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The quiet man

By Josh Sens, Photographs by Cedric Glasier | October 9, 2009 | Story

Clamor and combustion—we've come to expect them from our open kitchens. We look for orange flames bursting from a wood-fueled oven as we listen for a Gordon Ramsay understudy, barking out commands like a tyrant in a toque.

In their sights and sounds, open kitchens serve as a spectacle. We gather around them for a close-up view of a restaurant's wild, imperfect inner workings, taking pleasure in the loosely controlled chaos. Then we come across the kitchen at Commis.

It sits in plain view, a tiny, tidy space in a tiny restaurant on Piedmont Avenue, in Oakland, in a building where a bistro used to be. At its helm is James Syhabout, an ascending star, flanked on either side by an assistant cook, all three working as quietly as mimes. Their prep stations are impeccable. Their actions are precise, like the choreographed steps of a stage production, as they wordlessly piece together complex dishes.

Syhabout wields a spoon to finesse the presentation of black fermented garlic along the edge of a shallow bowl. His chef de cuisine, Zack Freitas, adds pork jowls and potatoes, then slender allium stalks, as green and coiled as garden snakes. A slow-cooked egg comes next, shimmying on top, its center barely holding, followed by a sprinkling of allium flowers: fragile purple petals that Freitas repositions with tweezers. He looks impassive, while Syhabout wears the self-possessed expression of a high-wire walker. Nothing clanks or splatters. Such is the calm and grace behind the kitchen counter of the most compelling restaurant of the year.

Commis is the French word for a chef's apprentice, yet Syhabout, who is 30, has far surpassed that status. When last we saw the young chef, he was injecting life into the tired PlumpJack Cafe before taking up a post at Manresa, in Los Gatos. He also worked at Coi. Praise for his cooking was so complete, it seemed written in the stars that he'd someday run his own place—a path as predetermined as Simba's return to Pride Rock.

Though not the likeliest location, Piedmont Ave­nue seems fitting, removed as it is from San Francisco's high-rent quarters in a neighborhood that has shed its blue-rinsed past. Not that the chef appears concerned with trends. At Commis, Syhabout runs counter to everything we know about culinary leanings in the new economy, which demand that restaurants cater to belt-tightening consumers. Commis' menu is a three-course, $59 prix fixe, plus an optional $29 wine pairing that few diners will want to do without. Despite a few rustic touches (the kitchen churns its own butter and bakes its own bread), Syhabout hews to a refined aesthetic. His patrons can have pizza some other time.

On any given evening, the chef's imagination runs so freely that you realize he's not riffing on tradition—he's ranging into territory of his own. On a September evening, he cured and smoked sardines, wrapped them tightly around cucumbers, and served them with green tomatoes and a sauce of golden raspberries, then dusted them with bronze fennel and fennel pollen—unusual ingredients called into rare communal service to temper the intensity of the fish. Another starter, chilled cauliflower soup, came together tableside, the creamy broth poured over caramelized sunchokes. Chrysanthemum leaves lent a floral infusion, while sunflower seeds added nuttiness and crunch.

In fleeting moments, you worry that Commis risks falling prey to preciousness, as when a waiter tells you that the menu isn't seasonal, it's “microseasonal” (and you thought words like spring and summer still sufficed). But the service isn't stuffy, it's astute—and microseasons are acceptable, as long as they yield dishes like a salad of young carrots, which sounds like a parody of Slow Food restraint but turns out to be a showcase for a chef who thinks outside the produce box. On another recent visit, a tangle of carrots (golden orange, red, brown, and white) arrived on a slate plate, a smear of parsnip purée beneath them. They'd been coated with a sauce of honey and brown rice vinegar and sprinkled with a blend of raw sugar, cocoa, seaweed, and hazelnut flour—a mouth-tingling, earth-toned mix that also worked as metaphor: carrots covered lightly in edible “soil.”

You get the drift: This is highbrow cooking. But the headiness comes with a lot of heart. Entrées, like that slow-cooked egg perched on pork jowls, and slow-roasted lamb with huckleberries, mortared mint, eggplant stew and sorrel, draw on a dramatic crescendo of flavors that prompts you to mull over the inventive combinations, even as a primal part of you wants to just stop thinking and enjoy. The same holds for dessert, a showcase for the skills of Coi veteran Carlos Salgado, whose modernist musings (chocolate cake with avocado ganache; creamy melon soup with sweet chamomile “snow”) provide an artful coda to Syhabout's cuisine.

A kitchenside seat at Commis is a treat—rarely do we get to see such sophisticated cooking in the making—but the dining room also feels connected to the whole. The space is unadorned, but the mood is warm, and three spotlights shining on the stark white walls create an atmosphere of experimental theater. In the open kitchen, Syhabout wears gray and white, working outside the spotlight. But that's a minor detail. In every way, he's the one to watch.

3859 Piedmont Ave. (bet. Montellst. Andrio Vista Ave.), Oakland, 510-653-3902, dinner only, reservations recommended, wheelchair accessible $$$$ ★★½


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