When you think of Michelin-starred restaurants, places like Paris, Tokyo and New York City come to mind. What about a city like Oakland? Not so much. Which makes Thailand-born Chef James Syhabout’s rise in the culinary world all the more impressive. Four months after opening the doors of Commis on the bustling, yet often overlooked, Piedmont Avenue, it was awarded a coveted Michelin star, being the first and, so far, only restaurant in Oakland to boast such an accomplishment. The menu, driven by Chef James’ imaginative palate, flows with what’s fresh and available each season, changing on a daily basis. All dishes are prepared with locally grown, harvested, and foraged organic ingredients. Some of the dishes that have graced Commis’ three-course prix fixe menu include Cured Mackerel with Shaved Daikon in a Tuna-Confit Broth, Braised Cardoon with Oyster Emulsion, Dungeness Crab and Dill Weed, and Lamb Roasted with Eucalyptus, Caramelized Sunchoke and Confit Beetroot. With only 35 seats and an open kitchen, dining at Commis is an intimate gastronomy event.
In contrast to Commis’ concept is Chef James’ latest restaurant: Hawker Fare. Also located in Oakland, Hawker Fare (named after open-air food courts that can be found throughout Asia that feature many booths selling inexpensive food) serves up Southeast Asian street food in a more casual setting. The location itself was once home to a Thai restaurant owned by Chef James’ mother. At the heart of Hawker Fare’s menu are seven rice bowls which include Kao Mun Gai (poached chicken over garlic rice served with a salted mung bean sauce, fresh cucumber and cilantro leaves), Gai Yang (lemongrass style chicken, served with macerated chiles with lime, garlic and fish sauce), “Issan” Sausage (grilled spicy pork with braised pork skin, coriander, garlic and lemongrass, chili glaze), 24hr Pork Belly (Berkshire pork “tom kiem” style, five spice and sweet soy with preserved vegetable mustard), “Satay” Beef Short Ribs (marinated in coconut milk with turmeric and garlic then grilled, savory peanut sauce), “Vadouvan” tofu (Hodo Soy Beanery tofu braised in coconut milk and house fermented spices, aromatic herbs) and “Kao Piak” (rice congee with 1000 y/o eggs, ginger and scallions with chicken cracklings and fried garlic). Although the atmosphere may be quite different from Commis, there is no lack in quality as local, sustainable and organic ingredients are used whenever possible.
So the next time you find yourself on the Bright Side of the Bay, check out Commis for an extraordinary dining experience or crack open a bottle of Singha while chowing down on some comfort food at Hawken Fare. Either way, the imagination of Chef James won’t disappoint.