There are Californian cuisine restaurants that serve the standards- Berkshire pork chop, Liberty Farm duck, etc.
And then there is Commonwealth.
Saturday night I found myself in a last minute and unexpected situation of looking for a meal at a very late hour. As I perused the menus of a few places of the type that I don’t often eat at in recent years, Commonwealth’s menu caught my eyes (I had not been):
Squid noodle with egg yolk jam?
Sprouted rye porridge with vanilla?
Sweetbreads cooked in beeswax?
These dishes are either ones that are trying too hard to stand out, or the wonderful work of an unconventional kitchen that has the courage to chart a different course.
To be fair, I only tried 1 our of the 3 dishes above, but the entire meal so satisfied that I am quite inclined to believe that the latter is true.
Here’s what I had:
The amuse-bouche was dungeness crab meat with an oyster mousse with a nori cracker on the side. The mousse stood out with a deep herbal flavor delivered by a delightful combination of tarragon, parsley and other herbs.
Sea urchin squid noodles. The ‘noodles’ were squids cut into fettucini-width strips, coated with ink with the tempting option of mixing together with the decadent, sweet, creamy and savory urchin. The cubic jam was egg yolk congealed with dashi broth with the help of gelatin. A little acidity in the sauce livened up the dish.
Chanterelles- The pine smoked chanterelles covered with a light and tart dressing, along with the crispy pureed potato strips, did a fine job of scooping up the delicious mashed potato at the bottom. To call the puree mere mashed potato seem to be a rather big injustice. The puree, infused with the cool herbal and smoky flavors of burnt pine oil, combined with the rest and resulted in a complex, smoky and savory dish.
Sablefish- The kelp paste recall memories of seaweed, but was seasoned much more mildly and added a very savory touch to the dish. The radicchio invited a slightly bitter and salty dimension while the bright lemon sabayon brought creaminess, richness and saltiness to the delicate, flaky and perfectly cooked sablefish.
Huckleberry compote came with a light, sweet and tart lemon curd with a tiny hint of coconut, while the strips of frozen granitas added a very tart and bright flavor to the sweet huckleberry-sauce combination at the bottom. The compote easily won the heart of this diner who’s not normally eager for dessert.
The salted caramel with sea salt sprinkled on top was dense and slightly bitter. Its neighbor was the very tart, sweet, and very excellent calamansi pate de fruit. This pate de fruit, should they one day decide to sell them as boxed confections, would make a popular and fine pate de fruit. Easily comparable to or better than my favorite ones made somewhat locally- Made in Oregon.
The calamansi kombucha was mildly sweet with a touch of tartness.
Potato chips with aleppo pepper and malt vinegar foam.
The meal, while certainly not cheap in absolute terms, was in my eyes a rather wonderful steal among the finer Bay Area kitchens. The dishes were highly adept technically, but they all were very reasonably priced relative to the quality delivered. They were modest in size, but the prices (~$20) allow one to sample a good portion of the menu. A sizable portion of the tasting menu cost is donated to a local charity.
The one small fault that I found with the meal was the service. Server was friendly, but struggled with the details of the dishes. Perhaps he’s new? He also misunderstood and left out one of the dishes in the order. When the server asked about dessert when dessert wasn’t yet expected, its awkward for me, at their closing time, to inquire if its too late for the kitchen to fire up that dish. Despite not always getting it right the first time, the server always fixed it on the second try with enthusiasm. So I gave him credit for that.
This meal reminds me of a long-ago-meal at the now-defunct Ubuntu. Unexpected combinations of ingredients and flavors that looked like they might be too risky but somehow worked and combined brilliantly to more than sum of their parts. Jason Fox of Commonwealth may not be related to Jeremy Fox of Ubuntu. But these Foxes certainly share the common trait- a willingness to take risks in the kitchen and come up with daring dishes that may be too unusual in some eyes. But I am very grateful they choose/ chose to cook in the Bay Area.
I came across this review from Peter Lawrence Kane after I started eating, and I have to agree with Kane- Commonwealth is not that common.
ETA: Also just saw Bauer’s recent praises: