The Twitterverse: Can A Critic's BF Be the First to Tell?


Any chef in town that recognizes SF Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer (the majority) knows Michael Murphy’s face almost as well. Murphy is not a food writer but he holds sway for one reason: He’s Michael Bauer’s longtime partner and fellow diner for many a review meal.

Murphy (@curiousmikie) has started twittering and much of it is about dining out with MB; he's given a shout-out to well-known chef David Lebovitz, asking him to join MB and himself for a "review dinner" when he’s in town. One recent tweet from September 12 is written under the guise of being discreet, yet makes a point of being very clear which restaurant Murphy’s talking about. (Clearly, he doesn’t say the name of the restaurant because that would be unprofessional, even though criticism is not his profession.)

Underwhelmed by latest food church in Oakland.Entire meal in 70 min. Left Broke ($100 person)+Hungry (sm portions)+Sober (VERY sm pours).

I have to assume that the restaurant under fire is Commis (could it be anything else?), James Syhabout’s new, Piedmont-based restaurant that Bauer has yet to review. My guess is that we’ll see it this Sunday or soon after. (If Murphy is not referring to Commis, I pity whatever restaurant he is.)

I was in Commis just over a month ago and Syhabout told me that Bauer had been in twice already and he was waiting for him to arrive for this third.

It disappoints me to see Commis get such a pot shot—140 words or less nonetheless—from Murphy. (First of all, getting drunk during a fine-dining meal is not the point, and if he was indeed dining with Bauer, clearly the Chronicle’s expense account took care of it, not Mr. Murphy.) Technically, Murphy’s opinion should hold no weight beyond his own, but we all know that it’s likely a precursor to Bauer’s review. Why else would Murphy choose to (barely) cloak the restaurant’s name?

My recent meal at Commis, on the other hand, was beautiful—one of the best fine dining experiences I’ve had in a long time. Syhabout’s food, not surprisingly, has many elements of chef David Kinch’s of Manresa (this is where Syhabout was last). It’s a bit ethereal, rooted in traditional technique but also very California in its freshness.

Commis only offers a three-course pre-fixe menu for $59 ($29 extra for those “skimpy” wine pairings, which doesn’t seem unreasonable to me). We had dishes like soft farm egg with potato and fermented black garlic, gorgeous lamb with beans, an out-of-this-world refreshing melon soup for dessert. It’s food more complicated than this of course, something you have to taste to get. Something a tweet could not sum up.

But more than anything, it’s Syhabout’s concept for Commis that makes me think what he’s doing is right on the mark. I’ve done a lot talking about the state of fine dining in this economy and I think Commis might be the answer. It’s a perfect blend of casual and fine.

In the tiny, minimalist space, you can choose to sit at the counter overlooking the small kitchen where Syhabout and his two cooks, work, all business, tweezers out, bent over each of your plates working hard to make magic that’s normally done behind closed doors.

The small three-course menu, to my mind, is something to be applauded. I think it’s a sign that the chef’s ego is in check. (I also think it’s nice to be able to pay $60 for a fine dining experience rather than shelling out $120 for a whopper-sized meal.) Yes, a 12-course tasting menu is impressive, but mostly because it takes skill to execute well; it makes the chef look impressive. It has nothing to do with the diner’s experience. (How many times have you read French Laundry and such reviews that are followed by side notes about the gastrointestinal pains the diner felt after the last bite of petit fours, in a kind of Anthony Bourdain moment?)

I didn’t leave Commis hungry nor achingly full. I left content with my whole experience. I'll be curious to see what Bauer has to say about it. I could be wrong, but for some reason, I think I already know.

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