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There are ghosts on the streets of New York. They live in crooked sidewalk cracks, in wobbly cobblestones, and in the brick and mortar of our city’s aging buildings. You may not see them, you may not hear them, and you certainly may not believe in them, but their spirits are here. And two such spirits live in the elbow-shaped intersection where Commerce Street meets Barrow. This is where, in the 1830s, two feuding sisters could not learn to live in peace. This is where their brother Peter Huyler decided to do the only thing he could: separate them. Legend has it (with absolutely no evidence to support it other than lore), he built them each a house, one at 39 and one at 41 Commerce Street, with a generous garden in between. As the story goes, it is there that they lived, feuding, for the rest of their lives. The legend of the two sisters of Commerce Street was the inspiration for “Common Ground for the Sister Story,” a Gauguin-like mural painted by artist David Joel that now covers the far wall of the newly opened Commerce.
Commerce comes to us from Tony Zazula and chef Harold Moore (formerly of Montrachet), and it does a fine job of embracing the ghosts of Commerce Street’s two sisters with a mural that offers a happier ending, one of reconciliation and community, rather than dissidence. It also embraces the spirit of its former tenant, the beloved Grange Hall, a longtime deco icon with spectacular cocktails and classic American fare. In designing Commerce, Zazula wanted to preserve that deco-era grace that was the hallmark of Grange Hall, so he sourced an original Brunswick Bar, circa 1941, and restored the bar’s snug wood and leather banquettes and hand-painted light fixtures. The place is immensely inviting. Stroll in for a cocktail at the bar, have a seat at one of the soft leather bar chairs, and you’ll never want to leave. The drinks are beautiful—my favorite is the Brunswick, which combines scotch with fig puree and lemon—but there are plenty to choose from including the Nor’easter (rum, fresh line, ginger and soda) and the classic Daisy (vodka, house-made grenadine and lemon juice).
Unfortunately, Zazula’s gone astray a bit with the design of the main dining room, replacing the original ceiling with one that looks as though it was brought in from a Hilton Hotel conference room. It’s a stark and unsightly contrast to the craftsman leather banquettes, walnut tabletops, and deco lighting that give the main dining room such a sense of timelessness. And if he was going to add that somewhat unfortunate ceiling, at least he could have outfitted it with acoustic tile. Commerce is a noise chamber; I think dining on a tarmac at JFK might be more soothing. I hate to penalize Zazula for this issue of acoustics because so many other very respectable restaurateurs are also ignoring the need for audio care (A Voce, Bar Blanc, The Smith, Market Table) but it’s particularly acute at Commerce. I don’t enjoy shouting so much during dinner that I feel winded and out of breath. Please help.
Acoustics aside, there are virtues to Commerce, which begin with the breadbasket, which I’ve already written about on The Strong Buzz (see There Will Be Bread). This is a masterpiece of wheat and yeast, one of the most impressive and incredible bread montages in the tri-state area. Moore serves fresh and hot homemade pretzels, brioche, olive, sesame and wheat rolls, and he will continue to replenish your stash as necessary during the evening. I’ve been to Commerce several times now, with Craig at the bar before a play at the Cherry Lane, with my graphic designer, Andrew, for dinner to celebrate the relaunch of the Strong Buzz, and with Kiri and Debbie on a stormy winter night last week, and every time I’ve been someone at the table next to us has requested a bread refill. The stuff is truly spectacular. I don’t want to say you should just go to Commerce for the bread, but if that’s all I ate every time I visited I’d be pleased.
