I have been an admirer of chef James Syhabout since he headed the kitchen at Plumpjack Cafe in 2006, when he was crafting innovative dishes to pair with the restaurant’s extensive wine selections. Despite elevating Plumpjack Cafe to three-and-a-half-star status and being recognized as a San Francisco Chronicle Rising Star Chef, in 2007 Syhabout decided to return to Manresa in Los Gatos to further hone his skills as chef de cuisine. Like his predecessor, former Manresa chef de cuisine Jeremy Fox, who now heads the acclaimed Ubuntu in Napa, Syhabout branched out to open his own restaurant, Commis, earlier this year in Oakland. “Commis” means “apprentice chef” in French. Yet the precisely articulated offerings at Commis, highlighted by elegant wine pairings and presented with a compact yet thoughtful wine list, demonstrate that Syhabout is now anything but.
Even though most of the wines are under $50 a bottle (with a few “splurges” in the $70–$90 range), it is apparent that every single white, rosé, sparkling, and red
wine – covering various regions of Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and California – has been lovingly and individually selected to complement the sophisticated yet hearty flavors masterminded by Syhabout and his crew. The end of the meal gets just as much attention as the beginning, with several dessert wines ranging from a light, effervescent Moscato d’Asti to a sticky Sauterne to a woodsy Banyuls to accompany the unforgettable sweet finish provided by pastry chef Carlos Salgado. If wine is not your thing, Commis also has an equally well-chosen beer selection from Belgium, Germany, Japan, and Fort Bragg, in addition to a number of artisanal teas from China.
If you are not up for making a decision, let Commis do the work for you and opt for the customized wine pairing offered at $29 per person to match each of the courses from the $59 prix-fixe menu. For that bargain price, I got to enjoy a glass of 2008 Sitios de Bodega Rueda Con Class, a zippy aromatic blend of Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc, born to go with the candy-sweet Early Girl tomatoes and creamy fresh cow’s milk cheese dotted with pickled shallots and crisped wheat bran crystals; an opulent and musky 2003 Primitivo Quiles Monastrell Raspay to accentuate the richness of the poached duck with chanterelle mushrooms in a mulled broth with a pickled plum sauce; and a petrol-laden 2003 Josef Rosch Riesling Spätlese, three star, to match the pink pearl apple and white cheddar cheesecake.
Not surprisingly, even though the restaurant is only a few months old, Commis has already received a Michelin star in the 2010 guide for the San Francisco Bay Area and was singled out by this month’s Food & Wine magazineas the “epicenter of cool new restaurants in Oakland.”
Check out this new epicenter of gastronomy in the East Bay – and don’t miss the wine.
Commis Restaurant: 3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland; Wednesday through Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; 510-653-3902, www.commisrestaurant.com