There is a there there: James Syhabout Commis, Oakland, CA.
Consider Commis an art project, one that continues to test the limits of Oakland. Syhabout says, "To some this is a neighborhood restaurant, to others a special occasion place. I think we're between the two poles."
The small space challenged the design, putting the screws on an open kitchen. Yet, the one at Commis is unconventional. Behind it, chefs work quietly and fastidiously tidy. There's an unexpected level of precision and maturity.
There's not a lot that is typical about James Syhabout.
A few naysayers found Commis pretentious, distressed by the austere restaurant sans signage. The polarity of new Oakland is made starker by the presence of next-door neighbor, Bay Wolf. Still in its cozy Victorian home since 1975, it is also one of Oakland's longest-running and most successful restaurants.
Any perceived airs about Commis are illusionary. Syhabout laughs, "We started with four saute pans and three servers. We actually couldn't afford a sign."
It wasn't long after 1975--in 1979--that James Syhabout was born. He learned to take his first steps in a refugee camp in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand on the border of Laos, Cambodia. Syhabout's family migrated as refugees, landed at the Port of Oakland, and was placed in a community of Thai families. Oakland has been his home ever since, he's a product of the K-12 public school system.
"Oakland was very diverse. It was less gentrified. It was not the Oakland it is now." Now, foragers comb the Oakland Hills on the hunt for fresh herbs, natural flowers, and honey. For those undeterred by "The Bridge" newer restaurant experiences in Uptown Oakland await.
His mother, a restaurateur herself, showed Syhabout the way. "I grew up eating with my hands--simple dishes containing lots of salt and lots of chiles. Things like fried eggs, fried sardines."
The menu at Syhabout's more casual restaurant, Hawker Fare, contemplates these childhood flavors. He refers to the restaurant as his "alter ego." "I have two separate head spaces," he says. In a well-timed twist of fate, Syhabout took over the space that once housed his mother's restaurant. As she retired, he birthed Hawker Fare. But make no mistake. Syhabout says, "Commis is what I've trained for my whole life."
"We don't go by a timeline. We go by ingredients and ideas. We let the menu have its own life."
He's strayed outside of Oakland--for good reasons. Working at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, he picked up what he calls, "the insanity of the craft." "The staff may listen to Eminem, laughing and having a good time, but they get their work done. You can accomplish the same things as in a high-pressure kitchen."
Of his cooking stint at elBulli he says, "The restaurant encouraged freedom to make mistakes through trial and error. To ask questions."
At Manresa, where he commuted for five years from Oakland, he says, "I learned to edit myself. Sometimes it just doesn't mean adding stuff. It means taking things away." As an example, he cites two dishes on his current menu: the caramelized onion financiers, and the red shiso jelly dish.
"How we think about the everyday ingredient--and the way we deliver it--is different."
YELLOW PEACH SOUP, PICKLED FENNEL, and FROZEN MUSTARD LEAVES Serves 4 James Syhabout Commis For the peach soup: 4 1/2 cups hot vegetable stock 3 large yellow peaches, sliced, core discarded 3 1/2 ounces shallots, peeled and sliced Salt to taste Simple syrup to taste For the pickled fennel: 1 1/2 cups water 1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar 1 1/2 cups white wine 6 ounces sucrose 1 tablespoon salt 1 bulb fennel, cored and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces For the frozen mustard leaves: 1 cup red mustard leaves 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard Water, as needed Salt to taste For the garnish: Wild mustard flowers
FOR THE PEACH SOUP: In a large bowl, pour hot vegetable stock over peach slices and let stand at room temperature until the peaches are just macerated. Transfer the peach mixture to a blender and puree. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Adjust seasonings with salt and simple syrup. Cool in an ice bath and chill in the refrigerator until needed.
FOR THE PICKLED FENNEL: In a saucepan over medium heat, bring water, vinegar, white wine, sucrose, and salt to a boil. Remove from heat and pour vinegar mixture over the fennel. Cool at room temperature. Set aside.
FOR THE FROZEN MUSTARD LEAVES: In the container of a blender, add all ingredients with enough water to make a smooth puree. Add salt to taste. Freeze in a shallow hotel pan. Each hour, using a fork, scrape the ice until it is fluffy and frozen into fine ice crystals.
TO SERVE: In the bottom of a bowl, add some of the pickled fennel. Scoop with frozen mustard leaves. Pour peach soup around the frozen mustard leaves. Garnish with mustard flowers.
