Sometimes it seems as if the whole of one's existence—trying new restaurants, admiring retro-modern interiors, sampling overpriced local ingredients, hanging out in the West Village, referring to oneself as "one"—could be summed up as Stuff White People Like. Commerce restaurant in the West Village is no exception. On a recent evening, we witnessed dozens of white people shelling out top dollar for expensive food in a casual setting, yet none of them seemed to mind. Why?
For one thing, the food is good. It may be all over the map, with Thai curries mixing with French bistek all on the same menu page, but it's consistently well executed. It's worth noting that Grange Hall had to close because the low prices of their locally-sourced food couldn't cover the rent in this historic space, even when the place was packed every night, but now when a new restaurant comes in with fancier, higher-priced fare, it's criticized as too lofty for its britches. These Commerce Street britches may be casual, but they sure ain't cheap. You can't really fault Harold Moore and co. for their strategy.
Jib Girl, the Sea Wench, and I visited Commerce after the Bruni, so chef Harold Moore, who was in the kitchen at Montrachet before, might have had some more time to work out the kinks. The infamously addictive breadbasket was just as tempting as promised, with all sorts of little buns in different flavors. That night's market special mixed an asparagus and artichoke fricasse with mushrooms, truffle and, according to the menu, poached "hen" (not rooster) egg with fabulous results--all the flavors of spring were perfectly represented here.
The Sea Wench and I split Beau Soleil oysters with green apple gelee, mint, and lemon ice--these were as inventive as something Josh DeChellis might have whipped up at Sumile. The sweet-and-sour tang was interesting, but, as a white person (see photo, right), I secretly wished for something more boring: plain old oysters with mignonette sauce, so that we could better taste the oysters.
"Ragu of odd things"--the "odd things" being oxtail, trotters, and tripe--had the real earthy depth of a good stew. Served with homemade orecchiette cooked perfectly al dente, this was an excellent, rich pasta dish.
If other restaurants serve "elevated comfort food," Commerce seems to take comfort food and turn it up to eleven. Each dish starts as something expected and then gets thrown for a loop. Mushroom and fontina ravioli sounds normal enough, until you keep reading and learn it's served with caramelized salsify (the French "oyster plant" herb) and parmesan emulsion (read: foam). While this sort of culinary sleight of hand can be confusing to white people, we like to be kept on our toes, especially if we can feel like we're taking a risk. Here the risk pays off with an end product that tastes reassuringly familiar and satisfying--this dish is essentially gourmet cheese ravioli.
Both Jib Girl and the Sea Wench went for the snapper as an entree. Oddly for something served in a nouveau-speakeasy setting (though less so when you realize Commerce's secret weapon is chef de cuisine Snir Eng-Sela, formerly of Blue Hill, also responsible for the bread basket), this was one of the best Thai dishes any of us had had in recent memory. The fabulous green broth had real flavor and gingery kick, the snapper was perfectly poached, and the eggplant and charred scallion offset the other elements beautifully.
Again going way out on a limb for a white person, I ordered an entree that featured bone marrow...in the bone. Outrageous! Fortunately, the experimentation involved in eating this rich, gelatinous substance was rewarded with comfortingly familiar food, sliced sirlioin steak. It was hard to believe that this hadn't been cooked on a charcoal grill in some West Village backyard, the char was so nicely redolent of smoke.
By this time, we were stuffed. The various appetizers, the decadent entrees, and a couple pricey bottles of wine meant the tab added up—about $100 per person. You may not find a bargain at Commerce, but you'll find a fabulous meal and a convivial atmosphere. Who knows? With a formula like this, Commerce could be more than just stuff white people like and become a real destination restaurant.
50 Commerce Street, between Bedford and Barrow Streets
New York, New York