COMMERCE: Exacting Charm Far From Wall Street
Commerce is a charming little restaurant on a charming little street in a charming little neighborhood of Manhattan; it oozes history and sex appeal in a former speakeasy turned tavern turned gathering hall. Everything from the location to the service to the menu to the food to the general ambience just works to offer a special dining experience.
The setting is Commerce Street, a tiny curved tree-lined passage between 7th Ave and Hudson with beautiful brownstones, a small neighborhood theater, a few other top-notch restaurants, and a “we aren’t in Kansas anymore” look. Tucked into a corner spot is Commerce, a oddly-shaped bar-restaurant with soft flattering golden light, clustered black walnut tables, stately chestnut boothes, colorful painted murals, and a 1941 Brunswick Bar. The look is nostalgic yet still fresh and youthful.
The menu is contemporary American and so beautifully constructed that I spent a good 15 minutes trying to pick out exactly what I wanted from the long list of delicious-sounding options. Out of dishes such as a classic spaghetti carbonara, sliced rare beef tataki with ginger, braised lamb, red snapper with eggplant and bok choy, and duck and foie gras rillettes with black cherry shallot jam, my party of three ultimately selected the spring vegetable fricassee, the sea scallops, the sweet potato tortelloni, the steak tartare, the pappardelle, and the cookie platter for dessert.
The spring vegetable fricassee was refreshing with small fluffy potato gnocchi lurking beneath bright and colorful vegetables – a good starter for those seeking lighter fare. The sea scallops, served as a trio, were plump, juicy, and buttery – so rich they hardly needed the rich spaghetti squash underneath. The steak tartare was zesty and packed with flavor; while it is not the best steak tartare I’ve had in the city (that honor goes to Quality Meats), it is more than serviceable, especially when layered on top of the crispy salty toast provided.
Made in house, the pastas were tender and almost slippery (the mark of a good pasta); neither the tortelloni nor the pappardelle was too dense or floury. The sweet potato-stuffed tortelloni was unusual and challenging with an addictive tangy pomegranite beurre noisette sauce and a smattering of hazelnuts; while complex, the flavors were striking and ultimately very successful. The pappardelle was perhaps the most disappointing dish of the night but only because it wasn’t as original as the others; hearty and fresh with a spicy lamb ragu, the pasta was satisfying and tasty without being anything special.
Commerce is a sort of dark horse in the West Village dining scene – escaping too much hype (and thus rabid crowds) by flying under the radar; yet, it’s just as good, if not better than, Cafe Cluny, Perilla, mas (farmhouse), the little owl, Bistro de la Gare, and Sant Ambroeus. The food is tasty and accessible yet still inventive; the service is exemplary with friendly and accommodating staff; the atmosphere is cozy, unpretentious, and perhaps best described as ‘special.’ Best of all, the entrees rarely rise above $30, the wine list will boggle you, and you can usually nab a prime reservation without too much advance thought.
Perfect For: catching up with long-lost buddies, a romantic date, cocktail hour at the bar, a long wine-fueled dinner with loved ones, a family brunch