“Are we in Charlottesville or New York?” my friend asked as she joined us at one of the throne-like circular booths in Commonwealth’s dining room. She and I, both six-year denizens of New York restaurants, were reminded of some of our old haunts, which managed to make large and soaring feel warm and welcoming. The new anchor to Downtown’s Fifth Street underwent such a transformation this summer that it’s hard to remember that it stood a dusty shell for five years after A&N moved out.
Although the gutting and rebuilding process was a huge undertaking, it went fast in restaurant terms, and the various partners and investors spared no expense. On a pre-opening tour with partner and executive chef Alex George, I noticed that there was none of the used restaurant equipment or hand-me-downs that help keep overheads low. A massive walk-in for beer had been built, a dumbwaiter to send food up to the skybar was ready to go, penny tiling had been expertly laid in the bathrooms, and copper trim reflected glints of light. In the kitchen, there were stacks of pristine pots and pans in every size. The paper was off the large picture window that would give the kitchen staff a view of the world outside and passers-by a view of the action within.
After four months of business, everything’s still super shiny. The restaurant’s skybar (albeit a modest 20′ above street level) continues to hop and even on the cold, rainy night of our visit, imbibers ascended the staircase for a night of revelry tucked in a plastic cocoon amidst space heaters. The dining room was bustling too, with diners nestled warmly inside watching rain fall outside the window wall. Glowing, flickery light makes everything look sexy—the place, the food, the wine, the company—and service is attentive without being obtrusive or obsequious.
Had we not the pleasure of dining with Ox-Eye Vineyards owner John Kiers, who brought his old-world style wines, we would have been tempted by Commonwealth’s large selection of craft beers or a specialty cocktail like the “As American As,” which combines Wild Turkey with maple-butternut shrub and cranberry bitters. While the wines-by-the-glass list offers nothing out of the ordinary, the bottle list is extensive, with about a dozen half-bottle choices.
The food, which reflects George’s Guyana upbringing, is playful, and every dish includes at least one unexpected ingredient. The house salad combined long hearts of romaine with mandarin oranges, shaved pecorino, and toasted hazelnuts in a punchy cilantro vinaigrette. A cheese plate featured honeycomb, artisanal takes on familiar cheeses, and two types of delicate flatbreads.
The appetizers were inspired, lusty, and filling. We had little piles of ginger-braised pulled pork atop crispy yam croquettes (1); fluffy crepes rolled around a mixture of Belgian ale-braised rabbit and cheddar with a sauce of roasted figs; seared diver scallops with chorizo, arugula, and dill (2); and flaky empanadas stuffed with skirt steak and served with a sweet, spicy corn salsa. All appetizers cost between $7 and $13.
We could have happily ended our meal there with our stomachs full (but not aching) and with wine that was complimenting everything so well still in our glasses. But main courses—especially meat-centered ones—are so prevalent that we each ordered one. All were well-prepared and had that one unexpected component (a crispy half-chicken came with sweet plantains and violet mustard sauce (3) and a grilled pork chop was topped with a reduced sauce of chorizo, tomatoes, and mushrooms), but they were far more than we wanted and became tiresome after three bites. The one veggie entrée on the menu was the table’s favorite. Commonwealth’s curried chickpeas (4) raise the humble legume to holy heights in a complex and fragrant dish that we couldn’t get enough of—and it was only $13, instead of $17-26.
Americans still consume more meat than any other nation, but that’s been on a steady decline. In fact, the department of agriculture predicts a 12.2 percent drop this year. So, why are restaurants still serving 10-ounce pork chops and 16-ounce rib eyes? Probably because we’re still ordering them. More and more though, a chef shines in his smaller plates, where it’s quality of flavors over quantity of food and where a little bit of meat goes a long way. This was certainly the case at Commonwealth, where we’ll return for tasty appetizers and drinks in a setting so cosmopolitan that it makes even city slickers feel at home.—Megan Headley
(Photo by Andrea Hubbell)
Commonwealth’s Curried Chickpeas with Mustard Greens
4 cups garbanzo beans
2 tbs. tomato paste
2 tbs. garam masala
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tbs. cumin seed
2 tbs. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. cayenne
1 bunch mustard greens
8 curry leaves
1 Vidalia onion, diced
3 tbs. clarified butter
In a big pot, sauté diced onions in clarified butter with spices and salt until browned. Add garbanzo beans and enough water to cover them. Add tomato paste and cook until mixture begins to thicken. Cook mustard greens separately in simmering water for 30 minutes until tender and then add them to the chickpeas. Cook on very low heat for about an hour. Add curry leaves, and salt to taste before serving over basmati rice with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche.