While many of the restaurants on Broadway and Telegraph are flourishing in the bustling Uptown neighborhood, another restaurant has permanently changed the definition of fine dining in the city, earning Oakland’s first Michelin Star.
Commis Chef-Owner James Syhabout has spent time in some of the finest international kitchens in the world. But when he started his first restaurant, he knew it would be in Oakland, where he has lived for decades.
“Oakland needed a revival, especially in terms of fine dining. And when you grow up in Oakland, it is different because you understand the culture,” he said.
Syhabout said that culture is not what may be perceived by many people who just watch TV or read the newspaper and don’t actually visit the city. “Every big city has its own problems and tough neighborhoods. Oakland is no different. But there are so many positive things that stand out in the city. You just never hear about them.”
Trying to change some of those perceptions in his own way, Syhabout opened Commis in June of 2009. From the instant it opened even to today, the restaurant and Syhabout have received mostly rave reviews and tremendous accolades, including becoming Oakland’s first restaurant to earn a Michelin Star in 2010. Commis repeated that feat in 2011 and 2012. The restaurant is a meld of Syhabout’s technique-driven food with a certain fine dining aspect that was lacking in Oakland. “This is a different experience that many people in Oakland have never seen before,” he said.
Commis offers an almost zen-like culinary experience for diners. Each dish is meticulously crafted with a real sense of almost artistic creativity. And fellow chefs in the city have taken notice. “James was the first to really bring that technique-driven style of restaurant that you often see in San Francisco to Oakland,” said Russell Moore, Chef-Owner of Camino. “A lot of us grew up with the Chez Panisse model and he took parts of that and added his own personal touch. He definitely opened up the door to more creativity in the kitchen.”
Chef Daniel Patterson, who in his own ways changed many ideas of what fine dining should be in San Francisco, appreciates what Syhabout is doing in his kitchen. “There are plenty of restaurants that have come to exemplify Oakland, whether it’s Oliveto’s for fine dining or Pizzaiolo. But from a cooking standpoint, James really brought something different to the table,” he said. “He is creating beautiful dishes and has such an ambitious way of cooking.”
Syhabout recently opened a more casual dining spot Uptown called Hawker Fare, which he said “tells the story about the neighborhood where he grew up.” It focuses more on Asian street food he grew up with and is an ode to his mother, who worked in East Bay restaurants for decades. “Hawker Fare is more of a personal venture. it truly represents who I am,” said Syhabout. “But Commis is all about what I love to do. The cuisine is what I have learned in my lifetime. It can’t really be categorized.”
Syhabout said he loves where he is right now. “I never had a thought of opening a restaurant in San Francisco. That just wasn’t me,” he said. He also loves visiting other restaurants in Oakland. “The main difference between San Francisco and Oakland is the concentration of restaurants in neighborhoods. You actually have to travel to get to certain spots in Oakland. But there are so many great neighborhoods and restaurants. It’s exciting for the city to see so many great restaurant people here. The more the merrier.”
While it may not be the first restaurant in Oakland to be called a destination dining spot, Commis is one of the first to truly capture the attention of food enthusiasts across the entire Bay Area and the nation.
Coming up on Wednesday, a look at a significant real estate venture that is finally taking some shape on the waterfront.
Photo Credit: Connie Kim