“You know back in my day, all the food was within reach and my grandfather used a rooted vegetable to brush his teeth, we all laughed at him. Now that we’re older looking back… that’s why we didn’t get sick so easily unlike now.” – Mom
Piedmont is a place where I’ve visited many times on this website, from an unforgivable experience of chicken yakitori to a new sustainable presence on Piedmont Ave. At this rate, I’ve worn out my welcome within this corner of the East Bay only to find myself at an absolute resolution to try the mecca of Piedmont’s culinary success… Commis.
This particular evening wasn’t the usual, hey let’s put my ‘wannabe-food critique’ hat on and play Top Chef judge with local business. Absolutely not, it wasn’t all about that… that night’s events were a bit more personal and dear to my heart than you can ever expect. To give you some insight into my personal life,
* * *
This woman standing across from me has experienced far more than I could ever imagine. The ‘quasi-cinderella’ tale of rags to humble living (not a hint of stability to this day) is far too common in the eyes of a first generation child to a minority immigrant. Despite the ever growing odds, this lady moved mountains from one summit to the next, earning every hard earn penny and wary of the third world country sharks’ out for blood and corruption. After retaining a part-time job as a house servant, she was denied the opportunity of education and her dreams were shattered with pennies for compensation of her physical labor.
Furthermore, she cared for a large household that consisted of 20 people both core and extended blood relatives tirelessly anchored throughout her career. The real catalyst formed after she climbed the corporate ranks within one of the biggest retail companies in her country. Achieving executive level management again she was forced to start over in the place she knew as America. At age three, she always knew this day would come even at the expense of her own comfort. Baby saddled in her arms, three years after landing, the only opportunity she knew came in the form of a dry cleaning service.
Throughout the years, the vicious cycle was an expected algorithm in her journey. Starting from the bottom and rising to veteran (or managerial) level she furthered her capabilities in Sales, Human Resources, and Retail Management. As a result and 25+ years in the making many different industries, she’s finally settling down… tie’ing up loose ends while resuming her duties as ‘servant’ only to the man who could claim half of the credit. The contributions from this woman are endless.. From the early years of crawling on the floor to the later years of spinning on it, (1) I only find myself in a similar stance of purgatorial reflection. Ironically enough, sharing a similar tier of recycled efforts I find myself looking back at her at the table wondering at this moment… I really am my mother’s son, there’s no denying it.
* * *
This was another one of those multi-tier’d events, celebrating, reflecting and prospecting for the future. A bleak future and the only thing certain was the dinner service to follow. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, the keys were locked in the car due to my own negligence. Taking a taxi, I met a man named Sunny hailing from North India. Inquisitive and somewhat pushy even after demonstrating my gratitude of his services, he later interrupted my meal for the sake of a ‘follow up’. Anyway, I arrived five to seven minutes later, they both told me the service was ‘cut and dry.’ Not a good impression for a place I’m investing my money and time into especially since the primary person they should impress wasn’t me…but my own mother.
Here’s The Tasting Menu as is:
The lighting wasn’t favorable to set up all the shots I wanted but I made due with what I got. We started with two amuses:
The financier was a huge hit with my mom; she was impressed with the delicate baking and execution of this tiny treat. For myself, I didn’t really get that ‘caramelization’ from the onion. It sort of reminded me of an olive oil cake with a slight crispy edge and a moist core. The shrimp rinds are a similar approach of another Michelin destination across the bridge, the only difference is one presentation represents a bird nest while the other is a miniature stump in the middle of a forest. The tarragon flavor in this version hits you in the face, whereas S & D’s had a bit more foreplay in texture throwing in fish roe in the mix.
Off to a good start, my mom merely observed her surroundings and noticed how much everyone drank compared to our table. She wasn’t fond of wine pairings (like I am) but understood the importance of which elevated any menu. Our next dish was sort of MIA (I took the picture and uploaded it via iPhoto but its nowhere to be found??), so you’ll have to make do with the reiteration of the menu, “Cow’s Milk Whey w/ Green Lemon and Ginger, Trout Roe.”
