Musicians know that a note is not just a note. The fundamental note they play is bolstered by dozens of other tones that thrum above and below it — octaves, fourths, major thirds — in realms we can't quite consciously detect. Just listen to the ringing chords of a piano with the sustain pedal held down: The strings seem to multiply as the harmonics quiver into hearing, auditory ghosts manifesting through some rift in space.
James Syhabout, chef of Commis in Oakland, is preternaturally attuned to the harmonics of flavor. He seems to build each dish by tracing all of the fourths and thirds that vibrate around an ingredient, then amplifying those flavors with other ingredients so the rest of us can catch the harmonics, too.
The tone that gave an appetizer of duck-liver mousse its resonance wasn't the mousse, piped into a six-inch-long stripe on a gray slate tile. Nor was it the toasted sourdough croustades — almost as thin as potato chips — layered on top. Nor the slender, warm duck tenders set on them, nor the canopy of finely shaved red and green chicories. It was the clear spots of honey that the chef had dripped around the tile. As my fork picked up a bite of the inverted canapé, I realized that, even more specifically, it was the fragrance of the honey Syhabout wanted to bring to the dish. The aroma of condensed nectar wound around the chicories, pulling out their leafy notes, and gave a sheen to the opulence of the liver.
Commis is an odd bird on the Bay Area dining scene, staking out territory in the rough between haute cuisine and neighborhood bistro. The restaurant serves only a three-course prix-fixe dinner — with three choices per course — for $59, charging an extra $29 for wine pairings. It opened on Oakland's Piedmont Avenue instead of in higher-rent neighborhoods in San Francisco, staffed the open kitchen with just three line cooks, kept the walls blank and white so that the space looks like a gallery between art exhibits, and stocked the wine list with inexpensive and relatively obscure labels.
Commis is a destination restaurant for an indie-rock generation, diners who prize preciousness over pomp and relish the weird places that individual vision can take a gifted artist. It isn't a perfect restaurant, but it's capable of food that approaches the sublime.
Syhabout has more stars on his résumé than an overachieving kindergartner's report card. Last the chef de cuisine at Manresa, he'd also run the kitchen at PlumpJack Cafe and had cooked in Europe at the Fat Duck, Mugaritz, and El Bulli — all bastions of the molecular gastronomy movement. And then, of course, there's the star the Michelin Guide awarded Commis last October just a few months after it opened, the culinary equivalent of President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize. People tutted.
Even though the chef is asking for a half to a fifth of what his previous employers charged for a meal, he has kept many of the trappings of haute-cuisine dining. My meals there began with a vial of soda and ended with lime-absinthe gelée squares. There was a formality about the waiters' approach to the table, a certain precision in how they set plates down and identified the elements of each dish, but not in their attitude. At times I felt like a passenger on Singapore Airlines — gentle-voiced women would glide over, ask if we needed anything, perhaps touch a shoulder, and slip away.
Both meals, several weeks apart, opened with the season's amuse-bouche, a terracotta bowl containing a glossy slow-poached egg yolk, surrounded by a foamy onion "soup," with a tiny pile of toasted steel-cut oatmeal and minced chives. I spooned through the yolk, which had the consistency of a warm chocolate truffle, and picked up some of the onion and chives; as the mellow caramelized onion and the shimmering shocks of chives subsided, the smoked-date purée hidden underneath the foam revealed itself, ending each bite with a deep, sweet note.
Sometimes, Syhabout showered the palate in disparate, shimmering flavors. There was a salad of crab with pink grapefruit segments, threads of bitter radicchio, and a reduced onion-shallot syrup in which each flavor chased another as they raced past. There was a goats'-milk panna cotta topped with a silky beet and blood orange sorbet, citrus segments, and candied pistachios that flickered from creamy to sharp to nutty, each impression lasting a millisecond or two.
Other times, he spent more time meditating on the subtler notes: A deeply earthy savoy cabbage soup, speckled with tiny broccoli and purple cauliflower florets, had been dusted with malt powder, which sounded bizarre when the waiter described it but tasted like the most natural thing in the world (less successful was the garnish of deep-fried kale leaves, which soaked in the soup and turned leathery). The smokiness I'd expected of Thumbelina carrots roasted in ashes came out only after I'd spent a few seconds remarking on how woodsy the roots tasted, and how well they matched the backhanded bite of tiny pink radishes placed between them. And he set a sautéed fillet of ling cod on a white-bean purée with lengths of baby daikon that had been braised to the point where their peppery notes were caught morphing into sugar. He finished off the dish with a clear broth tinged with bacon and seaweed, both meaty flavors tamed down so far they only strengthened the others.
Syhabout has diners tuning in so intently to what he's doing — tracing those subtle notes and the correspondences among them — that he sets himself up for two recurring flaws. The first is that when he does a straightforward dish, it comes off tasting flat. Braised veal cheeks with trumpet mushrooms and salt-roasted potatoes turned out to be, well, just beef and potatoes. A savory dessert of warm Carmody cheese draped over a pastry shell with onion jam and arugula salad seemed like the kind of thing you'd eat at a mediocre French bistro.
The second flaw is that whoever's picking the wines for the wine pairings doesn't quite have Syhabout's subtle palate. Serving four three-ounce pours for $30 can't be easy for a small, fledgling restaurant. The waiters did a solid job of explaining the details of the wines as they poured them, but the wines themselves kept coming up at odds with the complex dishes. A dry, almost oxidized Lebanese white sinuously whispered to the egg, chive, and onion in the amuse-bouche until it encountered the date purée, when it turned biting and acidic; the German Riesling paired with the roasted carrots played to their sweetness, while the other components in the dish were all chosen to bring out their earthier side.
Whether those moments of disappointment invalidate the experience or make it more interesting probably depends on what $120 means to you as a diner, or whether you've signed up to follow along with the chef wherever he goes. For me, every anticlimax was overshadowed by a peak, a moment when I found myself zeroed in on the food before me, when the waiters and the wines and even the friend across the table faded into the white walls. There was too much on my palate to listen to, and I didn't want to miss a single tone.