Guess what you’ll find at Commerson? Really good Mexican food. Don’t go expecting a Mexican restaurant, though. Commerson’s food is typically Californian, like smoked salmon Benedict, waffles and French toast for brunch, fried chicken sandwiches for happy hour and, for dinner, pasta Bolognese, burgundy-braised short ribs and agnolotti filled with English pea puree mixed with mascarpone. The peas are fresh off the farm, because Commerson endorses the farm-to-table approach.
You might not even notice the Mexican dishes, because there are so few. Each is a gem, though, thanks to executive chef Sal Garcia. Garcia is from San Juan Guelavía, a small town in the state of Oaxaca, and cooks what he learned there.
Commerson’s chilaquiles are like those his grandma made and his family ate on Sundays. Eggs any style come on a base of cut-up tortillas in tomato sauce with roasted guajillo chile. On top are queso fresco, guacamole, pickled red onions and micro cilantro.
The fried masa cakes called molotes will appear soon. In Oaxaca molotes are street food, a Sunday afternoon snack, Garcia says. He stuffs them with chorizo and shrimp and serves them on pureed pinto beans.
Shrimp and chorizo also combine in burgers, seasoned with a dash of achiote paste. The brioche buns are spread with Sriracha mayo. Pepper jack cheese drips over the sides.
If you’ve been to Puerto Escondido on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast, Garcia’s red snapper ceviche may taste familiar, but it doesn’t look the same. There, ceviche is spooned onto crisp fried tortillas. At Commerson, Garcia presents it with plantain chips.
Of course there are fish tacos. Garcia sautees the fish — red snapper — because this suits its delicate nature better than frying, he says. His way is a departure from the classic Ensenada taco, which is filled with fried, batter-coated fish. The Commerson tacos come with pineapple-tomatillo salsa and slaw drizzled with Mexican crema and lime juice.
Garcia came to the United States as “another Mexican dreamer,” he says, and put in years at Spago, Wolfgang Puck Catering and as chef de cuisine at Wilshire Restaurant.
He got the job at Commerson by impressing owner Raymond Eng with a plate of swordfish and lentils, not Mexican food. Eng cautioned Garcia that he did not want Commerson turned into a Mexican restaurant. So Garcia concentrates on dishes such as miso-brushed Scottish salmon with baby bok choy and braised daikon; seared scallops; and Spanish octopus, cooked sous vide, then grilled over charcoal and served with cranberry beans, haricots verts, braised cipollini onions and arugula pesto.
There’s no limit on things Mexican at the bar, however, and general manager Brandon Bernstein is working up a strong mezcal program. He’ll soon have 15, from entry level to advanced. And he’s planning a booklet of mezcal tips for those new to the drink. Oaxaca may be the center of mezcal production, but Bernstein also sources mezcals from the states of San Luis Potosí and Guerrero and from Mazatlán in the state of Sinaloa.
The dessert menu isn’t Mexican, but pastry chef Liz Sencion comes close with a baked Alaska surrounded by mango compote. Inside the meringue are tres leches cake and passion fruit and coconut ice creams. It’s flamed at the table with 151-proof rum.
Commerson is named for Philibert Commerson, a French naturalist who sailed around the globe in the 18th century. The connection is that Commerson the restaurant wants to be just as international as Commerson the naturalist.
Opened on Halloween 2016, the restaurant occupies a corner of La Brea Avenue, just south of Wilshire Boulevard. The look is industrial chic — large, airy, with communal tables, a busy happy hour and seating outside as well as in.
Commerson, 788 S. La Brea Ave., Mid-Wilshire; (323) 813-3000, commersonrestaurant.com. Dinner Tue.-Thu. & Sun., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-mid. Lunch Tue.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Brunch Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Happy hour Tue.-Sun., 5-7 p.m.