It was hard to know what to expect from a dish description like "grilled shishito peppers, goat cheese, rose," the first item on Commonwealth's menu. I wondered whether chef Jason Fox was spritzing the peppers with rosé wine and had simply forgotten the accent — or if he was planning to douse them in grandma perfume. His tack was even more straightforward. Fox had pan-roasted shishitos — the thin-skinned Japanese green peppers that look like gnarled fingers — with rose petals the color of a cheap lipstick; he spooned the oil-glossed, salt-strewn vegetables over piped stars of a pale, airy goat-cheese mousse. When I fished out a petal along with a pepper, behind the tang of the goat cheese and the bracing greenness of the shishitos hovered the elegiac perfume of rose. Why did the combination work? I still can't say.
Highlights like this were scattered throughout my meals at Commonwealth, a 2-month-old restaurant with a high-wire chef and a good crowd. The food can tilt so far into stunt cooking that it stumbles, but Fox also produces complicated pleasures unlike anything else in town, and for a half to a third of the price of anything similar. It's experimental dining for Mission budgets.
Anthony Myint, who'd been a Bar Tartine line cook under then-chef Fox, garnered national attention for Mission Street Food, the twice-weekly popup restaurant he ran out of a Chinese restaurant at Mission and 18th streets. In early June, Myint shut down Mission Street Food and channeled the momentum he had gained into creating a permanent restaurant. Fox came on as a partner; so did former Bar Tartine staffers Ian Muntzert, now chef de cuisine at Commonwealth, and Xelina Leyba, the new general manager.
Working with Eric Heid, the partners renovated El Herraduro, a taqueria that ascribed to the KFC school of architecture. Heid did something I couldn't have predicted: made the place spare, white, and beautiful. You can see the remnants of Cinderella's days as a scullery maid in the cinderblock walls, for example, but she's so skillfully made up that they're beauty marks rather than skewed features. It's not until you stare at the strings of large glass bulbs lighting the room that you notice every third globe contains a spidery bromeliad instead of a glowing filament. Another surprise: A disco ball hangs out of sight in the attic, sending petals of light drifting down through a skylight. The noise level is shockingly low.
Commonwealth is populated by the moderately moneyed bohemia, many in their first-401(k) years, and it 's one of those places where the servers and the served attend the same LitQuake events. Those servers, by the way, are excellent. Leyba, who lit up the room at Bar Tartine, is doing the same at Commonwealth, and the waiters bring to the table a sense of the people they are outside work, not a series of polite rituals and professional smiles. Dishes arrive when you expect them to, with concise explanations of the powders and gels on the plates or the rationale behind the wine pairings. This is a good thing.
There are two ways to make up a meal. There's the à la carte menu, where 80 percent of the dishes are priced between $12 and $15, and the $60 six-course tasting menu with wine pairings for $30 extra; $10 of that $60 goes to a local nonprofit.
It takes a certain level of culinary bravado just to order, seeing as how the menu is thick with phrases like "crispy pig ear," "marrow-stuffed squid" — and on the tame end, "sweetbreads" and "chocolate-almond emulsion." As the peppers and roses attest, Fox and his second-in-command, Muntzert, relish the new, and cook with a Jonathan Adler love for eccentric pairings. The ratio of wild, weird successes to wild, weird failures seemed about 70:30.
Successes: A jade-hued chilled soup of summer squash ($9), its flavor lit with the soft glow of vadouvan (a Europeanized South Indian spice mix), accompanied by an ephemeral tempura squash blossom. A salad of heirloom tomatoes, purslane, and basil ($13) was strewn across a slab of black slate, an alien garden sprouting up around crisp curls of "smoked bread" and exquisite white rounds that looked like button mushroom caps, felt like marshmallows, and had the punch of sheep's-milk cheese. Steamed corn custard ($15) was a brilliant reworking of chawanmushi, with the same will-o-the-wisp texture but the milky sweetness of fresh corn instead of dashi (bonito-kombu stock). Spoons dipped beneath its surface emerged with chunks of chorizo and red jalapeño, puffs of lobster-stock foam, and a bit of the mineral-rich sea urchin Fox laid overtop. At dessert, a complicated deconstruction of a s'more — cinnamon-dusted pastry squares, cardamon marshmallows, dense chocolate ganache, burnt-honey ice cream ($8) — reassembled itself into an extravagant flight of nostalgia.
But then there was a salad of sugary watermelon ($11) matched with the jarringly oceanic flecks of seaweed and a salty tofu foam, and a reality-show entrée in which three attractive characters — meltingly tender slices of poached guineafowl, two grilled spot prawns, a timid chocolate-almond sauce ($16) — sulked, refusing to make conversation. I wasn't a fan of the strident vinegar foam served with nori-flecked potato chips, though it certainly was clever.
I kept thinking of Nina Simone's recording of "I Shall Be Released," where a few notes after the band starts up, she stops the music. "Y'all pushing, y'all pushing," she scolds. "Just relax, relax. ... Don't put nothing in it unless you feel it." Then the song starts back up, languorously, and Simone conjures up the cracked magic of her voice. The spell holds.
Fox pulled some of the à la carte dishes — the soup, the s'more dessert — into the full prix-fixe dinner I returned for. And the course of the showcase meal followed the same pattern of half-hearted lows (an appetizer of abalone, wheatberry, and smoked chicken jus, a palate-cleanser of plum sorbet and almond granita) and brilliant highs, like a round disk of cured foie gras electrified by a smear of bright purple pickled-plum purée and then refracted through the maritime lens of two slices of nori toast. (Were the chefs making a witty reference to ankimo, or monkfish liver, which is always described as the foie gras of the sea? Perhaps.)
The wine pairings found a similar ratio. A Napa Chardonnay overstepped the abalone; a Washington Riesling tripped up the dessert. But, again, there were wild, weird moments, like the unexpected brininess of a Rheingau Riesling, which twined around the nori and pickled plum in the foie gras.
When Commonwealth's food doesn't work, it's easy to pinpoint its failures. The dishes that succeed remain compelling enigmas. The one I can't stop thinking about is the final savory course of the evening: sweetbreads set on a dessertlike corn custard and surrounded by blistered Padrón peppers, crisp snowpeas, and a nutty brown-butter powder, with a sprinkle of a citrus-chile mix called yuzu kosho. It was paired with a smoky-sweet Canary Islands Negramoll Tinto, which I shied from on its own and thrilled to taste between bites of the food. I cut and dabbed and tasted and sipped until the plate was clear, and every attempt to graph out how all these conflicting flavors fit together vexed me. It stymies me still.