October 8, 2009

Commis, a love letter to Oakland

As much as I love Seattle, there are times that I very much miss the Bay Area. Of course, our family and so many friends are there, along with a lifetime of history forming our sense of place and belonging...

And of course, there's the food. I've said before---and for now, I still believe---that (somewhat surprisingly) I've enjoyed eating in Seattle overall a bit more than eating in the Bay Area, mostly because the experience has tended to be more intensely personal, interspersed with moments of the imaginative and unexpected (thanks to places like Sitka+Spruce / The Corson Building, Spinasse, Harvest Vine, Lark and Miyabi, to name a few).

But after my most recent trip back to the Bay Area for J+L's uber wedding extravaganza, I was reminded of things that I do long for, whose replacement I've yet to find in Seattle. Like a wondrously crafted late night cocktail and resplendent steak tartare in the timelessly chic supper club ambiance of Bix... soul-satisfying varieties of chaat at Vik's... the delicately nuanced, sparklingly pure flavors of Sketch Ice Cream... the intense classical perfection of Aki-san's craft at Sushi Sho.

But things are not frozen in time. Eric and Ruthie shut down the Sketch storefront back in July (along with my favorite chocolate chip cookie) to prepare for parenthood; Aki-san, at the height of his Yelp popularity (after more than 24 years at the same location) put Sushi Sho up for sale and entered a well-deserved retirement, quietly disappearing and leaving us without his remarkable cold smoked salmon and passionately crafted nigiri. Devastating.

There's another restaurant I miss: Jojo on Piedmont Ave---on December 31, 2008, Mary Jo and Curt closed their neighborhood gem. This was a place full of heart and soul... the kind of cooking that made you feel loved and cared for whenever you stopped by. Terrific pate de campagne, a brawny flatiron steak frites with anchovy butter, and the first savory bread pudding I ever tried... all dishes that will endure in my memory. What could possibly fill this vacuum?

Enter James Syhabout and his spectacular new restaurant, Commis. I first heard about Commis through the SF Chronicle's food blog, and two things immediately piqued my curiosity. Chef Syhabout, one of the Chronicle's Rising Star Chefs in 2007, had already built an impeccable professional background: PlumpJack, Coi, three years at Manresa, time at El Bulli, the Fat Duck and Mugaritz... serious credentials, and seriously high ambitions. Then there was the thought of more modern cooking techniques replacing the warmth of country french cooking... would it work in that space?

I was dining with my mother and sister this evening. In fact, Commis was my mother's choice, as I'd given her the option of simple, rustic and homey, or innovative, different and modern. Now you should know, my mother isn't really one seeking after food and flavor experimentation, but in her own words, "If it isn't going to be interesting, what's the point?"

Exactly! She hit the nail on the head for something that has been bothering me lately about the restaurant scene. Due in large part to the recession, the prevalent trend has been towards simplification and making things more casual... the comfort of the familiar. And when done well, the trend is fantastic... less excess, no unnecessary frills. But isn't it possible to tone things down while still expressing serious creativity? Does every restaurant have to be reduced to serving a 1/2 pound burger on brioche? (Not that I don't love a great burger, but when it's on the menus of french restaurants...) It just feels like there's been a hit to the variety of points of view.

Commis bucks that trend. The first thing you need to know about Commis: They push the envelope with innovation and style, yet without being intimidating or impersonal. The dishes tend to capture both experimentation and familiarity without contradiction.

The second thing you need to know about Commis: While it isn't inexpensive or casual diing, cooking of this caliber and technique should cost quite a bit more. The food and experience were easily worth the $59 for three courses... and I'd trade the cost of two average meals for what Commis offers any day.

Here's the other thing about Commis: It feels genuinely personal. A month earlier, I had reservations to try the restaurant with some friends, but had to cancel at the last minute because the Bay Bridge was closed, making it impossible for us to get to the restaurant on time from our late flight into SFO. They graciously expressed their regret and understanding that we could not join them that evening. On this evening, both the host, Sarah, and Chef Syhabout made a point of saying they were glad we could join them this time. Nice... gesture appreciated.

The staff and other chefs were also a pleasure to interact with---Chef Zach prepared much of our food with equal precision. In fact, the economy of motion from the three chefs---assembling elaborate preparations in the open kitchen---was remarkable.

And now, the food itself. The restaurant was offering nine different dishes on its menu this evening, so between the three of us, we were able to try everything.

EARLY GIRL TOMATOES, PICKLED SHALLOTS, fresh cow's milk cheese with wheat bran, pursulane. Richly flavored tomatoes paired with a rich-as-brie cow's milk cheese, the wheat bran wafers adding a perfect textural contrast with an unobtrusive, light nuttiness... the baby pursulane adding just a hint of a sweet vegetal edge. A "wow" dish, sparkling in its flavors.

