Commerce Street, a secret, twisting couple of blocks in the West Village, is so quiet you can hear your footsteps echo on the pavement. But the white building that has stood at the corner of Commerce and Barrow Streets for nearly a century has had anything but a quiet past. During Prohibition, it was a speakeasy. For 50 years it was the Blue Mill Tavern, and then for over a decade, Grange Hall, a much-beloved Village hangout serving blue-plate specials such as succotash and broiled steak. Now it is Commerce, owned by two veterans of Tribeca’s Montrachet, restaurateur Tony Zazula and chef Harold Moore.
When I arrived at the restaurant on a recent evening, I felt I’d walked into a time warp. The premises, always strong on atmosphere and patina, have been meticulously restored, with wooden booths, brown leather banquettes and the original terrazzo floors. The walls are covered with subway-style tiles and hung with antique sconces and artfully placed mirrors. Eugene O’Neill, who was reputedly a customer at the speakeasy, would fit right in at the Art Deco Brunswick bar, where cocktails named “Daisy” and “Bronx” are served.
Tonight’s literary figures are Jay McInerney and Gary Fisketjon; seated at a table, and crimson-hued above the collar, they are swirling glasses of red wine, holding them up to the light as a sommelier fusses over them and the kitchen sends out extra treats. It’s like Odeon in the early days. The room is packed with a clientele of all ages and walks of life: artists, photographers, families, neighborhood couples, businessmen with briefcases at their feet and, de rigueur in today’s trendy restaurants, posses of comely young women having a girls’ night out.
The two rooms of Commerce are laid out like a fish’s tail. The main dining area is in the back, where the speakeasy used to be, and is dominated by a mural by David Joel, reminiscent of Diego Rivera. Its title, Common Ground for the Sisters’ Story, refers to a legend that the two identical federal houses across the way, separated by a large garden, were built by a sea captain for his feuding daughters. Not true, it seems, but here they are anyway, shown holding plates of oysters and sheaves of wheat, brought together by the harvest.
The plain walnut tables, devoid of cloth or candle, are set with thick blue-and-white china reminiscent of the 40’s. Too many tables are packed into this room, which, like the bar, has abysmal acoustics. Never mind: Roll up your sleeves and shout for another round of cocktails. This is a tavern, after all, isn’t it?
But Commerce does not serve tavern food. The first hint comes when you are brought a napkin folded on a plate and discover inside a selection of small, wonderful breads baked in house: brioche, an olive roll, a ciabatta, a sesame roll and soft malt pretzels, served with sweet butter.
Most of the food is served in the sort of fancy oversize white plates and bowls you get in a restaurant such as Daniel or Jean-Georges, two chefs with whom Moore has studied. Oysters arrive poached in a creamy Champagne sauce laced with diced potatoes, leeks, and caviar. A trio of beef consists of a pristine piece of white marrow bone bleached as white as if it had washed up on a beach, and filled with unctuous marrow, along with a portion of superb braised beef and slices of rare sirloin steak, with crushed cauliflower.
THIS IS THREE-STAR American cuisine. Moore marinates fluke sashimi with chili and lime and tops it with leaves of slivered radish; he serves a lovely seviche of Maine shrimp in citrus and ginger on a pool of orange sauce. His answer to a green salad is a mound of 20 different kinds of pristinely fresh leaves and herbs tossed in a light lemon-and-olive-oil dressing, topped with slivers of sharp Manchego cheese.
His seafood dishes, in particular, are inspired. A filet of red snapper with roasted kabocha squash and charred scallions arrives in a spicy Thai herb broth. Lobster Newburg is served out of the shell in a bowl, the lobster briny and fresh, the cream and brandy sauce not too heavy, on a bed of gnocchi and winter vegetables. Cod comes on a green jus laced with pieces of sweet pea pods, speck and black truffle.
The only dish I didn’t like was the stuffed breast of veal, which was stringy and tasteless. In contrast, the pork tenderloin was excellent, cut in round, smoky slices, and served on a bed of collards with sweet potatoes.
Moore also serves dishes to share family-style, such as porterhouse, roast chicken, dorade or a beef shank. The roast chicken, our waitress cheerfully informed us, takes 45 minutes to an hour after you place your order. I’m sure it’s great, but we passed.
Pastry chef Josue Ramos’ refined desserts include a creamy chocolate mousse, a terrific lemony rice pudding flavored with thyme and topped with a mango sorbet, and a delicate cheesecake with roasted pineapple and lemon balm. A Pavlova, its meringue looking more like a deconstructed Sydney Opera House than the famous ballerina’s tutu, was made with slivers of meringue and tropical fruits on Greek yogurt, with a lychee sorbet.
One evening I arrived at Commerce for dinner after a concert. The people around us, well oiled by that hour, were shouting loud enough to fill a concert hall themselves. But soon the room cleared out, and we felt like guests at an off-season resort, looking over a sea of empty tables set up with polished glasses for the next day. No matter; the food here is so good, it deserves to be eaten in peace.