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People's perk

By Josh Sens, Photographs by Chris Andre | November 23, 2010 | Story

On a recent night in the Mission, I experienced a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup moment: I was presented with a pairing that was entirely surprising, yet so beautifully intuitive that I marveled I hadn't eaten it before. No one had spilled chocolate in my peanut butter. Someone had stuffed bone marrow in my squid.

The squids' torpedo-shaped bodies, filled with their meaty payload, basked on shelling beans with chunks of tamarind pork, brushstrokes of black garlic, and tiny, bright-green bursts of cilantro purée. Set on a wire, the dish could have worked with the Wallendas: a dash of derring-do executed with exquisite balance. The richness of the marrow was brought softly back to earth by the black garlic; the sweetness of the shellfish parried the tamarind's tang.

The squid cost $13, a steal in any setting. Better still, it was less the exception than the rule at Commonwealth, an accessible, affordable, and ambitious place that bills itself as a “progressive American restaurant” but could also be called the most exciting new venture of the year.

It came about when Anthony Myint, cofounder of the pop-up Mission Street Food, got to work on a permanent restaurant and settled on Jason Fox and Ian Muntzert as his chef and chef de cuisine, respectively. Both cooks had spent time a few blocks away at Bar Tartine, a rustic redoubt where bone marrow is served, well, in the bone. Running the kitchen in that Cal-Med context, Fox introduced some modern twists, including a corn custard with sea urchin, chorizo, and a lobster emul­sion that lives on today at Commonwealth. But Bar Tartine and its aesthetic didn't belong to Fox. At Commonwealth, he has stamped his sensibility on a restaurant with a strong personality and point of view.

The atmosphere is debonair but laid-back, with a youthful Kodachrome crowd mingling against an elegant black-and-white backdrop. An L-shaped bar with wooden seats elbows around the kitchen, framing one side of a dining room furnished with black chairs and hickory tables. Spherical glass fixtures serve two functions (some are lightbulbs; others encase spindly bromeliads), and framed honeycomb hangs like edible artwork on a white-painted brick wall. Up in the rafters spins a disco ball, reminding us that fine dining should be fun.

You can choose between two menus: a $60 five-course tasting menu (plus another $30 for a generous wine pairing) and an à la carte option in which every item fetches less than $20. (Speaking of generosity, Com­monwealth donates $10 to charity for every tasting menu ordered.) The descriptions are straightforward, but that doesn't mean you'll know what to expect. A compressed watermelon salad with tofu, nori, cucumber, wild greens, and togarashi, depicted on the page as a simple medley, turns up on the plate as dense cubes of ruby fruit squeezed to the consistency of jicama, then flecked with whitecaps of tofu mousse and translucent shards of candied nori, which stand in cooling contrast to the peppery wild greens and Japanese hot-pepper flakes.

Both menus hint at other places, but there are no heavy accents: Vadouvan lends an Indian lilt to chilled summer-squash soup; a streak of umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) underpins a creamy coin of cognac-cured foie gras. Young hen and spot prawns with artichokes and spinach make for a Basque-inspired take on surf-and-turf, with a splash of chocolate-almond emulsion that calls to mind a subtler form of mole.

You get the gist—the exotic influences are understated here. This is cosmopolitan cooking, food so confident that it doesn't need to brag about where it's been.

Like its sibling in spirit, Oakland's Commis, Commonwealth is a tribute to fine dining that doesn't make you feel as if you've stepped on holy ground. The service is low-key but capable of culinary geek speak, and the kitchen never tries to jam its unabashed haute touches down your throat. When foams and gêlées appear, they're used as thoughtful grace notes rather than gastronomic stunts. On a recent evening, sautéed sweetbreads with corn pudding and Padrón peppers became a fiery number, thanks to yuzu kosho, a blend of chilies and Asian citrus zest rendered into a piquant paste. The entire ensemble might have grown too hot, if not for a dusting of brown-butter powder that sweetened as it liquefied, tempering the dish toward more mellow tones.

In a grumpy mood, a nitpicker could quibble. On one of my visits, the fried squash blossom served with the squash soup was cooked at too low a temperature and too slowly, so its golden coat was greasy, not dry and crisp. And the corn custard with sea urchin, cho­rizo, and a lobster emulsion worked better on paper than on the plate—the cast of interesting characters never came together as the script implied.

Still, even the sourest diner has to smile at a menu that is anything but the seasonal same old, same old. Commonwealth's creativity carries over to dessert, with an updated white Russian (layers of coffee ice cream, vodka gêlée, genoise, and raw-milk mousse) and a decon­structed s'more (broken down into squares of carda­mom marshmallow, cinnamon mille-feuille, and chocolate ganache, served with burnt-honey ice cream).

It all adds up to a restaurant that feels both worldly and distinctly local, a departure from the norm that reads like a promising sign of what lies ahead. California cuisine is dead. Long live California cuisine. Commonwealth: 2224 Mission St. (bet. 18th and 19th Sts.), S.F., 415-355-1500, Dinner only, reservations recommended, wheelchair accessible, $$, three stars


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