As it was presented, reminded me of Lazy Bear’s starter except instead of a breakfast shooter, you get a Seafood Panna Cotta. The texture was reminiscent of my mother’s flan, ginger lingered, while the green lemon and roe sort of got lost into the conversation. I wasn’t too crazy about it and neither was my mother (1-3 if you’re keeping score at this rate). The next dish we received made everyone at the dinner treat it like a puppy eating its dietary supplement and nudging the displeasure with its nose…
When I first saw this dish, it reminded me of Noma (1)* and all the hype behind foraging (yes, the same shit squirrels do searching for acorns) ingredients, a trendy approach with foodies as of recent. The inspiration sort of derives (and mirrors) the audience appreciating local vegetation and produce within the Bay Area. I can’t really knock anyone enjoying edible flowers especially since we need some form of vitamin replenishment. My mother on the other hand whose vege-pescatarian dominated diet gave me a confused glance across the table. Three spoonfuls and she had enough of the green puddle. My personal take on this dish was sort of bland all around. I expected the fava to have a bit more flavor (maybe even a bit more seasoning). Granted, once you mix the goat ice cream it isn’t as bland, giving the savory element it needed to satiate even the strictest Vegan in the East Bay (1-4).
This third dish takes me back to the numerous yakitori shops I’ve visited frequently in the past. The squid retained an acceptable level of smokiness, with the dill taking the secondary front and the fennel serving as back up, whereas the Thai chili oils serve as the last tier of flavor change. All of us were slightly amused and satisfied with this dish. Hoping the momentum continues…
We come across old faithful: bread intermission. Perhaps the phrase isn’t proper in fine dining but I’ve learned plenty about the bread courses (all thanks to S & D). Unlike most restaurants I’ve visited, fine dining spots tend to interject the tasting with bread for whatever the reason. The levain was crispy on the outside with a smooth interior. The texture inside reminds me of sourdough (without the sour notes). Cultured butter is the in thing as far most places so nothing special when consuming it.
Unlike the last vegetable dish, this one had a bit more appeal because of presentation and ingredients. Everything played a role in the dish and nothing overpowered the other when it comes to flavor profile. The pistachios added a crunchy element, the lemon confit created a perfect harmony with the avocado that sealed the deal. My mom was indifferent to this dish and showed no interest other than that it was too simple for her tastes. As a special side note, after the bread dish, the pacing of our tasting menu had increased and definitely became more critical in detail versus a half an hour ago, where my mom and girlfriend were completely snubbed (just an FYI).
Overall, this particular dish had a lot of challenging contrasts in texture and flavor combinations. From a presentation standpoint, it’s pretty compact and definitely a bullseye on the plate. The morels themselves were spongy, savory, and earthy. The halibut was meaty and the leeks and alliums absorbed a good amount of the oils that leaked from the fish and mushroom respectively. Again I looked to my mother for culinary approval and she still wasn’t really satisfied with the experience so far (definitely a difficult woman to please).
Commis likes to throw curveballs to challenge your indiscriminating tastebuds. After two sips, my mom literally spat out and didn’t really like the flavor of this tea. My girlfriend on the other hand found an appreciation of this tea considering her Southeast Asian background. As for myself, you get a whiff of the fungi aroma, while the blossoms interrupt the conversation and splash you with savory finish. The after taste wasn’t pleasant and I didn’t know if it was a set up for the next dish, so I drank as much water to wash out the intruding flavor.
The best way to describe this dish is meat and potatoes (just a bit more complex from ingredient usage). The vegetable ash and loving salt gave it a smoky and salty taste. The potato was very creamy and I couldn’t help but wonder if the Nasturtium added the necessary pepper notes to the steak or if my mind was playing tricks on me. My mother wasn’t much of a steak person but she found the potatoes decent and the rest of the dish a bit too salty for her.
