If You Like Commis, You’ll Love CDP Bar
CDP Bar offers a discounted taste of James Syhabout’s creativity and Commis charisma with less formality but no compromise in quality.
Photos by Lori Eanes
The tasting menu at the Michelin two-star Commis — which carries a $175 price tag, before service charge, plus another $100 if you add the beverage pairing — is out of reach for the vast majority of Oakland diners. So, in October 2017, in order to provide a Commis-like experience for a broader population, chef/owner James Syhabout created a 24-seat cocktail lounge next door. He wanted to offer a variety of a la carte snacks and small plates (“bites”) and a four-course Côte de Boeuf Prix-Fixe Menu organized around a month-long-dry-aged rib-eye steak.
CDP, which stands for chef de partie and indicates junior status, shares the Commis aesthetic from the broadest strokes of interior design — a minimalist white and gray color scheme, with no art on the walls, punctuated by Jonathan Adler Sputnik chandeliers, sleek pendent lamps, and burgundy, diamond-tuck upholstered banquettes — to the finest details of meticulous service, subtle flavors, and sublime precision in preparation and plating. The full Commis wine list is available, and you’ll find a couple of Commis classics on the bites and prix-fixe menus.
The CDP vibe is more relaxed than that of the parent restaurant and, especially at the bar, more energetic. But no one will mistake the lounge for a dive bar (or one of Syhabout’s casual Southeast Asian eateries, Hawker Fare and Hawking Bird). Our server, Darren, and the bartender, Ronnie, were both attired in black vests, white shirts, and ties. And the gray-veined white marble surfaces and the super comfortable chairs and low-backed bar stools communicate a commitment to high style. But it is a place where you can feel at ease dropping in on the spur of the moment for a signature cocktail ($13) or a glass of Champagne ($14-$98) and some candied pecans with pastrami spice ($6), lamb tartare ($18), corned Wagyu beef tongue salad ($14), or oysters on the half shell ($22). And it’s possible to engage in convivial conversation with the staff against a musical background of soul and R&B.
For the Côte de Boeuf set menu, however, you have to make a reservation (a ticketing system will soon be in effect) and be ready to pay $75 per person for the shared courses, $50 for an optional wine pairing, and a 20 percent service surcharge. That’s how Robin and I first experienced CDP on a quiet Sunday evening in April. Robin, whose single Commis dinner in 2009 left her cold, approached the meal with an ample reserve of skepticism. But by the time we got to dessert, we were joking about how many times she said, “So far, so good,” each new declaration more enthusiastic than the last.
The first “SFSG” was uttered when Robin tasted her go-to cocktail — a Sidecar, “not too citrus-y” — and sampled the Mardi Gras parade of flavors in the amuse bouche snacks: buttered popcorn with dashi seasoning, green olives marinated in Meyer lemon, and yogurt lemongrass crème topped with smoked trout roe and young ginger. CDP prides itself on its array of distilled wine spirits such as cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados. I tried a Medianoche and was rewarded with a smooth blend of 15-year Spanish brandy, Pedro Ximénez sherry, Amaro Averna, and Angostura bitters, not unlike a rich, silky Manhattan. The featured cocktails change from time to time, and ingredients range from duck-fat-washed rum, sake, and Japanese whiskey to sandalwood, vadouvan curry orgeat, bell pepper, Szechuan flower, white truffle, and marjoram. You can order a conventional martini, but you might want to try CDP’s “Vintage” version with blanche Armagnac in place of gin or vodka.
Our first formal course was described as gem lettuces, Meyer lemon yogurt, pistachio, and mint, but it included shaved radish, slivered asparagus, and yellow brassica flowers. The salad was more delicately composed than a bridal bouquet, and each bite yielded just-plucked feathery textures and brightness. Next came the course that delivered the “this is Commis” message. A domed cylinder of the house-baked Commis levain was paired with a slow-poached egg yolk. The levain was a contender for best restaurant bread ever, with its flaky, blistered crust encasing a steamy, elastic crumb, served with a small dish of herbed chicken-skin butter. The equally legendary slow-poached egg yolk, in which the yolk, cooked to a creamy firmness and sprinkled with coarse salt, rested in the center of a bowl of barely set, buttery, milky onion soubise, with smoked date jam below. Toasted steel-cut oats and minced chives nestled on top against the side of the bowl. (Look on the Internet for the video of Syhabout showing Manresa chef David Kinch how he makes it.)
After that subtly modernist — but playful, not precious — reinvention of toast and eggs (both the levain and the poached yolk are available at the bar for $13 each), the beef course could have been a letdown. We ordered it cooked medium, as a compromise between my preference for medium-rare and Robin’s for well done (this is the woman whose idea of meat at Belcampo was a cauliflower steak).
The chef said OK. Buried under a salad of flowers, herbs, endive, peas, and cauliflower florets, the sliced meat rested in its own juice and was minimally seasoned with salt and pepper. A parsley sauce verte provided a little zing. Even with just a hint of pink in the middle, every tender bite delivered deep, hearty flavors, including the edge bits of chewy fat. A classic French pommes duchesse, combining creamy and crisped potatoes, rounded out the course. On our waiter’s spot-on recommendation, I paired the beef with a glass of Lopez Heredia Rioja Crianza ($18). As a dessert denouement, the deconstructed carrot cake was more of a palate cleanser than a stunning finale. The cake was crumbled into a bed — with candied walnuts, flower petals, and Satsuma wedges — for a scoop of Satsuma mandarin ice cream.
CDP’s fixed-price four-course dinner does afford diners a discounted taste of Syhabout’s whimsical creativity and Commis’ elegant charisma with less formality and absolutely no compromise in quality. “Discounted” is a relative term. With three cocktails and a glass of wine, our bill totaled $271. And a later visit to the even more easygoing bar — to revisit the Sidecar and the olives, and to research the mellow Commis Old Fashioned (cognac, maple, bergamot, angostura), the herbaceous Piñon (mezcal, marjoram, chartreuse, lemon, orange blossom), and the luscious, rustic Country Pork Pâté ($15) — set us back more than $75. (We could have added white sturgeon caviar with blinis for $75 or $135). Both experiences were worth the price — for the affluent among us who can afford to sip and sup at the top of our highly stratified dining culture.
California. 3861 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, 510-653-3902. Serves drinks and small plates Wed.-Sat. 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m., Sun. 4:30 p.m.-11 p.m., Côte de Boeuf Prix-Fixe Menu Wed.-Sun. 6 p.m.-9 p.m. CommisRestaurant.com/cdp-bar, $$-$$$$