In Ratatouille, Anton Ego, the long-nosed and terminally jaded restaurant critic, sits down to his meal at Gusteau’s and, rather than ordering anything off the menu, says to his waiter: “Surprise me.” When Ego takes his first bite of the film’s title dish, he’s instantly transported back to boyhood and his mother’s kitchen, all his cynicism upended by Remy’s fresh take on a Provencale classic.
I ate at Commonwealth last night. In a town full of over-achievers, it’s rare indeed to find any new restaurant that’s truly memorable. Commonwealth is such a one.
Tucked into a non-descript box on the shabby corner of Mission and 18th, there’s nothing on the outside to suggest that this is one of the hottest tables in town right now. Stepping inside, we remained skeptical: generic chic, with tables for two set, er, chic-by-jowl.
This is not the place to go for the splash and splurge. At Commonwealth, it’s all about the food. And the food is nothing short of revelatory. In an impeccable series of gemlike small plates — none over $16 — we were treated to exquisite contrapuntal music for the palate, with flavors that were at once both crystal clear, intense, and intricately layered. Move over Glenn Gould.
Just a few examples: chilled soup, emerald green and tangy with mint, topped with shaved summer squash salad and served with two piping hot, perfectly battered, salt-flecked squash blossoms. We dipped them into the soup and when they were gone, we finished up the soup with crunchy bites of salad, thinking this was the perfect opener on one of SF’s rare warm summer nights.
We followed that with smoky porcini mushrooms layered over sweet little snap peas, bites of corn shaved off the cob, smoked bits of turnip and ribbons of a salty spanish cheese that had the toothiness of pasta.
Grilled squid (pictured above), cooked just to the point of translucence, tender and briny, riffed on surf while ham hock nuggets filled in the base notes on turf. The little bacalao balls were crisp little clouds of salt-coddy air.
I usually lose interest by dessert, but the deconstructed lemon sponge cake with thyme ice cream and candied honey — think caramel crackling — had me dropping my head into my plate in amazement. The tables on either side of us immediately ordered the same. The lemon pound sponge cake was really nothing more than a few hand-torn morsels scattered across a “plate”of natural slate rock, but fluffy and fragrantly lemony nonetheless. My first bite of thyme ice-cream had me confused. I was expecting sweet — it wasn’t. Rather, it had the tang of dulce de leche but with the unmistakable fragrance of freshly crushed thyme. The crackly candied honey brought textural contrast and a layer of sweet smoke to this amazing dish.
One dish missed slightly: a decadent mix of buttery scrambled eggs, uni and seaweed brioche, with little bits of pickled jalapeno suffered because the uni weren’t sweet but rather tasted of iodine. There’s no question, however, that they were fresh. Also, an extra bottle of wine appeared on our tab. These things happen. If I have one criticism, it’s that food of this quality really needs to be savored. I appreciate the casualness of the experience and the reasonable pricing, but I would have preferred the plates to come out at a slower pace.
It’s nice to know that even in this city, a restaurant can still come along that has the ability to delight the taste buds in new and wonderful ways. I’m looking forward to going back to Commonwealth and saying “Surprise me” over and over again.