Am I the only one bummed out by the closing of the Baronet and Coronet Theaters at Third Avenue and 59th Street? I’m sure those who find ascending the steep escalators of a twelve-floor multiplex its own form of moviegoing climax have no idea what I’m talking about. But back when New Yorkers regarded movie theaters as classy singular sensations, settling into the deep white leatherette seats of the Baronet or the Coronet seemed the only urbane cinematic choice. Plus there was an added bonus: Both theaters let you out smack in the middle of New York’s coolest shop-and-schmooze district. There was nowhere you’d rather be seen swinging a few shopping bags and a Bloody Mary-soaked celery stalk than the blocks of Third Avenue in the shadow of Bloomingdale’s. Pastis on its Thursday best couldn’t muster the air-kiss count during a slow Saturday at Yellowfingers.
These days, driving past the shuttered theaters across from the perpetual hole that was Alexander’s is enough to make me miss disco, or at least the original Fiorucci.
But wait. What’s that I spy through that vast circular picture window on the corner at 61st Street? Look at all that activity – the hugging, flitting, and flirting. All those tables of blondes. And do I see … yes, shopping bags! Could it be that Commissary has captured time in a bottle?
Odd that a room stripped as bare as the stage of a Beckett play – lacquered greige tabletops, sparse art on the off-white walls – sparks with raucous energy. An industrial constellation of a chandelier hovers over the white-topped circular bar. The interior is so neutral it could be rented out as temporary showroom. And yet, not only is its recessed lighting astonishingly flattering but the squareness of the room – cut by the sweeping arc of the bar – affords an unexpected intimacy.
But the most delightful source of invigoration at Commissary comes from chef-owner Matthew Kenney’s wonderfully appealing food. Kenney’s appearance in the mid-nineties won him new-chef awards and prompted him to beget new boîtes with Starbuckian speed: Matthew’s, Commune, Canteen, Mezze, Monzu. And somehow he always seemed to be in the kitchen of whatever restaurant you weren’t in. All the menus read fine, and some rooms had a certain distinction, but the deft flavors originally generated by Kenney’s skill with Mediterranean spices, grains, and roots grew diffuse or were replaced by macaroni and cheese.
But Kenney’s handsome visage and culinary gifts are readily in evidence here. There is nothing perfunctory about those dense flashes of black truffle breaking through the smoky richness of Jerusalem artichoke-and-braised rabbit soup. Sweet diver scallops are embraced by the salty swagger of pancetta and sautéed porcini. An uncomplicated salad of arugula and manchego shimmers in its piquant quince dressing. Goat-cheese-and-mission-fig pizza cannily avoids being cloying by the earthy addition of marjoram. Though crab cakes are meaty, they don’t rate the adjective “spiced” yet, and a pleasant squash-and-cabbage risotto needs an element with heft. But order a double portion of superb hazelnut-crusted foie gras with fennel and currants and say to hell with the entrées.
Of course, that would mean missing grilled lobster in coconut milk and a wonderful goat cheese- filled, mint-flecked lamb loin. I could eat several tureenfuls of the braised duck, but why be foolish and ignore the accompanying grilled breast with caramelized carrots? Kenney’s pistachio-and-anise-crusted halibut never obscures the fish’s silky texture. Roasted cod has a brisk glaze of vinegar and Riesling; thin, tender venison chops are paired with an engaging juniper-and-celery-root gratin. Roast chicken with lemon and sage might be equally satisfying with a more solid partner than the organic polenta.
Only one dessert – a pumpkin-meringue tart at war with itself – misfires. But zesty mutsu apple crisp with caramelized fennel, the chocolate-soufflé cake, a gorgeous pear in mint syrup, and an orange nut cake with gianduja mousse are clean, clear shots. You don’t need to know what I think of tapioca, even with vanilla, coconut, and anise. But that’s a Jewish thing.
Commissary has recharged the sassy fun this part of town once radiated. You may be too late for the Coronet, but come see what you missed.
1030 Third Avenue, at 61st Street; 212-339-9955. Lunch, seven days, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Sunday and Monday, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $9 to $16; entrées, $21 to $26. All major credit cards.