Things did not start out well for us at Commerce, a contemporary American restaurant on a funny L-shaped street in the West Village. We waited almost an hour to be seated for a 7:45 reservation. Granted, it was Christmas Eve, but that kind of wait for a reserved table is inexcusable and the round of (admittedly good) drinks they gave us for free was insufficient compensation. Had it not been for the good company I was dining with that evening, I would have been quite annoyed.
Fortunately, things got better once we were seated.
The meal starts out strong with one of the better bread baskets I can think of. It features good diversity–epi bread, onion rolls, mini bagels, pretzel bread, and more–all of it piping hot and served with a quenelle of soft butter. You get to practice your willpower and restraint while awaiting the appetizers.
The winter vegetable fricassee was a knockout; carrots, potatoes, mushrooms and their friends over homemade spaetzle in a buttery tarragon velouté with grated black truffles. The whole thing was topped with a poached egg that, when broken, mixed into the sauce for added richness. We had to ask for more bread to go after the last of the sauce, which was worth sacrificing not only the neutral rolls but the more complex breads as well.
Other appetizers were also successful. Delicate hamachi sashimi was marinated in ponzu with thinly shaved carrot and radish, topped with microgreens and accompanied by a ponzu mustard aioli. Light and refreshing. Sweet potato tortelloni were warm and sweet like candy.
At $14, the cocktails were quite good. My choice was the “nor’easter”, made from rum, fresh ginger, mint and lime. It was refreshing and not too sweet, with a deliberate kick from the ginger that almost helped me get over my outrage at spending $14 for a cocktail. Almost.
Since it was Christmas Eve, my friend and I splurged for the porterhouse steak for two. It showed up whole for display purposes, went away, and then returned carved up into thick slices and accompanied by crisp hash browns, creamed spinach and glazed cipollini onions. The meat was nicely seasoned, seared crisp on the outside and cooked to a tender medium-rare on the inside. I would have liked more of the cipollini and the shallot steak sauce, which added good flavor but had to be rationed. More generosity on those fronts would be appreciated. I also think at $96 it is overpriced.
The entree selection also featured tender veal meatballs with a hint of smoke over a bed of polenta. Fettuccini was cut thick and rustic with a simple but intensely flavored tomato sauce and a dollop of ricotta. Both were competent and enjoyable dishes.
The star dessert is a slice of coconut cake the size of your head. It consists of layers of light white cake and coconut pudding with shaved coconut; an excellent treat that could serve 4-6 (we took most of it home). Because we couldn’t resist, we also enjoyed a dark chocolate pudding with a nice deep flavor, not too sweet, and a bowl of peppermint ice cream with crunchy chunks of peppermint in it.
The service was fine, but our waiter was not well versed in the food. My query on the contents of the vegetable fricassee sauce, for example, went unanswered (so when I said before that it had a “buttery tarragon velouté,” I was making an educated guess – do you trust me?). OK, I’m more prone to ask questions than the average customer, but you never know who has a curiosity or a food allergy (or who is a food writer). The staff was a bit harried due to it being Christmas Eve, but I forgive them for that–except for the hour-long wait for a reserved table, which is unforgivable any day of the year.
50 Commerce Street, New York, NY 10014
Recommended Dishes: Seasonal vegetable fricassee ($17); hamachi sashimi ($18); sweet potato tortelloni ($16); veal meatballs ($26); porterhouse for two ($48pp); expensive cocktails ($14).