It wasn’t until the fifth course that we finally said wow.
On the table was a golden round of sourdough bread that ripped open to reveal a fragrant chewy crumb. A generous bowl of salted butter sat alongside, ready for spreading. To go with the bread and butter: a gently cooked egg yolk suspended in a bath of warm, creamy allium puree topped with crisp smoked dates and malt crumbles.
This course has become a signature dish at Commis, the two Michelin star restaurant in Oakland, and it was immediately clear why. With flavors that are instantly familiar — poached eggs and toast — elevated in a way only capable in a kitchen full of well-trained chefs and lots of tweezers. Beyond any other dish at our meal at the restaurant in December, this egg stuck with me.
There were other worthy, exquisitely prepared bites: A crumbly, sweet-savory caramelized onion financier started the meal on a good note. Dungeness crab and its tomalley were perfumed with a whisper of Makrut lime to complement its simple, sweet flavor. A croquette-like fritter of chickpea bouillon introduced the meat course with a bit of surprise and whimsy. The spice cake dessert struck a delicate balance between savory and sweet — a quenelle of brown butter ice cream, a drizzle of earthy parsnip milk. But besides that egg, none of these dishes made me want to rush back in.
Why? Dinner at Commis just wasn’t particularly transportive. I couldn’t find serious flaws with the food, but I also didn’t walk away with a strong understanding of what chef James Syhabout was trying to communicate. I couldn’t quite place what made the restaurant different from every other high-end modern American restaurant. Commis serves high-end California cuisine, it felt, for the sake of serving high-end California cuisine.
The very first bites exemplified this problem. Presented before the meal officially began were that financier, one per person, on a small wooden platter. Next to it was a giant ceramic bowl filled with rocks and eucalyptus twigs. Two slender half-moons of compressed pippin apple sat on the rocks, looking skimpy on the oversize platter. The apples were a nice, crisp, palate-cleansing bite. But they seemed to exist more for the exhibition of technique more than anything else.
There’s a larger strategy at play here, I think. Commis is highly ambitious. It’s the only restaurant in the East Bay that has managed to keep the Michelin Guide’s attention. Of course, Syhabout wants to keep his two stars, so he must play the Michelin game. It’s similar to the Michael Bauer game, in which restaurants seeking such approval cater to this small subsection of diners, those who require constant pampering from servers and at least three “extra” courses added to the tasting menu.
There’s no real problem with that kind of meal, as long as the value is there.
Syhabout opened Commis in 2009 with a strikingly affordable prix fixe menu. At $59, it was, at the time, the best deal for high-end dining in, perhaps, the entire Bay Area. Just like rent, however, his meals have been gradually growing more and more expensive over time. It’s likewise a justifiable move — labor and food costs have also gone up, as has commercial rent. The cost for dinner has now shot up to $149 for nine-ish courses and an $80 wine pairing. Factor in tax and tip and a meal for two easily crests above $600.
To be sure, you’re paying for a multi-hour meal peppered with luxury ingredients served in a totally pampered environment. A clean fork or a quick description of the next three wines and their stemware is never more than a few seconds away. Commis is tiny, so even the relatively slim waitstaff can keep a keen eye on the dining room at all times.
This is the type of meal many, many people expect when they think of high-end dining. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Call me a silly young diner if you must, I find this level of service to ultimately be a distraction from my meal. Especially if I’m shelling out top dollar for a meal, I want to be able to sit and talk with my companion(s) without interruption, or feeling like the server waiting for me to drop my napkin can hear my every word. I want time and space to appreciate the food I’m eating, especially when it includes caviar and foie gras and abalone.
And somehow, even with all of that attention, I found both the service and the food to be too serious, too cold, too wrapped up in technical cooking to warrant the price. To me, a restaurant’s value is about more than just an abundance of luxury ingredients. It’s about the entire experience of eating in a restaurant.
Where would I rather spend my food budget? I’ve already heaped plenty of praise on Rockridge’s Belotti, not a bargain restaurant by any means, but one that has managed to make me fall in love with pasta again. In Vallejo, Michael Warring has been quietly excelling at prix fixe California fare for four and a half years. Its $69 six course meal is at once traditional and youthfully whimsical (homemade (and delicious) nacho cheese on brioche comes with the cheese course). That the restaurant is staffed by only Warring and his wife makes it all the more impressive.
And then there’s the newest entrant into high-value fine(-ish) dining: Old Oakland’s Delage, the omakase-style sushi restaurant from Chikara Ono of AS B-Dama.
Like Commis, the meal at Delage was prix fixe, with eight courses including both sushi and more European-style seafood and seafood-friendly dishes. We ate at the sushi counter, shared half a bottle of sake, and watched the chefs in the kitchen. It was a far more casual experience, at a far more casual price — $65 per person.
Granted, this is still a hefty number for many diners, so I’m not out to argue that Delage offers a cheap meal. However, its value is undeniable, and, despite some flaws, I enjoyed myself more, at Delage than Commis. The sushi itself was outstanding, one bite improving upon the next until I could no longer keep track of my favorite fish. As at any good sushi restaurant, each piece of nigiri was treated differently; some fish was seared with a torch, other pieces were cured, some were raw, topped with colorful, technical garnishes. Each bite was almost its own small dish, expanding the meal to several courses beyond the menu.
The non-sushi dishes were not quite as jaw-dropping, but they helped to ground the restaurant firmly in its Oakland environment. Local bitter greens tossed in a black cherry dressing and garnished with a gruyére tuile screamed NorCal cuisine. Matsutake soup — earthy, warming and cleansing — was at once a celebration of fungi and Japan. (Less successful was the entree course, seared trout with vegetables and yuzu avocado sauce. The fish was was perfectly cooked, but was awkwardly plated and ultimately felt clunky.) Because the courses alternated between these dishes and the raw fish preparations, seasonal ingredients and French technique played just as strong of a part in the meal as the sushi.
It’s a different experience than other omakase meals, which typically consist almost entirely of fish; its a longer dinner, more varied, and the kind of experiment that feels like it could only happen in Oakland. Delage is a tiny restaurant tucked into a corner of Swan’s Marketplace, an area that seems to be always warm and bustling, and its vibe mimics its surroundings. Service is friendly and knowledgable but not overbearing, and the sushi chef will flash you a smile or knowing look each time you lift one of his creations to your mouth. This is the kind of experience I’m happy to pay for. After dessert and the final sips of sake, I walked out the door knowing I’d be back.