While it would surely raise eyebrows to deem dinner at Oakland’s Commis a bargain, it’s more than fair to call Chef James Shyabout’s elegant tasting menus a Michelin Stargain. Twinkling with two of the French tiremaker’s honorifics as of 2016, Oakland’s serene, cerebral sevenyear-old culinary jewel box offers prix fixe adventures of eight ingenious small courses (plus a few more bonus bites sprinkled throughout the meal) for $125.
While that’s six times what you’ll spend for a satisfying steak dinner elsewhere in Oakland (more on that later), it’s a remarkable price compared to a constellation of other Michelin-winning prix fixes in the Bay Area: $398 at San Francisco’s Saison, $330 at Napa Valley’s Meadowood, $310 at the French Laundry in Yountville, and $235 at Manresa in Silicon Valley. (Prior to going out on his own, Shyabout cooked at the latter, as well as Spain’s legendary elBulli and England’s Fat Duck.)
Along with housing rates, the cost of opening and sustaining a business in the San Francisco environs have skyrocketed in recent years, to such an extent that, along with young, adventurous eaters, ambitious, eclectic chefs like Shyabout have rooted themselves in more affordable Oakland.
While the cost of living in the Bay Area, including Oakland, has become untenable for many, the region deservedly continues to be a mecca for vacationing foodies with Oakland stepping up its game across the continuum of dining experiences.
Commis provides traveling gastronomes with an extraordinary high-end experience while leaving money in their pockets for more eclectic eating around town. In an austere, open-kitchened dining room of muted colors and lacquered wood, Chef Shyabout and his team present a parade of deftly composed small plates that draw out unexpected harmonies of taste and textures. There’s a studied minimalism to the kitchen’s combinations of vibrant locally grown ingredients, but there’s no molecular gimmickry here. The food tastes great. What’s ascetic to the eyes proves rustic on the tastebuds.
The deliciousness, and relative familiarity, of a Lilliputian onion tart or a cheery orange mosaic of roasted carrots, dried apricots, and marigold petals reduce the intimidation factor of a demitasse of mushroom tea or the juxtaposition of sablefish and ham. Over the course of two to three happy hours, the Commis crew treats each guest’s palate to gentle punches, firm massages, and moments of respite, happily answering questions about flavors and techniques. Luxe but not over rich, dinner at Commis leaves one satisfied and stimulated. 3859 Piedmont Ave., Tel: 510-653-3902 www.commisrestaurant.com
Chef Shyabout was born in Thailand and grew up in Oakland (where his parents ran a Thai restaurant), and it’s the tastes of his upbringing that inform the offerings of his second, far less pricy local outpost, Hawker Fare.
Funky, spicy, pungent dishes modeled on the street food and home cooking of Bangkok and Northern Thailand accompanied by monsoon-strength tropical cocktails make Hawker Fare a magnet not just for adventurous eaters, but for the hip, partying creative class that keeps Oakland’s neighborhood art galleries, app companies, activist organizations, and music venues buzzing.
A rock soundtrack and a riot of color in the wallpaper and table coverings make for a festive atmosphere to follow pineapple-andspiced rum Jell-O shots with sweet and salty papaya and crab salad, piquant catfish curry, coconut marinated short ribs, and crispy rice with fermented pork and peanuts. Wash it all down with a Tamarind Honey Cooler (dark rum, tamarind, honey, lime, and chile) or a condensed-milk iced coffee, and you’ll be perfectly pre-gamed for a night on the town.
The concept’s success in Oakland led to his opening another outpost in San Francisco’s Mission District. 2300 Webster St., Tel: 510832-8896. www.hawkerfare.com
While Hawker Fare made its way west, back across the Bay Bridge, the more common Bay Area migration these days is eastward, from SF to Oakland. That’s the path taken by District, a terrific little San Francisco joint with an enormous wine-by-the-glass program that didn’t just clone itself in Oakland, but stretched its ambitions considerably.
The downtown Oakland iteration expands on the original District’s wine and beer program to also present one of the Bay Area’s most impressive collections of whiskies. You can get an alcoholic education with your edibles here.
Dozens of bourbons, scotches, and ryes are available in 1.25 oz. and 2 oz. pours as well as in flights of three .75 oz. tastes, for which brilliant Beverage Director Catherine Mirabelli suggests food pairings from from a nibble-licious menu of small plates featuring housemade charcuterie. The “Ryes to the Occasion” pairing, for instance, matches a sip of Templeton Small Batch with an oxtail bocadillo, Willett Rare with house-cured bacon, and High West Double Rye with a pinky length of homemade beef jerky.
Crisp-crusted pizzas topped with shrimp and chorizo, juicy two-bite sliders, and a topnotch selection of cheeses are on the bill of fare as well, and an exceptionally wellinformed waitstaff will provide advice on pairings. Comfortable bar and lounge-like seating give the entire venue a lively cocktail party feel. 827 Washington St., Tel: 510-272-9110. www.districtoak.com
Don’t give a cluck about chicken but love your mac and cheese? In the single-specialty tradition of New York’s rice pudding boutique and Chicago’s Meatloaf Bakery (miniature meatloaves baked in cupcake tins and ‘frosted’ with mashed potatoes), Oakland’s budget-friendly Homeroom offers a menu with all kinds of elbow room: Try the Greek-style Macximus with feta, artichoke hearts, spinach, and shallots, or a Smoky Bacon Mac, oozy with cheddar and jack. Yes, you can have a side salad to alleviate your guilt, but then dive back into the childish excess with homemade Oreos and a root beer float. 400 40th St., Tel: 510-597-0400. www.homeroom510.com.