Beyond the bread, Commerce is a restaurant that’s trying hard to get it right. Moore’s turning out an American menu that for the most part delivers, but there’s a tendency for food that feels a little too precious for the restaurant. Now, Moore’s a serious talent, a chef who’s studied under Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, so I understand his inclination for fuss, but sometimes it feels forced and out of place. For instance, oysters and potatoes are poached in champagne and topped with a foamy froth of cream ($19). This didn’t really work for me. The result is oysters that are sort of soggy and salty. Their sharp beautiful briny flavors have gone missing in a tepid broth of cream. The chicken ($26) is as tender as can be (it looks and tastes sous-vide or poached) but it’s lackluster. It’s quite pale, almost the color of the potatoes that it rests on, so there’s no life on the plate visually. And there’s no texture either. Moore separates the skin from the meat and serves it in a crisp shard on top of the bird, which does little for the issue of texture. When I tried to slice off a piece to pair up with my chicken, it sort of cracked into pieces, making it hard to eat. The chicken is also served with “brussels sprouts” that have been stripped of all of their interior cabbage leaves. All you’re served are two helmet-like brussels sprout leaves. It’s very upsetting. My question is this: Why? Please return the missing interior cabbage leaves to the brussels sprouts and give them back their texture, flavor, and sense. Another disappointment was a Spanish-inspired shellfish dish, cooked a la plancha. While it was more along the lines of the rusticity I expected from the menu at Commerce, it too missed the mark, as the spicy fregola (Sardinian cous cous) was mushy and the seafood overcooked.
On the other hand, when Moore gets a dish right, he nails it. The rare beef tataki is terrific: barely seared, the beef is beautifully marbled and served like sashimi, and dressed with ginger, soy and minty shiso leaves ($18). His fluke sashimi is also gorgeous and plays out like a ceviche, cured with chili and lime, and given some crunch with sheer slices of radish. His braised beef with bone marrow and sliced sirloin ($34) on a gratin of crushed cauliflower is exactly what I was looking for on the menu—simplicity, flavor, and soul.
We also loved a bowl of house made fettuccini dressed in a summery sweet one-hour tomato sauce topped with scoop of fresh ricotta and a few shavings of Parmesan ($14/$28). We had only ordered a half portion and as we passed the bowl around, and mopped it clean with bits of crusty bread, we considered going in for the second half. But soon, we had more food than we knew what to do with. Kiri, Debbie, and I were seated next to a very friendly table of two couples on the night we were in. After chatting a bit and playing a bit of Jewish Geography, Kiri discovered that she had worked with one of the couples’ daughters and Debbie found herself being set up with that couple’s son. It was hilarious and a testament to the close spacing of the tables. (I’ve never seen a dining room this cramped with tables. They pack ‘em in.)
After getting to know each other, we found it only fitting that we share some of our dinner, so we swapped tastes of our halibut for hunks of their massive Porterhouse for two, served with spinach and cippolini onions with red wine shallot sauce ($44pp). The tastes of halibut ($27) we gave up were hard to part with. It’s a glossy and moist filet, the color of mother of pearl, set in a lush green jus made from fresh peas, peppered with smoky speck, and garnished with a shower of snap peas. The taste of Spring on that cold wintry night was a shock, but it was a welcome one.
While Commerce is not the most inspired restaurant I’ve visited in recent weeks, it is a lovable place and it’s one I found myself returning to again and again. I did so because I really love the bar, I love the cocktails, I love that bread, and I did find some of the dishes on the menu to be very appealing. Commerce also offers very good service and sincere hospitality from an industry veteran. That goes a long way in my book.
My biggest issues with the restaurant stem from the acoustics, an overcrowded severely cramped dining room (they’ve got to take out some of those center tables), and a menu that in some cases feels slightly too precious and for the concept. I remember when Moore was consulting on the menu at August. His food there had more of a soulful peasant style, which is what I expected to find at (and what I think belongs at) Commerce. That’s the sort of food that makes sense for this restaurant, not sous-vide chicken with crispy skin on the side and hollowed out brussels sprouts.
We all have ghosts that we need to confront and deal with. Perhaps Moore is struggling with a few of his own. It’s hard to transition from a classic French restaurant like Montrachet to a more simple American spot like Commerce. I think he’s figuring it out, and finding his way, negotiating a path in a room full of sprits—ghosts of sisters and of restaurants past. It’s tough to get beyond the past. But once you do, the future is there for the taking. I’m betting he gets there.
Review By: Andrea Strong