Restaurant Review: Dinner @ Commonwealth, San Francisco

Asterisks denote all of the dishes ordered; the red asterisks were my favorites. Click the menu image for the full-size scan.

Among the hip new restaurants that have opened in San Francisco this year, Commonwealth certainly has more pedigree than most. Located near the corner of Mission and 18th, Commonwealth arrived with instant neighborhood cred, being the new venture of executive chef Jason Fox, who solidified his reputation at Bar Tartine, just two short blocks away. I have several friends who live and cook in the city — old cronies from when we all cooked in Napa restaurants — and I rely on these chefs for their local insight (and an occasional inside scoop, when I can get it). A couple weeks ago, I texted a simple question to my buddy over at Baker & Banker: “What restaurants in San Francisco are really on the rise?” I wasn’t surprised that Commonwealth made his short list, and we decided to investigate the restaurant for ourselves this week.

At dinner on Tuesday, we covered almost all of Commonwealth’s regular menu, save just three dishes. Much like Ubuntu in Downtown Napa, Commonwealth really lends itself to this comprehensive approach to dining, and the similarities between these two restaurants were noteworthy to me. For instance, neither restaurant features a dish over $20, and both restaurants offer small, tapas-style plates, but with an inspiring array of flavors married into each dish. Both restaurants also excel in plate presentations, although in terms of overall scope and ambition, I still feel that Ubuntu pushes the envelope further, coaxing fantastic flavors from a palate of just fruit, vegetables, and dairy items. Commonwealth certainly holds its own, however, and I can’t ever knock a restaurant for offering duck confit or pork belly.

The menu at Commonwealth is divided into four basic sections: appetizers, vegetables, seafood, and meats. If I were to revisit this particular menu, I would skip the apps altogether and order the complete trio of meat dishes. In hindsight, I have a feeling that not ordering the pork with mustard greens might’ve been a missed opportunity, but the duck confit and the lamb cheeks were excellent. Among the seafood dishes, I did enjoy the sea urchin, but for the sake of being selective, I’ve limited my very favorites to the squid-pork belly and the ocean trout. For me, the trout was probably the biggest surprise of the night, featuring sublimely fresh slices of the briny, ruby-red fish. The squid-pork belly dish featured the best version of egg salad that I have possibly ever tasted (although I’m not partial to any treasured family recipes, either). The other dish that really impressed me was the Asian pear salad, which proved surprisingly rich with the addition of cured ham and soft, smoky cheese.

Over the course of the meal, I ordered several wines by the glass — no less than six, actually. With the holidays on the horizon and good friends at the table, it was just that kind of a night, I suppose. Commonwealth offers about a dozen by-the-glass pours in total, with all kinds of interesting and eclectic options (I say this, perhaps, because only two of their wines hailed from Napa Valley). The six selections I tasted last Tuesday were: a Gruner Veltliner by Huber, a Sauvignon Blanc by Cep, a Cava by German Gilabert, a Cab Franc by COR Cellars, a Negrette (of all things) by Château Flotis, and a 2007 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from Stoller’s JV Estate. All in all, the last wine stood out the most; but I’ll need to revisit Stoller with a fresh palate, just to make sure that it’s as delicious as I barely remember.

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