RED BEETROOT with BLUEBERRY VINEGAR, SMOKED CHEESE, THYME, and ASH Serves 4 James Syhabout Commis For the blueberry vinegar dots: 10 ounces dried blueberries 7 ounces cider vinegar Salt to taste For the roasted beetroots: 2 large red beetroots, peeled For the smoked cheese: 7 ounces mascarpone cheese Applewood chips For the dish: Fresh blueberries Lemon thyme Yarrow Flazelnut oil Sea salt Vegetable ash
FOR THE BLUEBERRY VINEGAR DOTS: Soak dried blueberries in vinegar for 24 hours. Strain through a fine mesh sieve, reserving the dried blueberries, and the 3 1/2 ounces of vinegar. In the container of a blender, puree reserved rehydrated berries with remaining blueberry vinegar.
FOR THE ROASTED red BEETROOTS: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut beetroots into eighths. Toss in grape seed oil and roast until tender and shriveled. for the smoked cheese: Set up a smoker to maintain a temperature of 90 degrees or lower. Cold smoke mascarpone cheese with applewood for 10 minutes.
TO SERVE: On a large plate, arrange 3 of the beetroot pieces and 3 small pieces of smoked cheese. Dot plate with blueberry-vinegar puree. Add fresh blueberries. Garnish with fresh herbs and a splash of hazelnut oil. Sprinkle with sea salt and vegetable ash.
YOUNG ABALONE, LOVAGE, and DULSE IN SEA FOAM with SAVOY CABBAGE CRISPS Serves 4 James Syhabout Commis For the savoy cabbage crisps: 1 savoy cabbage, cored, leaves separated Water, as needed Olive oil, as needed Kosher salt, as needed For the abalone: 4 whole red abalone For the sea foam: 1 small shallot, peeled and sliced 1/2 bunch parsley 1 tablespoon peppercorns 1 cup white wine 2 cups vegetable stock 1/3 cup whole milk 7 ounces unsalted butter 2 ounces sea lettuce Lemon juice, as needed Salt to taste For the garnish: Lovage leaves Fresh dulse seaweed Purslane clusters* * Purslane, Portulaca olearacae, can be found growing wild along garden rows, amidst lawns, and between sidewalk cracks. It rates among the healthiest of greens, loaded with essential amino acids and vitamins and high in omega-3s. FOR THE SAVOY CABBAGE CRISPS: Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Working in several batches, cook cabbage leaves in a large pot of boiling, salted water just until translucent and bright green, about 2 minutes. Using a large slotted spoon, transfer leaves to a large bowl of ice water to cool. Drain cabbage leaves well and dry thoroughly. On a baking sheet, arrange cabbage leaves in a single layer. Bake until completely dry and crisp, about 4 hours. Rub each leaf with oil and season with salt. FOR THE ABALONE: Place abalone in a steamer and steam for 6 hours. Remove abalone, reserving the shells for the plate. Using a small knife, remove the liver and innards from around the meat and discard. Slice the abalone and reserve. FOR the SEA FOAM: In a pot over low heat, add shallots, parsley, peppercorns, and white wine, and reduce until dry. Add vegetable stock and milk, and scald. Melt in the butter and add the sea lettuce. Remove from heat, transfer to a blender, and puree. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and adjust seasoning with lemon juice and salt. TO SERVE: Aerate sea foam with a hand-held blender. Rest an abalone shell on a plate. Add slices of abalone, savoy cabbage crisps, and spoon with sea foam. Garnish with lovage, dulse seaweed and purslane clusters.
At Commis, wine is a part of the conversation, an additional seasoning to the food, planned with a vision of the coming seasons. James Syhabout and Wine Director Thomas Smith relentlessly ask, "What does a wine bring to a dish? What does it draw from a dish?" Syhabout offers answers. "Muscadet, for instance, brings out the smokiness of the dashi and makes you feel like you are at a clambake. Gruner brings out the anise and the fennel in peach soup." For coffee service, Syhabout looks to Verve Coffee Roasters in coastal Santa Cruz. He calls it, "a good alternative that doesn't take itself too seriously." Commis is early to offer a cold-brew coffee from keg pushed on nitrogen tap. For winter, selected teas undergo microbial fermentation to mellow astringent qualities, before steeping for service.
