Saturday, November 28, 2009

Coi & Commis

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Coi Photoset. Meals are arranged in order of courses served. M1 is from the first meal, M2 from the second etc.

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Commis Photoset. Meals are arranged in order of courses served. M1 is from the first meal, M2 from the second etc. M3 is a special tasting menu I arranged with Chef Syhabout.

In this piece of required reading (note that the author is one of this post's featured chefs), Chef Judy Rodgers says, "All I care about is making delicious food. When there's plenty of delicious food in the world, then I'll start worrying about creativity." This is stupid because isn't it entirely possible for food to be both creative and delicious? While Chef Rodgers may lack the ambition to create tasty, creative food, chefs James Syhabout and Daniel Patterson do not.

You see, it all started with Alice Waters (whom I am told is a lovely woman. Please don't send your hippie assassins after me!) Back in the 70s, she had a revolutionary idea: Let's get some of the wonderful produce available in the Bay Area and cook it simply and beautifully. I believe it was a direct reaction to the heavy French food which was served in that era's fine dining restaurants. Put another way, it's similar to Mozart's reactionary light, clean writing to Bach's heavy, stodgy German compositions. However, Bay Area restaurants (and Bay Area tastes) haven't developed and many of the most highly rated eateries in this area still faithfully follow Ms. Waters' original conceit.  Commis and Coi are different because they bring a different perspective to Bay Area dining.

Now, I've got nothing against excellent ingredients. In fact, I believe quality produce is the first step towards quality food but it's not the last. Because great restaurants have access to great produce, it's what you do with those ingredients which makes me stand up and take notice. Furthermore, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with technique if done with intelligence and sensitivity. Take a carrot dish from Coi (pronounced "Kwah"), a Michelin ** restaurant helmed by Chef Daniel Patterson. In it, carrot coulis and carrot shavings sandwich burnt rice porridge, cocoa nibs and micro cilantro, the carrots providing sweetness and lubrication for the rest of the dish. This tiny, 3 bite dish really encapsulates Chef Patterson's mindset of local, seasonal food with a bit of manipulation, more of which can be read here.

Coi needs a bit of explanation. The restaurant is divided into two halves. On one side, the fine-dining dining room where you are fed a set menu. On the other side, a casual lounge where you can order the entire fine dining menu, individual courses from the fine dining menu or items off of the separate lounge menu. I am a lounge devotee because I love the flexibility. When I eat there, I typically look through the tasting menu and target one or two dishes. After that, I look at the lounge menu. Patterson always has a terrific Soul Foods Farm chicken dish...I know, it's just chicken but the quality of the bird and its seasonal accompaniments are FANTASTIC. However, I wish he'd put some seafood on his lounge menu...I bet he could work wonders with some local squid or sardines. If you're squeamish about wine, the service staff will be more than happy to pour you something that they think will go well with the food. I've yet to be disappointed with my dining strategy.

While Daniel Patterson is very vocal about his views, it's hard to get anything out of James Syhabout, head chef at the newly Michelin starred restaurant Commis. Chef Syhabout might be the quietest, most humble cook I've ever met. I almost always sit at the chef's counter and I rarely hear him say a word. However, his food speaks volumes. He adheres to the same principles of local, seasonal food which is de rigeur in the Bay Area but his plates are more intricate than what you might find at other places. While Patterson's fare leans towards acid and a cleaner flavor profile, Syhabout's food seems more lush and luxurious. His liberal use of butter adds a rich dimension to his food which Patterson's lacks. However, this richness is also the source of my one criticism. I find that his food, specifically the big meat dishes, can be a little TOO big. That is, they start to bore me halfway through. I start to crave an acidic/bitter counterpoint because all that richness becomes monotonous. I am specifically thinking back to my last meal and a dish of guinea fowl, confit leg, bread crumbs and escarole. The roulade of fowl was great but to add a large serving of confit leg? Meat overload. More bitterness or acid, please.

However, I am always excited to go to Commis because Syhabout has the ability to come up with smart yet unexpected flavor combinations which make you wonder "Why didn't I think of that?!?!?" In short, go early (meal pacing gets a bit long if you go during rush hour), sit at the chef's counter and watch one of the Bay Area's best chefs do his thing.

Anyhow, I'm not really a food writer so kudos to you if you made it through my rambling paragraphs. The next time you find yourself thinking about dining out, do yourself a favor and consider one of these two restaurants. If you're as sick as I am of generic Cal-Mediterranean restaurants, it's up to you to vote with your pocketbook. And, in the case of Coi and Commis, your mouth will thank you. Happy eating!

373 Broadway
San Francisco, CA 94133
Phone: 415-393-9000

3859 Piedmont Ave.
Oakland, CA 94611
Phone: 510-653-3902

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