Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dinner @ Commonwealth

Tonight I had a special visitor in town: my cousin!  I wanted to take her somewhere to really show off San Francisco dining, but unfortunately, almost everywhere on my (very extensive) list is closed on Mondays.  I settled on Commonwealth, a place I'd been wanting to check out, but had never been high enough on my list to actually make it.

Commonwealth is a "Progressive American" restaurant, using seasonal ingredients, innovative cooking techniques (liquid nitrogen, souz vide, etc) and plenty of foams/mousses/gelees/etc.  The plating is fairly intricate and there are many components listed on the menu for each item.  Dishes are designed as "medium" plates, not exactly small plates and not exactly full size entrees. This category of restaurant is often amazingly disappointing, unless in the very top tier, so I was a little skeptical going in, and was very pleasantly surprised.  Everything was really quite good!  See below for reviews of the individual dishes.

A few major scoring points:

  • The components in the dishes really worked well together.  While there were many things on each plate, they combined into really amazing bites.  Someone clearly thought through the flavors and textures here.
  • Complimentary house filtered water or sparkling water. 
  • Service was spot on: Water glasses always refilled as needed, never too often to be annoying, never felt the need to conserve my water.  Plates were cleared soon after finishing, never so quickly it felt rushed, but never sitting there for long.  The pacing of the meal was spot on.  We were sharing things, and share plates and servingware were always replaced.
  • Really great atmosphere and vibe.  They somehow hit this perfectly - comfortable and casual, yet with excellent service and food. 
  • I didn't try it, but they do a 6+ course tasting menu for $65 ($95 with wine pairings) that looked like an incredible value (6 courses, including a course with a generous piece of seared foie gras, multiple amuse bouches, etc).  And they donate $10 of each tasting menu to a local charity.
  • Excellent value for the money!
This was a very successful meal and I'd very happily go back here.  I wish it were in my neighborhood!

House made potato chips with nori powder and vinegar mousse.
This was a nice change up from bread and butter.  Provided basically as soon as we sat down.  The chips were decent housemade chips, thin and crispy, with some nori powder on them.  The mousse to dip them in was intensely vinegary, and allowed you to create your own version of salt and vinegar chips.  Nothing to go out of your way for, but definitely fun, playful, and unique.
Root vegetable terrine, crispy maitake mushrooms, horseradish, shaved salad
This one was my cousin's choice.  I'm a little sick of root veggies so I wasn't super excited about this, but was surprised by how tasty it was. A lot of excellent flavors in here.  The shaved salad on the side was light and fresh, featuring some greens, radishes, carrots in a light refreshing dressing.  The terrine was filled with assorted cuts of cooked root vegetables (beets, turnips, parsnips) and was beautiful as well as quite flavorful.  The horseradish (the dots of puree on the plate) was what really made this dish, pairing perfectly with the root vegetables and giving a great kick to any bite you included it in.  I wasn't a fan of the crispy maitake mushrooms, there was too much tempura batter and too much of an oil taste to them, I didn't really taste the mushroom at all.
Sturgeon, brussel sprouts, ham hock, cauliflower, pumpernickel bread crumbs, tangerine 
This was our joint choice as we both wanted a seafood dish.  The sturgeon was well cooked, but not particularly notable.  The brussels sprouts however were fantastic!  (And I've been pretty sick of brussels lately).  They were served as individual leaves, lightly sauteed, with a great crispness to them.  The pumpernickel bread crumbs were also particularly noteworthy, crusting the fish and giving a great textural crunch to bites.  I probably wouldn't order this again, but it wasn't bad.
Egg custard, sea urchin, ginger,  mushrooms, sweet potato, wild greens, seaweed brioche 
This one was my choice, as I've been on a bit of an uni kick lately.  I've had a couple uni + custard dishes in the past few weeks (the uni cream brulee at Quince, the chawanmushi at Kiss Seafood), and I must say, I'm really starting to like this sort of thing, it is turning into a comfort food for me.  This preparation was good - a nice creamy custard with cubes of cooked sweet potato and tiny mushrooms in it, topped with ginger and scallions, some sort of foam, and of course, uni.  The flavors all combined together very nicely and I enjoyed the play of the textures.  The uni itself was not as flavorful, creamy, nor buttery as I would have liked, certainly not as good as the uni I have had at a lot of sushi places lately, but it was decent.
Blood orange sorbet, chantilly cream
Complimentary palate cleansers brought by the waitress.  The tables around us were all doing tasting menus (or were friends of the owners), and she didn't want us to be left out.   I'm so glad she brought us these!  Each was a very generous size, and easily could have qualified for a full on dessert at any restaurant.  The blood orange sorbet was among the best sorbets I've ever had.  I don't normally care that much for sorbet (it is usually just boring ... why have sorbet when you can have ice cream?  Or baked dessert?), but this was really refreshing and had a great tart flavor from the blood orange.  And it paired absolutely perfectly with the cream.  Really, really good.
Frozen chicory mousse, bruleed bananas, candied maple, clove yogurt 
This was my least favorite dish of the evening.  We ordered it only because I'd read great reviews on Yelp! about it (seriously, I should know better than to trust the yelpers by now!).  It was interesting, a frozen mousse sphere with a thin shell that broke apart when you cut into it, but I didn't really care for the flavor nor the texture.  The bruleed bananas were nicely caramelized on the outside, but weren't really that great.  The little crispy bits of candy were fantastic, reminded me of hokey pokey.
Peanut butter semifreddo, chocolate ganache, frozen popcorn, caramel
The winning dish of the evening!  My cousin and I were talking about how restaurant desserts are often not that impressive and usually aren't worth it.  And then this arrived.  ZOMG.  This was sort of like an upscale frozen Snickers bar.  I have no idea what the frozen popcorn was made out of, but it was basically salty frozen soft chunks of ... something.  You wouldn't want to just eat a spoonful of it, but you could mix in as much as you wanted with the other components to create sensational bites, as salt mixes perfectly with all of the other components: salty chocolate, salty peanut butter, salty caramel, you get the idea.  The main "bar" had a bottom crust of chocolate cookie, then a peanut butter semifreddo, all dipped in chocolate ganache.  Chocolate and peanut butter obviously go fantastically together, but even among this category of treats, this rates better than most.  The semifreddo had an incredibly intense peanut flavor and was a fantastic texture.  The cookie crumble on bottom again added a nice texture and more flavor.  And the chocolate ganache was fun to break through and was high quality dark chocolate, adding even more layers of complex flavor.  Add in some of the caramel sauce ... ah, near perfection.  Sweet, salty, perfectly balanced flavors.  I'd go out of my way to eat this one again!
Commonwealth on Urbanspoon
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