FRIED CHICKEN CHIPS James Syhabout Commis Makes 80-100 For the fried chicken chips: 2 cups water 1 garlic clove, peeled 2 thyme sprigs 8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken thigh meat Salt to taste 8 ounces tapioca flour For the tarragon puree: 1 cup fresh tarragon leaves 3 teaspoons egg yolk 4 tablespoons lemon juice 1 cup grapeseed oil Salt and black pepper to taste For the garnish: Tarragon Coriander flowers Chervil Red orach FOR THE FRIED chicken CHIPS: In a small pot, add the water, thyme, and garlic clove. Place over medium heat and add the chicken cooking until the chicken is tender and cooked through, about 12 minutes. Remove, and strain through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding the thyme and garlic. Roughly chop chicken and transfer to a blender. Process to a smooth paste. Adjust seasoning with salt. Transfer chicken to a bowl over an ice bath. Mix in the tapioca flour. Spread batter onto a Silpat and spread to 1/8-inch thick. Cover with plastic wrap. Steam on high for 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into 1-inch squares. Place in a single layer on a dehydrator rack and dehydrate at 75 degrees, until the edges curl, about 24 hours. Store in an airtight container until needed. FOR the tarragon puree: Using a hand-held immersion blender, emulsify all ingredients until completely incorporated. Chill in the refrigerator until needed. TO SERVE: Place chips on a large serving tray. Dab each chicken chip with tarragon puree. Garnish with fresh herbs and flowers. OYSTER IN DASHI, UNRIPE GREEN LEMON ZEST MIGNONETTE Serves 6 James Syhabout Commis For the oysters: 12 shigoku oysters For the dashi: 4 1/4 cups water 1/2 sheet kombu, rehydrated 3 teaspoons bonito flakes Shiro shoyu to taste Shiro dashi to taste 3 gelatin leaves, bloomed in ice water For the mignonette: 3 teaspoons unripe green lemon zest 3 teaspoons peeled and grated young ginger 1 tablespoon lemon juice For the garnish: Coriander flowers
FOR THE OYSTERS: Shuck oysters and separate from the shells. Wash and reserve shells.
FOR the DASHI: In a large pot, add water. Add kombu and bring to a gentle simmer. Turn off the heat and steep for 20 minutes. Remove kombu and add bonito flakes. Bring to a gentle simmer, turn off the heat, and steep another 20 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Season with shiro shoyu and shiro dashi to taste. Dissolve bloomed gelatin in dashi. Set aside.
FOR THE MIGNONETTE: In a Small bowl, combine all ingredients and reserve.
TO SERVE: On a platter, arrange pebbles and sea kelp. Place oysters on top. Spoon with dashi, add mignonette, and garnish with coriander flowers.
GREEN TOMATO SOUP, CURED KING SALMON, DILL OIL Serves 4 James Syhabout Commis For the salmon: 10 1/2 ounces salt 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar 12 ounces California King salmon, skin on For the dill oil: 1/4 cup freshly chopped dill, blanched 3/4 cup grapeseed oil For the green tomato soup: 8 green tomatoes, roughly chopped Salt to taste For the garnish: Beach mustard and beach mustard flowers* Wild radish flowers Wild watercress Wild fennel pollen and wild fennel fronds
FOR THE SALMON: In a small bowl, combine salt and sugar. On a sheet tray lined with parchment, place salmon, skin side down. Sprinkle with the salt and sugar mixture. Cure for 1 hour. Rinse the cure from the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Remove skin and cut salmon into VSinch squares.
FOR THE DILL OIL: Puree until emulsified and strain through a fine mesh sieve.
FOR THE GREEN TOMATO SOUP: In the container of a blender, puree tomatoes until smooth. Add the dill oil and emulsify. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Adjust salt to taste.
TO SERVE: In a bowl, ladle a few ounces of green tomato soup. Place a piece of salmon in the center. Garnish with beach mustard, beach mustard flowers, and wild herbs.
* Beach mustard, cakile arctica, is native to the Brassicaceae family, and found between dunes along the shore. Syhabout finds them on Carmel Beach in Carmel, and below Mount Tamalpais in Marin.
CARAMELIZED ONION FINANCIER with BEE POLLEN Makes 20 James Syhabout Commis For the caramelized onion financier: 1 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1/3 cup caramelized onion powder 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder 3/4 ounce salt 19 1/2 ounces finely ground isomalt 2 cups almond flour 9 large egg whites, whipped to soft peaks 1 1/3 cups + 2 tablespoons melted brown butter, strained, kept warm For the garnish: Bee pollen
FOR THE CARAMELIZED ONION FINANCIER: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, sift all of the dry ingredients and mix well. Fold in the egg whites, gently mixing until completely incorporated. Emulsify the brown butter and add to the mixture. Place into a piping bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip. Fill a silicone pomponette mold and bake financiers for 10 minutes.
TO SERVE: Plate as shown.
RED SHISO TEA JELLY with RASPBERRIES Serves 6 James Syhabout Commis For the red shiso tea jelly: 4 1/3 cups water 1 1/2 ounces red shiso leaves 4 1/2 ounces sucrose 1/2 teaspoon citric acid 4 1/2 sheets gelatin, bloomed in cold water For the garnish Fresh raspberries
FOR THE RED SHISO TEA JELLY: In a large pot, heat water and add shiso leaves and sucrose. Cover and refrigerate, steeping for 24 hours. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Stir in the citric acid. Heat the shiso tea, dissolving gelatin. Pour into long-stemmed glasses and chill.
TO SERVE: Top with raspberries and serve.