Commonwealth – 12/28/10

Commonwealth
2224 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

exterior

In my opinion, one of the most exciting dining trends is chefs cooking serious fine dining in reasonably-priced, casual environments. These chefs are focusing on putting good food on the table – that’s what everyone’s there for; and, because they’re cutting out the expensive decor and extra waitstaff, the prices are very reasonable.

Commonwealth opened in August and immediately became a hot restaurant in San Francisco. SF Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer said about the food: “what lands at the table could have come from the playbook of the four-star Manresa or Coi.” Those were some pretty bold words – and Commonwealth is less than half the cost of either of those two.

So, when I was able to get a reservation for 2 on a (very) stormy evening, my mother and I ventured out to try this cuisine. We opted for the six course tasting menu which is priced at $60, with $10 of each menu going to a rotating charity (Meals on Wheels, in this case).

Instead of bread, Commonwealth serves these potato chips with seaweed.

chips

They were normal potato chips (think Lay’s) with just a little bit of seaweed in them. Unique.

Dungeness Crab, green apple gel, Jerusalem artichoke, tarragon

crab

I would have liked the tender, sweet chunks of crab on their own. Add to it that it was paired with the acidity of the pickled sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) and creme fraiche, and had a little bit of herbaceous complement of the tarragon, and this was a nice first course.

salt cured foie gras, umeboshi, seaweed brioche

foie

I really liked this dish. The foie gras was delicious – rich and creamy as a spread to go with this wonderful seaweed brioche. Toasted to a crisp, the subtle sea flavor of the seaweed brioche went together nicely with the foie gras.

kabocha pumpkin, black kale, yuba, broccolini, coconut milk, peanut

pumpkin

This was my mother’s favorite dish. The ingredient list was very unusual; I was wondering how everything would go together. Even though there was no meat in this dish, it had a savory feel to it. The pumpkin and broccolini were cooked to an al dente texture, contrasting the tender, squishy yuba (bean curd). I thought the coconut milk foam was an interesting touch too. The flavors melded pretty well together.

sweetbreads, chestnut veloute, celery, asian pear, truffle cream

sweetbreads1

sweetbreads2

I am a fan of sweetbreads, and these were no exception. They were fried, giving them a crispy exterior and a soft, rich interior. The celery added a little bit of crunch, while the chestnut veloute added a little bit of richness and sweetness.

quince-rooibos sorbet, vanilla soda

sorbet

This was a bit of a palate cleanser. The quince flavor was definitely front and center, and the sorbet had a nice richness to it as well.

cinnamon mille-feuille, cardamom marshmallow, burnt honey ice cream

mille feuille

Lastly, we had a deconstructed mille-feuille. The layers consisted of, from left to right, cinnamon cookie, chocolate ganache, cinnamon cookie and caramelized cardamom marshmallow. I thought this was a pretty cool presentation and delicious too. Putting them together was kind of like a s’more, and the burnt honey ice cream was a nice accompaniment.

I was impressed with this meal; I think it was the strongest of my week-long San Francisco stay. The menu was fun, inventive and executed well. Chef Jason Fox successfully melded together flavors that aren’t commonly seen on the same plate. The fact that he can put a menu like this together for $60 ($10 goes to charity), with a la carte dishes all being $15 and under – it’s no wonder this has been such a popular spot in the city.

Luce – 12/27/10

Luce
InterContinental Hotel
888 Howard St
San Francisco, CA 94103

One of the chefs I was most highly anticipating at Test Kitchen was Dominique Crenn. Unfortunately, her sole Dec. 5th appearance conflicted with the finale of LudoBites 6.0, which is where I ended up dining. However, I stumbled upon a happy coincidence – BlackboardEats had a 30%-off promotion to Luce (where she is executive chef) just as I would be in town. Score!

Luce was named as one of the best new restaurants in America by Esquire when it opened in 2008, and first garnered a Michelin star in the 2010 guide (which it retained in 2011). With a victory over Michael Symon on Iron Chef America, the buzz surrounding Crenn has never been greater. As a result, she’s opening up her own restaurant (Atelier Crenn) in mid-January, leaving her position at Luce in doubt.

This may be one of the last meals Luce serves with Crenn as executive chef, and it was a strong one. We started with an amuse from the kitchen.

Lobster, Citrus, Beets

I enjoyed the slightly tart citrus (clementines and grapefruit) paired with the sweet lobster – promising start to the meal.

No tasting menus are offered on Sundays or Mondays (something I didn’t see publicized anywhere, not even on the menu), so we opted for a selection from the a la carte menu.

Abalone, Pork Belly, Yuzu Kosho and Enoki

The abalone was cooked perfectly, leaving it quite tender. The pork belly was pretty lean (which I like), yet tender with a crispy exterior. I enjoyed the pork-abalone combination. The broth, with yuzu kosho and enoki mushrooms, was just…in a word…addicting. Excellent dish.

Black Ink Trofiette “Carbonara,” Baby Squid, Smoked Pancetta, Egg

I found this dish to be strong as well. The al dente pasta was combined with tender calamari, the meatiness and smokiness of pancetta, and the richness of an egg. We were instructed to stir everything together – the result was a layering of distinctive and delicious flavors.

Lobster, Heirloom Carrots, Fennel, Cumin, Quinoa and Uni

The lobster was cooked well, and I enjoyed the fennel’s complementary flavor. The quinoa was executed well, and served as a nice accompaniment.

Venison Mosaic, Fall Vegetable, Coffee and Grains

The venison was cooked sous vide yielding a very tender piece of meat. The mosaic of daikon and beets was a nice presentation, though I didn’t think it added a whole lot of flavor. However, the bulgur salad and coffee did add a lot of flavor – yes, coffee. I thought the coffee-venison combination was pretty bold and worked well.

Chocolate Semifreddo, Raspberries, Hazelnuts

This was the classic chocolate and raspberry combination. The semifreddo was smooth and creamy with a good chocolate flavor. I didn’t think this was outstanding really, but was a little bit of a letdown considering the strength of the previous courses.

Coconut, Mango Sorbet

This was a really light dessert, which I appreciated. The coconut was like snow – light and airy, and the coconut and mango flavors were both evident and paired well.

I thought this was a pretty strong meal. The desserts were just okay for me, but the appetizers and entrees were very good. The restaurant was surprisingly rather empty on this night; it’s unfortunate that more people aren’t enjoying this cuisine. The restaurant will undoubtedly change as Crenn transitions to her new project (whether she stays at Luce or not), but I’ll be interested to see what she’ll be cooking up there.