Any practiced restaurant flâneur will tell you that when it comes to dining out, first impressions are almost always correct. The look of a room often telegraphs the intentions of a place, even the contents of its menu, before you’ve even been ushered to your seat. Crystal chandeliers and waiters in tuxedos mean a caviar dish or two, as surely as the smell of hickory smoke means pork barbecue. In New York, where dining genres evolve in endless permutations, this phenomenon is even more pronounced. A red felt rope outside the door usually means the room inside is big and dark, Asian-fusion food is being served, and you won’t be able to hear yourself think. The color red on the walls presages stolid Italian pasta, while hand-cut mirrors and yards of brass rails practically scream “steak-frites.” Which may be why the weary restaurant veteran to my right hadn’t been inside Commerce, the newest hot, hot restaurant in the West Village, for more than 30 seconds before she rendered her verdict. “This place is exhausting,” she said.
Of course, she was right. At Commerce, which has been open now for several hectic weeks, all the indicators point to a big-city dining experience of the most glitzy, chaotic, predictable kind. There is the intimate, almost hidden location (on Commerce Street, in the old Grange Hall space), where shiny Town Cars are already lurking along the curb like buzzards, à la the Waverly Inn. There is the strained, jam-packed bar area teeming with cocktail hounds, all breathlessly sipping their trendy, mixologist-concocted signature drinks. The lights in the joint are set low to emit a soft, self-consciously flattering glow, the small, even cramped tables have been placed close together to produce maximum amounts of hysterical energy, and the clamorous noise levels are only enhanced by the brittle white subway tiles that line the walls of the dining room in the timeless, Keith McNally brasserie style.
You’d expect dinner at such a swank, overheated establishment to begin with the usual frisée salad, followed by an innocuous piece of salmon and a pot of crème brûlée. So imagine my surprise when I opened my menu to see that it contained lobster Newburg, squab stuffed with foie gras, and warm oysters served in a delicate stew of caviar, leeks, and Champagne. Our basket of house-made bread was almost shockingly fresh (hot pretzels, baguettes, olive bread), and one of the market specials was “hand cut” steak tartare dressed with pickled ramps, celery root, and horseradish whipped cream. The first dish I actually tasted was an excellent plate of ravioli filled with mushrooms and Fontina cheese and wreathed in a Parmesan foam. The terrine of duck rillettes (with foie gras and thick wedges of toast) was excellent, too, and so were the chunks of soft-cooked hamachi, fiendishly wrapped in salty membranes of lardo. My weary restaurant-veteran friend tasted these dishes, then put down her fork. “This is pretty damn good,” she said.
Not surprisingly, the people who run Commerce are no strangers to the glittering, ephemeral world of flashy New York restaurants. Tony Zazula was one of the founders of Montrachet, and his co-owner, Harold Moore, has cooked at Jean Georges and Daniel, and was most recently the chef de cuisine at the commendable though doomed Upper East Side establishment March. They know that location and look (overlaid with celebrity sightings furtively leaked to the press and other buzz-making tricks) are key ingredients to a successful restaurant launch. But in the end, as Keith McNally and Danny Meyer will tell you, it’s the food that keeps people coming back. Moore is a big-league gourmet chef, and you could argue that some of the food he produces here is almost too busy and accomplished for its own good. Order fresh Beau Soleil oysters, and you will get green-apple gelée and a little sidecar of lemon ice. Order the unctuous, too-sweet sweet-potato tortellini, and it comes with chopped hazelnuts and a superfluous sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.
More often than not, however, the food at Commerce is improbably good. The pasta list includes a deliciously effete version of spaghetti carbonara (with a barely cooked coddled-egg yolk, set in a white Parmesan foam with slivers of smoked bacon) and folds of handmade orecchiette smothered in a richly savory “odd things” (tripe, oxtails, pig’s trotter) ragù. My fussy lobster Newburg was overcooked, but the halibut was done just right (and flavored with speck and truffles), as was the red snapper, which comes with charred eggplant in a gingery lemon-grass broth. If you’re feeling like a poultry feast, order the whole roasted chicken for two ($27 per person), which is served over butter-laced whipped potatoes, with a crunchy bread stuffing infused with foie gras. There’s also a fine hunk of porterhouse to share ($44 per person, with creamy truffled potatoes), and a dinosaurlike, oddly bland beef shank. But the best beef dish is the braised beef and sirloin, which comes with crushed cauliflower and a totem-size marrowbone.
There were some at my table who thought the general hubbub at Commerce detracted from the quality of the grub. I wasn’t one of them. The restaurant is in that golden, early stage of the vicious cycle common to most things that happen to hit it big, however briefly, in New York. The kitchen is cooking recipes that feel fresh for the time being, the Visigoths from across the river have yet to invade, and a kind of bubbly opening-night fizz still pervades the room. For the record, the desserts are as good as they need to be; which is to say, they’re petite, decorative, and designed to be looked at as much as consumed. A sliver of designer cheesecake pastry drew murmurs of approval and disappeared in two seconds flat, and so did the chocolate marquise, which is layered with peanuts and delicately angled leaves of shiny chocolate. But if you like chocolate, the soufflé is the choice. It’s pocket-size and poured with crème anglaise, the perfect dessert for groups of skinny models to pick at, late on a Saturday night, between sips of Champagne, with a skinny silver spoon.