When Jeremy Fox announced that he was blowing the coop last month, you could literally hear the collective pain of foodies like me, kicking ourselves for not having made a trek out to Ubuntu while he was still behind the stove. Billed as a high-end restaurant that happened to utilize only vegetables, Ubuntu had received rave reviews for the past couple of years and many would say that the restaurant’s success was mainly due to his creative vision. So when Fox parted ways with the restaurant and with no mention of future plans, I figured it would be a long while before I would get a chance to taste his cooking. But as luck would have it…
Fox took to Twitter last week to announce a special tasting menu at Commis to take place March 30. Spelled out in 140 eloquent characters, @chefjeremyfox would take over James Syhabout’s Commis (they were colleagues at Manresa) on a Tuesday night and serve a tasting menu with 2 seatings for 6 people, one at 5:30 and the another at 8:30pm. This tweet got to me within minutes by way of AT and I somehow managed to snag two seats for me and The Doctor and eagerly anticipated the forthcoming dinner.
When March 30th finally did roll around, we got to the restaurant after dodging gallons of rain and sat down at a table for six as the first seating was still going through the paces of the meal at the bar area. It was quiet and zen-like as the diners focused on the two chefs and talked in muted tones. We at the table were quiet as well for lack of familiarity but that went went away as soon as the meal began.
We started off with a brunoise of apples in wormwood with fennel, feta, watermelon radish and apple blossoms. The sweetness of the apples worked well with the tangy feta. I’m not familiar enough with wormwood to have been able to detect its presence but Fox joked that he wasn’t sure what the non-poisonous dosage was so I inferred that he approached the dish with a light hand. The blossoms were from braeburn, pink lady, and crab apple trees and tasted just as lovely as they looked. All this carefree munching on blossoms, I hope I don’t develop a dangerous habit of nibbling on random petals I encounter on the street.
The next dish was a ripe bruno kiwi, arugula, miner’s lettuce, shaved parmesan, and almonds. It was one of the best kiwis I’ve ever had and you can only find it at the Marin Farmer’s Market from a guy named Dave. I didn’t think this combination would work but it did. The almonds brought out the nutty richness of the parmesan and it just drew away the bitterness of the arugula while enhancing the kiwi’s flavor.
Despite the pouring rain outside, the joyful warmth of spring showed up in a dish of freshly shucked peas with white chocolate, macadamia nuts, and chocolate mint leaves bathing in a consommé made from the shells, lemon, and mint. It brought back memories of a delicious spring pea soup on which a tuille of meyer lemon ice was suspended at Murray Circle. Peas in a Consommé of the Shells was probably my most favorite dish of the night and we were all licking our bowls and draining the last drops. If you got all the components together in one mouthful, it tasted like an Andes mint minus the hotel pillow.
I must have been a señora in a past life because I have an odd fondness for sardines and a love for anything with escabeche because the combination of the two always connects me back to Spain no matter where I am. I felt right at home munching on Escabeche of Monterey Sardines & Young Carrots. Escabeche is a vinegary tomato sauce that I usually associate with seafood, particularly the fabulous canned variety from Spain. The sardine filets rested on an orange bed of puréed mirepoix, repurposed from the stock used to cook pig trotters featured in a forthcoming dish. It was delicious and flavorful, having been infused with some piggy feet and bacon.
It was probably after 10pm when the first seating left the bar so it was our turn to grace the counter and enjoy the show before us. Our first plate at the bar was Hakurei Turnips Glazed in Shellfish Juices with glistening uni and brown butter sorrel. The uni and butter just melted together lovingly and the turnips added a fresh crunch. These delicately flavored turnips were about as big as the tip of my thumb and I felt like an ungainly giant eating these tiny pearls. Somewhere underneath a sun-dappled mushroom cap, irate smurfs are are accusing Gargamel of stealing from the vegetable patch.
Slow roasted guinea fowl showed up to the party with rogue (read: mutant) asparagus, pistachio pudding, chickweed, and a lovely garlic flower. The meat was tender and the thin wrapping of skin around it was nicely flavored. Jeremy explained that rogue asparagus are stalks that stopped growing properly and became stunted. Sometimes they grow a second tip to the side or a beard of grass on top and end up as high school science club rejects (my words not his). However, let me tell you, much like Wolverine (as played by Hugh Jackman), mutant asparagus is tasty.
The last savory dish of the evening featured one of my favorite vegetables in Heirloom Beets El Rescoldo. El rescoldo is an Argentine style of cooking where ingredients are covered with hot coal embers and let to slowly cook as the fire dies. Fox said he learned it at Primal Napa, an event where chefs bring out the big knives and play with meat and fire. Some gentle element must have persuaded him to use this method on vegetables instead and the result was sweet caramelly goodness. Paired with the beets was a crispy patty of the pig trotter minced with spring onions. They kept saying that this dish would put us to sleep from sheer richness and I just floated off to heaven along with it.
Our palate cleanser had another mutant vegetable in the form of young celery. Celery in a dessert? It would never have crossed my mind to separate celery from buffalo wings and hand it over to some oranges for a turn on the dance floor, but oddly enough, the dish was refreshing and balanced. Celery granita, celery stalks, candied celery bulb, dates, mandarin leaves, and delicious segments of citrus melded together beautifully.
By this time, it was around 12:30am but no one was waning in terms of appetite or curiosity and the chefs set the tone of enjoyment as they did not rush us through each course. I love watching people cook and I enjoyed observing the care with which these chefs handled their ingredients and plated each dish with haphazard precision. The two chefs worked together effortlessly like two sides of one brain, breaking the silence occasionally to communicate over plating and joke with one another. Since there were only six of us, the atmosphere was cozy, becoming more relaxed as the evening went on. An event like this inevitably draws out kindred spirits and we were chattered away the night waxing nostalgic and drooling over our favorite restaurants and food stories as we ate. We were also able to interact with the chefs and ask questions about the meal and preparation, as well as get the scoop on their favorite places to eat. It turns out that the seemingly desolate La Piñata taco truck I pass by everyday on the way home from work has the best tacos chicharónes according to James and is cleaner than his own immaculate prep station.
Our final dessert and last course of the night was toasted chocolate brioche with green strawberries poached in angelica blossoms and unsweetened crème fraiche and chocolate custard. It was just like the other dishes of the night — multi-dimensional, and delicious. This menu took three weeks to plan and it turned out to be a wildly creative and eye-opening meal and the congenial ambiance of Commis just made the evening perfect. Before we left, The Doctor asked Fox what his plans were, he replied that it was all up in the air. I hope that he enjoyed his one night stint enough to open up a place in Oakland so that I can eat myself silly on a regular basis.