Perhaps chronicling an evening at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Restaurant turned me into a giddy eight year old again, but I feel like starting with dessert. No, that’s not because a doughnut is the first image diners see upon arriving at the restaurant on a still very edgy stretch of Mission Street, a street in the heavily gentrified Mission District where no stretch doesn’t boast a majority of businesses with gated windows. It’s true, Commonwealth’s predecessor at the space was the Hunt’s Donut Shop.
Hunt’s wasn’t exactly the new age style of haute doughnut, perfected across the country from Dynamo in San Francisco to Blue Star in Portland to The Doughnut Plant in New York. Hunt’s doughnuts were meant to be consumed, usually under some influence of something. They were not meant to be eaten and savored. You could get a dozen for a dollar. Talk about a good deal for breakfast each morning, future angioplasties unfortunately cost a bit more later.
There were eight doughnut shops in the eight block stretch of Mission Street between 16th and 24th Street back in the early 1990’s, long before the Mission was on any dining radar for those seeking a James Beard award winning restaurant experience. Maybe Hunt’s Quality Donuts was the best of the box of eight?
I haven’t found any evidence of that. I have however learned that Hunt’s was the “epicenter of crime” for this area with no shortage of drug dealer, pimps, and whatever else happened at night. Hunt’s operated 25 hour days apparently. We can infer what we want from that.
Restaurateurs today love being archaeologists when creating new restaurants, discovering sketchy pasts, uncovering atmospheric layers that showed the venue once was a saloon, or a warehouse, or a 19th century mansion, or a 1920’s brothel, or in this case, Hunt’s Quality Donuts. Before Commonwealth took over the property, the venue was a Mexican restaurant with an exterior decor of flashy orange tiles that covered the Hunt’s signage.
The doughnuts have departed, and fortunately, so has the “epicenter of crime” stigma here at the restaurant on Mission, just north of 18th Street. The theme of desserts, however, has not left the building.
The dessert on my mind is Jason Fox’s interpretation of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, which may or may not have been on Fox’s mind when creating the dish. No meal is complete at Commonwealth without the peanut butter semifreddo, coated with chocolate ganache, and garnished by frozen popcorn. It’s been on the menu since Commonwealth opened in the summer of 2010. It seems to appear on every table, one per person. It’s everything a dessert is supposed to be. You will not share it.Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Dinner is more than just desserts. Commonwealth is far, far more than just the semifreddo.
Scholars like to categorize the San Francisco restaurant scene by time periods. You have the early Gold Rush days of Tadich Grill, Sam’s Grill, and John’s Grill. You have the pristine Chez Panisse 1980’s followed by Zuni Cafe’s beginning, then leading to the California Cuisine period for the city. You have the Stars heyday of the 1980’s when Jeremiah Tower ruled the town as much as Joe Montana. The 1990’s brought the fusion period where every other dish seemed to have a citrus-soy-ponzu sauce and a separate movement around the same time of small plates in loud, faux urban warehouse environs.
Of course we’ve gone through the gastropub and neighborhood bistro phase and the turn of the new decade in 2010 brought some real pioneers to the forefront, led by Flour + Water’s Thomas McNaughton and Jason Fox at Commonwealth. Both brought an invigorating sense of purpose to their kitchens, creating dishes speaking of distinct regions (Italy for McNaughton and California for Fox), that our viewed through a modernist prism, without becoming too complicated in gels and chemicals. It’s sophisticated food that remains approachable. What those two started three or four years ago has now blossomed into a brilliant culture of casual restaurants thinking much bigger than their atmospheres and far beyond the “California Cuisine” we hold so near and dear in this city. A visit to Rich Table, AQ, State Bird Provisions, or Nicholas Balla’s evolution of Bar Tartine are great starts to view this new step in the city’s cooking dialogue.
Speaking of Bar Tartine, Fox was chef at the Tartine Bakery off-shoot prior to opening Commonwealth, though he never received the attention that Balla gets today for his Eastern European inflected cooking at Bar Tartine. At Commonwealth, Fox crafts a tidy a la carte menu and a six course tasting menu of a cuisine he terms “Progressive American.”
What exactly is “Progressive American” compared to “New American” or “Modern Californian?” I don’t believe there is an official Oxford Dictionary definition for the title yet. Perhaps the progressive aspect refers to the modernist techniques used lightly in almost every one of Fox’s dishes. His cooking borrows many ingredients and techniques as well from Asia. The combination of the modern and Asian influences immediately brings Daniel Patterson’s cooking at Coi to mind. And indeed, they both are not altogether different outside of the price point.
Each dish boasts several diverse components, often in unconventional forms. All five senses are considered, with textures being of utmost important. Foraging seems apparent, without going overboard into the most peculiar of weeds and thorns. Modern techniques are everywhere, but this isn’t El Bulli. An olive is still an olive. California echoes everywhere, but we aren’t preached to on the menu about the ingredient’s backgrounds and whether the cows and hens were happy growing up.
Recently, Fox served a dish of “Beets in Different Textures,” accompanied by fromage blanc, pumpernickel, sorrel, and smoked hay oil. The latter two ingredients certainly inspired by New Nordic cooking. The senses are covered everywhere: the barnyard aroma, the crunch of pumpernickel, and the earthy blast beets so joyfully provide.
