Commis: a look at James Syhabout’s creations

Oakland, California: June 2022

James Syhabout’s culinary approach at Commis is a reflection of his rich heritage and global experiences. He skillfully blends Thai elements, Western techniques, and modernist innovations to create dishes that are thoughtfully composed and full of flavor. How does he achieve this subtle balance of styles and tastes? In this detailed analysis, we explore James Syhabout’s culinary approach, we delve into the origins, influences, and achievements that have contributed to the establishment of his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Commis, in Oakland, California.

The chef

Born in Thailand and raised in Oakland, James Syhabout grew up in the culinary world of his parents’ Thai restaurant. Inspired by his mother’s teachings, he developed an early appreciation for cooking and resourcefulness in the kitchen. His passion for cooking led him to graduate from the California Culinary Academy in 1999 and embark on a journey that took him to some of the most renowned kitchens in the world.

He began his career in a few casual restaurants before landing a stage at Masa, the now-closed restaurant of Ron Siegel. However, it was at Manresa, the two-Michelin star restaurant in Los Gatos, California, where he truly honed his skills serving as a souschef from 2003 to 2006.

In 2005, David Kinch, the chef-owner of Manresa, encouraged him to broaden his horizons and work in Europe. This opportunity allowed him to work for a short time at The Fat Duck, Mugaritz and Alkimia and a whole season as a commis at El Bulli in Spain. Upon his return to the United States, he joined Daniel Patterson in opening Coi in San Francisco. He then became the head chef of PlumpJack Cafe, which received a 3.5 star review from the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2007, he returned to Manresa as chef de cuisine. That same year he was recognised as a Rising Star Chef by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007.

With a wealth of experience under his belt, Syhabout opened his own restaurant, Commis, in Oakland in 2009. Inspired by visionary establishments like Alkimia in Barcelona and L’Astrance in Paris, he aimed for success in a smaller, more modern and casual venue. His efforts paid off when he received his first Michelin star only three months after opening and his second one in 2016. Besides Commis, he has also ventured into casual dining with Laotian Thai food at Hawker Fare and Hawking Bird, which he opened in Oakland and San Francisco in 2011 and 2017 respectively. He is also a co-owner of Old Kan Beer and Co. in Oakland. Hawker Fare was closed permanently in January 2023.

The cuisine

With purity and playfulness, Syhabout’s cooking style pays homage to the rich and diverse culinary traditions that have shaped his vision. He skillfully fuses different styles, drawing on the lessons he learned at Manresa, where he mastered the art of sourcing and preparing the finest produce, and his stint in Spain, where he acquired modernist techniques that add flair and creativity to his dishes (snow, liquid nitrogen).

As his kitchen has evolved over the years, Syhabout has also woven in more elements from his own heritage: taro, palm sugar, ginger, calamansi, coconut, tamarind. These ingredients bring a touch of exoticism and complexity to his dishes, yet his style and flavours remain firmly anchored in Western fine dining traditions

Eating at Commis

The restaurant has a very modern and clean ambiance with a big open kitchen by the entrance, tiled floor, bare tables and serviettes folded the Mugaritz-way. The wine list is exceptional, but we took the liberty of bringing some incredible bottles with ourselves after paying a visit to John Kongsgaard.

A trio of appetisers set the tone for the meal. The Caramelised onion financier with sour cream was a delightful balance of sweetness and creaminess, while the Crudités and vadouvan offered a crunchy vegetable contrast with a hint of spice. The Pacific oyster, pinapple mignonette completed the trio with a burst of briny and tangy flavours.

The first starter, Yellowfin tuna with asparagus, meyer lemon, seeds and nori, set a high standard with a superb sashimi of yellowfish tuna, rich in intramuscular fat. The decadent meat was balanced by the umami and earthy notes of toasted seeds and nori sprinkled on top. Lemon zest and thinly sliced raw asparagus provided the necessary freshness and texture respectively.

A medley of English peas marinated in stinging nettles, mint and Tokyo turnips formed the second starter. A delicate filo pastry, perhaps slightly over-salted, covered a bed of fresh peas that had been lightly blanched and condimented with the herbal notes of mint and nettles. Each pearl popped in the mouth, releasing a burst of crisp spring greenness. The Tokyo turnips added a subtle crunch while a dashi-like-flavoured cream provided hydration and lubrication to the dish.

This was followed up by a serving of Kaluga caviar with taro root and palm sugar. The combination reflects a modern trend of contrasting caviar with sweet elements. A smooth and velvety taro purée, rich and creamy like Robuchon would like it, infused with a hint of seaweed umami (possibly dashi), served as the foundation for the caviar and palm sugar duo. A syrup was lightly drizzled over the top, adding a further touch of brown sugar sweetness to each spoonful. Meanwhile, the caviar, bursting with briny flavour, balanced the sweetness with its oceanic richness.