This was our obligatory cheese plate; you can even say this is a lunchables for the adult foodie. This is the second dish my mother personally approved of from this place. She and I both found the dish well balanced. Puree of dates brings out a slight tartness while complimenting the medium rind. Definitely a group favorite and one of the few we can all agree upon having seconds of.
I believe this drink was our palate cleanser before dessert. If the fava soup was our least favorite dish, consider this item to be the runner up participant. The grapes inside offset the lemon glace with the chamomile attempting to linger for the after-party (it wasn’t going to happen). With the implementation of calendula, although I wasn’t suffering from some sort of inflammatory medical infection, the plant serves as an ingredient for digestif (to digest one’s meal) preventing the enabler from becoming lethargic (aka food coma). This leads to…
Our birthday dessert for this evening. Unlike my plate, my mother’s was adorned with a single candle with our waitress Karen wishing her a happy birthday. My mom gazed across the table thankful to both myself and my S/O for entertaining her for the evening and breaking her into the world of fine dining (a unique milestone for her age). She didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so even to share a seat amongst those who may even be able to afford the most luxurious wines was enough of a blessing. Blowing out the dimly lit candle, we clapped and smiled and saw her dig into the dessert. She swears she can make this blindfolded (I challenged her to live up to that promise). Another dessert, similar to another Michelin star experience . Unlike Luce which tasted like an airy and cloudy mix of strawberry and my little pony vomit that delicately was crafted on the plate (in a good way), Commis’ version had a bit more matcha. Without the sorbet, it wouldn’t have the tart or acidity needed to elevate the dish. Bee pollen was nowhere to be found (or tasted).
The final dish of the night is the after supper snacks. Our encounters with these dishes are similar to Mega Man Boss Battles Round 2 (same items, different flavors and orders). Unlike Lazy Bear’s, which had a bit more appealing bites, to start with the flavor descriptions in Commis’ trio; Bergamot came out of the woodwork with the chocolate trailing behind in the square bites in the back. The caramel wrapped candies reminded me of Branch’s caramels growing up. As for the carrot/ginger macaron, i took less than 1/3rd of a bite before I called it quits (and so did everyone else’s). Overall, this entire experience was made possible by celebrating my mother’s birthday. I’ve had the fortunate honor of tasting Chef Synahbout’s food since his debut (or re-emergence of Hawker Fare). Of the three, Hawker Fare probably remains my favorite. Not because of the casual atmosphere or the nostalgia, the service is what keeps me coming back, again and again. Unlike Box and Bells (and this restaurant) along with many other classy foodie destinations, for whatever the reason the service falls flat on its face. The reoccurring theme of great food and shitty service shouldn’t have any correlation whatsoever. Unfortunately, the pattern (and personal experience) is there and I’m sort of weary of it. The only place that left a memorable impression for a fine dining Michelin star worthy establishment was Luce (probably due to the crowd that night and the attention of detail the staff brings).
I’m not expecting the Chef and his crew to kiss my ass all the way to the bank but even picking up the phone can make a difference (the unexpected car emergency and my truancy to the dinner table), could’ve made things a little bit easier and understanding. The price of the meal wasn’t an issue for me and despite Karen’s futile efforts (along with the rest of the FOH staff) to handle recovery on service, the damage was done and associated with a special occasion of all things.
This night was mostly dedicated to my mother, for all the nights she cooked and all the days she worked for my living. It was to provide an opportunity to taste the finer things in life, as some people might put it. Now that my curiosity has been fed, it finally brings closure to my impression with Syhabout’s culinary trinity. Does my opinion change, after letting this experience sit idle with me these past two weeks? Not really and quite frankly to put it in my own mother’s words,
“It was worth trying once but not something, I would go back for.”
Although the weekend ended bittersweet, my mother remained ecstatic at the mere thought of being spoiled so much for the first time in her life.
Happy Mother’s Day and Happy Birthday Mom… This one’s for you.
(1) Noma Restaurant Landing Page; “http://noma.dk” last viewed 21 May 2014; last updated Unknown
3859 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611
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