs from ash to carbon-steel.
Then it’s time for sake: Tentaka Hawk in the Heavens, a grassy junmai with a lengthy finish. It’s served with ocean trout and curlicues of daikon with smoky trout roe and yuzu, a good sounding board for the fish that transforms the sake into a much sweeter drink. With a couple of edible flowers on there, the variation of textures looks like clownfish flitting about a chunk of coral reef.
Sometimes, though, minimalism boxes itself in: A 100-percent-Chardonnay Grand Cru blanc de blanc accompanied a dish of summer squash with sorrel granita and oyster cream — but that felt like a waste of Champagne, as you could have fooled me about the presence of any oyster. The summer squash felt like few spears of crudité, and the whole thing came off as purse-lipped and almost aggressively utilitarian. (Had it been a couple courses down the line, it might have worked better. Does anyone’s palate really need cleansing so early?)
And sometimes, minimalism disappears: White sturgeon caviar appeared next, with a halo of pickled onion and a tiny purple blossom for a crown (plus a Champagne top-off). In its bowl, it looked like the pistil of a flower, and it was rich and creamy with just enough acid. Then it was straight back to an all-green affair, this time peas with Manila clams — the sweetest gifts of the Puget Sound — with a sort of bacon dust and a pea shell consommé, in a milky-white bowl. This was the polar opposite of the squash, in that it was warm and inviting and multilayered, with a strong seafood presence, and it was also a testament to the kitchen’s emphasis on classic technique.
But this kitchen likes to zig then zag, which is fun considering the linear arc most chef’s menus stick to. Like high-end dim sum, the tapioca-and-pork dumpling was sweet, meaty and very satisfying — heavy, almost. A Habit Gruner Veltliner, a dry-farmed and highly acidic wine from the Santa Ynez Valley, appeared next, alongside a poached egg with alliums and smoked dates. This was the drop-your-fork moment, a brilliantly constructed dish of garlicky yolk decadence that looked like an early phase of a solar eclipse.
Monterey abalone with (lightly) fermented lettuces and liver XO sauce made for a sort of sendup of the enduring foie gras obsession, a look-what-we-can-do-instead maneuver. Edible flowers notwithstanding, there is very little at Commis in terms of bells and whistles. You’re not likely to find a supplemental truffle course or a shaved-torchon add-on here. And the abalone came with a salty, foamy, pink soda, the first trace of silliness all evening.
There was no red meat. The final savory course was chicken with stone fruit arranged around a schmaltz emulsion almost like the symbol for a radioactive hazard. Simultaneously rich and spartan, it was more than sufficient. The desserts that followed were in that same vein: yogurt with raspberry and bee pollen and crystallized honey, a Jurançon (or Sauterne from near the Basque border), a bite of strawberry with ice cream and a sugared wafer, a small chest of drawers with chocolate confections and pâte de fruit.
Syhabout’s had a busy year, with a few shuffles. He closed the first Hawker Fare in February — although the Valencia location is still running — and jumped into the beer-centric gastropub Old Kan Brewing in West Oakland. Next door to Commis, a small bar called C.D.P. is scheduled to open this fall. Meanwhile, the fact that no other East Bay restaurant has replicated is what likely spurs the seriousness of Commis’ atmosphere. I can only imagine the vigilance, if not paranoia, that animates the front-of-house staff’s training: Whatever you do, do not lose this for us.
As things stand, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.