PACIFIC SALMON TARTARE AND CUCUMBER, marinated with meyer lemon, anchovy salt. Fresh and delicate flavors... maybe almost too delicate when compared to the other dishes (could not discern the anchovy salt, perhaps it was missing?)... the cucumber shaved impossibly thin and almost melting on your tongue.

WARM SUNCHOKE SOUP, lobster mushroom custard and crayfish butter, fried herbs. A well constructed soup, so rich and velvety... layers of creaminess.

SOFT FARM EGG WITH POTATO AND ALLIUMS, fermented black garlic and pork jowl. This dish was nothing short of spectacular, marrying richness of flavor and texture, and incorporating the captivating, complex sweetness of the fermented black garlic. Pork jowl and an egg cooked in an immersion circulator... unbelievable. You feel guilty that something could taste this good, and you keep pausing between bites to make sure the euphoria settles in fully. Easily one of the best dishes I've had this year.

GRILLED COD WITH FRESH CHERVIL MUSTARD, celery root and lettuce with roast shellfish juices. Beautifully prepared cod, the moist richness of the fish matched with the subtle fresh vegetable flavor of the celery root puree, and the shellfish jus adding just the right boost. Really impressively restrained and balanced.

POACHED THEN SEARED DUCK, MULLED BROTH, chanterelles and marjoram, sugar plum condiment. Two duck breasts bonded together with transglutaminase to form a better shape for slow poaching the meat to a consistent medium rare. The duck was slightly chewy, but the concept makes a lot of sense... they may just need to tweak the technique a bit. Paired with creamy cranberry beans which soaked up the terrific flavor of the mulled broth.

ROAST SIRLOIN CAP OF BEEF AND RIB, pearl barley enriched with parsnip milk, wild anise. In essence, beef two ways. A perfectly medium rare sirloin---uniformly and beautifully cooked. Underneath, a sous-vide portion of short rib, cooked just long enough to melt the collagen and tenderize the meat, but still pink on the inside. A decadent "risotto" of pearl barley and sweet braised stalks of fennel. Comfort food, significantly modernized by technique.

CREAM OF SUMMER MELON SOUP, blackberry, lemon balm and chamomile snow. Pure cantaloupe flavor... a bit hard to discern the other components of this dish, like the chamomile.

BLACK MISSION FIG TART, lavender almond, beeswax-scented ice cream. If only all desserts tasted this good... sweet, buttery, floral, nutty... a complex combination of otherwise elemental flavors. Fantastic.

I love Oakland... I always will. And I'm glad that Chef Syhabout loved Oakland enough to bring his craft home to the city where he grew up. I'm adding this place to the list of reasons to miss the Bay Area, and looking forward to the next opportunity to visit.

Commis on Urbanspoon

October 4, 2009

a community meal at Spring Hill

This past week, I had an opportunity to meet some local food bloggers here in Seattle, thanks to the team at FoodBuzz, who hosted a lovely community meal at Spring Hill in West Seattle. It's crazy to see how many food bloggers there are out there these days, ranging from the most sophisticated professional sites to the more blogging-as-a-hobby types like my own.

In its two years of existence, FoodBuzz has managed to connect and aggregate the content of so many people... it's pretty amazing. More importantly, the people at FoodBuzz are terrific---really passionate about food and about their work in establishing those connections and making partnerships.

This was my third visit to Spring Hill, and each time I've been, the food has grown in its polish and sophistication. We started with two amuses: a house-made cracker with foie gras and a riesling gelee (really nice texture to the cracker, the richness of the foie gras accented perfectly by the gelee), and a bite of dungeness crab and kampachi crudo (a bit more acid/vinegar needed).

Next, mussels roasted in their own juice, with lemon, butter and parsley, accompanied by a watercress salad. Simple and fresh, a nice expression of the mussels natural flavors.

We then enjoyed a bite of smoked oysters on house cured sopressata, with potato chips. This was probably my favorite bite of the evening. The smokiness of the oysters accented their natural briny sweetness, which, in turn, paired beautifully in both flavor and texture with the intense savory meatiness of the sopressata. This one raised eyebrows at our table... really delicious.

My main dish was one of Spring Hill's signature plates: sauteed black cod, fennel chowder with fennel frond oil and smoked king clam panzanella. Perfectly cooked black cod, its buttery silken texture contrasted by the light crunch of the panzanella.

With the richness of the meal, it was great to finish with the buttermilk panna cotta with huckleberries.

Special thanks to Ryan and Alexa for hosting everyone this evening, and to the dining companions at my table for the great conversation: Dianasaur Dishes, GastroGnome, OC2Seattle, and Going for Seconds. Hope to be able to share food with you all again sometime!

And a heartfelt congratulations to Spring Hill for being named one of Bon Appetit's Top Ten Best New Restaurants in America. Mark and Marjorie have created a fantastic place in West Seattle, and their efforts and warm hospitality are evident in the experience they provide to their diners.

Spring Hill on Urbanspoon