You may think a dish of sea urchin and trout roe would be a briny, oceanic salty overload. Think again. It’s a delightful twist on smoked fish salads, with lime cream, sea beans, pickled wasabi leaf, all on gem lettuce. The key was the pickled wasabi, a daring addition to a composition that is more orange than the stands for a Dutch National team soccer game.
An oyster dish could have used larger, meatier bivalves, but the concept was brilliant of poaching them in their shells, then adding more of the sea from the addition of a seaweed buttermilk broth. O.k., the dish could have used some more kick from the horseradish to evoke a mignonette. Still, give Fox a round of applause for daring to tie together all of these elements.
The a la carte menu is split into three divisions, with prices always in the $13 to $16 range, and portion sizes large enough for two per person, and small enough and exciting enough that you want three per person.
The middle of the menu presented a homey winter slow cooked egg dish with pumpkin mousse that needed some spice or seasoning to liven it up. It would have been a lost dish if it weren’t for the crunch of quinoa and the umami blast of crispy kale, and it would have been a downright healthy Yoga cuisine creation if it weren’t for the brown butter. Another offering was Matsutake mushrooms offset by puffed black rice (Fox loves the crunch of puffed grains, a recurring motif), shaved turnip, and a Douglas fir custard (another theme: the smoothness of panna cottas and custards). Best from this division was a surf and turf combination of cedar grilled mussels and pork belly. The pair beautifully play off each other with their notes of sea, wood, and earth, accented by a cured egg, the funk of celery root, a pinch of saffron and an unspectacular broccoli bread pudding. Bravo for grilling mussels, something that should be attempted more these days.
Of the final category offerings, the dish of the night proved to be a gorgeous piece of the usually bland sturgeon, atop numerous root vegetable elements bathing in a robust whey sauce. The snow white fish immediately gets perked up by winter darlings Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi and some of the most notable cabbage I’ve encountered thanks to a steaming session in oyster shells. Again, textures abound, and so do the modernist influences without going too far. It’s a stud of a dish, despite the least exciting by menu description.
I adored the exceptionally gamey grilled lamb breast. The lamb looked like a pork belly replica and its abundant salt tasted like a replica too. Small spheres of cauliflower in puree form surrounded the central meat, and dates in a bracing green chard jus, but the pine nut panna cotta on the side didn’t taste of anything, nor did the soft custard end up adding any dimension to the lamb. The one problem with a few of the dishes are that some of the components add intrigue in texture or appearance, but don’t lend much of a hand to the whole composition. It’s great actors that could win acting roles, but the whole picture might not quite achieve what it should. It gets to be too many parts and only 85% a cohesive team. That’s not the status quo whatsoever. It does happen, though.
And the house made potato chips, rubbed with nori, sent to the table with a malt vinegar foam in place of an opening bread plate? They’re fine, but truthfully, the thin, brittle chips would benefit from being thicker. I haven’t dined at the restaurant with a partner or a colleague who hasn’t said he prefers a great bread instead.
Of course, those are just minor detail notes for what is some of the most accomplished, noteworthy cooking in town. Each night is a celebration at Commonwealth, where the focus never veers too far away from the food. Hey, there’s a disco ball above the kitchen after all. I have never seen someone pull a John Travolta after finishing the corned beef tongue. Service adds to the mature yet fun dining room and is some of the best in the city when it comes to pacing and interacting with patrons. The wine program achieves that balance of being heavy on new regions and varietals without being just downright weird and obscure.
Even celebrated San Francisco chef Gary Danko spent his birthday dinner at the restaurant the night of my most recent visit. And points for the parking lot at the restaurants, an absolute rarity in this city of relentless meter maids. Back when I first visited Commonwealth shortly after it opened, the parking was free. Now, it’s $5.
While we’re on the financial theme, $10 of the $65 tasting menu go to charity, just like how the next door Mission Chinese Food gives 75 cents of each dish’s price to a local food bank. Both establishments are co-owned by Anthony Myint, the pioneer behind the Mission Street Food cart a few years ago, and the restaurateur behind the new Mission Bowling Club (home to possibly the city’s premier burger presently). Both the a la carte and tasting menus are steals given the technique and ingredients used by Fox and chef de cuisine Ian Muntzert.
There is no bad seat in the house. You may want to have a perch at the counter watching Fox, Munzert, and their two or three other kitchen team members. Or, alongside the frosted glass windows, hiding the gritty neighborhood’s sidewalks, where it’s a bit quieter. The frosted windows, plants in glass spheres, and brick accents give the room a greenhouse meets storefront feel that isn’t the most welcoming, yet doesn’t ever make you uncomfortable.
It’s the staff and the cuisine that ultimately makes you comfortable at Commonwealth and yearn for return visits constantly. The peanut butter semifreddo never grows tiresome. Ever. On a constantly changing menu, this is the one stand by. It’s literally dessert perfected: smooth peanut butter mousse that tastes nothing like Jif, vivid dark chocolate sauce full of mahogany and maybe even a mint note, a flourish of caramel sauce underneath, and a sprinkling of liquid nitrogen frozen popcorn that dissolve the moment they touch your tongue. That’s the signature for what is San Francisco’s modern day signature restaurant.