In a progressive Cantonese approach, we are served a very savoury and intensely flavoured Chicken, crab, ginger, pistachio dumpling. The sculptural looking sticky rice wrapping created a beautiful texture that glistened under the bright lights. In the palate, the starchy stickiness is surprisingly light. Sweet and citric flavours of oyster sauce and ginger scented the mixture. A remarkable single bite amuse-bouche.

The signature dish, Slow poached egg yolk, smoked dates, alliums and malt, arrives with an excellent warm sourdough and butter. San Francisco’s bread game is probably at the top of its game within the USA. Commis delivers a flawless loaf with a thin, crisp crust and a well-fermented, slightly nutty crumb. The crumb is light and moist, certainly a high hydration dough. Notes of dairy and yoghurt add a nice touch to the otherwise sweet white flour flavour. The butter, whipped and plated as a faux marble disk, gives the playful impression of being served an empty plate with salt flakes.

Yet, the star of the of the meal is the enormous silky egg yolk (likely cooked at 63C) floating in a delicious allium vichyssoise. Inspired by Manresa and Alain Passard’s egg with maple syrup, the sweetness here is provided by a purée of dates smoked in applewood. The alliums cooked in butter and the smoked dates create a beautiful contrast of intense allium and rich sweetness. Textural contrast is provided by puffed malt.

The first main, Northern Halibut with grilled celtuce, bergamot and mussel consomé, highlighted a delicate minimalism and precision of flavours. The raw halibut slices were gently warmed up by a bergamot and mussel consomé poured at the table. The flavour of the fish shined under the backbone of seafood and the citric contrast, while the texture at this low temperature retained a delightful bite. Perhaps even more brilliant was the pairing with the celtuce when grilled. The grill marks accentuated the nutty and earthy notes of the celtuce, mellowing out the green celery notes.

As a palate cleanser before the meat, or more likely a small prelude, a glass of Chicken broth with ginger and chrysanthemum leaf was served. The fragrant oil and petals of the chrysanthemum enhanced the floral elegance of the broth, elevating an otherwise humble comforting broth.

The last main, a play from the classic American-Chinese beef and broccoli is another showstopper – Barbeque pork, collar and brassicas, virgin mustard seed oil. The barbecue pork slices were delicately flavoured with five spice and fish sauce and placed under a mesh of stir fried brassicas: broccoli, broccolini, romesco. The mustard oil brightens up the dish with its sweet and nutty scent while mustard flowers have the same effect in the visual department. The perfect bite, combining all elements, is simply delightful.

Did I say last main? The feast was not yet over, not until the Organic brown rice congee with spring green garlic and shrimp. A very savoury base of fermented shrimp and mushroom was used to make the brown rice congee.Served with an assortment of thinly sliced pickled vegetables (cucumbers, mushroom, radish), the combination of the congee’s richness with the lactic and acetic acid made each spoonful very addictive.

The freshness was brought back to the table with another palate cleanser, Chamomile glace with calamansi, blood orange and pickled mustard seeds. The frozen juice vesicles of blood orange and calamansi were a beautiful capsule of acidity that would burst adding heterogeneity on a background of rich, silky ice cream. Ginger and lime zest were also present, adding layers of complexity to the citric notes. The meringue on top gave a slight crunch.

The dessert was a recent creation from the kitchen, Caramelised white chocolate and aged comté with fragant exotic fruits. The aged comté snow had a delightful texture, melting with merely touching one’s palate. The funk from the ageing process, with nutty and rancio aromas had a strong contrast with the exotic fruits (passion, mango, caramelised banana) that only worked through the base provided by the richness of the caramelised white chocolate ganache disc. This is an exploration of the extremes in the parameter space of savouriness and sweetness and it works. Strangely, the highly volatile rancio flavours work well with exotic fruit aromas. Balance, though is key, and finding the equillibrium of this pairing to avoid making the comté overwhelming was a risky move. As with most of the dishes, some puffed quinoa under the fruit gave more texture to the dish.

The meal reaches its finale with a trio of inventive mignardises that present interesting flavour combinations and techniques: A Shiso and yuzu capsule that bursts with refreshing citrus notes; a Coffee tamarind chili pirouette, a sort of canolo of tiramisú sweetened by tamarind; and a Fish sauce salted caramel, that ventures into the intriguing territory of savoury and sweet contrasts. Once again, the result is astonishing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *