The Dark and Lovely Commune Keeps Models Well-Fed

“I hate ‘foodies,'” said my companion as she settled into a booth at Commune. “I went to a cocktail party for Alain Ducasse last night. Food. Food. Food. That’s all they talk about. It’s so boring. I write about food. You write about food. But we don’t talk about it all the time, do we?”

In its previous incarnation, the restaurant in which we were sitting had been Cena. Every soi-disant foodie in town had raved about it, no doubt providing grist for many a cocktail-party conversation, but the place folded in less than a year. True, the decor was something of a cross between a furniture store and an airport lounge (first class, of course), but Montreal chef Normand La-prise’s cooking had certainly been remarkable.

Commune is the brainchild of chef Matthew Kenney (Matthew’s, Mezze, Monzù, Cafe M., Canteen), in partnership with co-owner Mark Wood (Asia de Cuba, Canteen), but the spotlight here is on the scene, not the food. According to the press release, it’s meant to evoke “an old-world sense of fellowship and community, yet with a menu and design sensibility that is * sic ] completely modern and unexpected.”

So out with Cena’s gray carpets. Out with the stainless steel, blond wood and foodies making their near-forensic analyses of Mr. Laprise’s foie gras. In with chocolate leather booths, lipstick red tables and a glowing back-lit onyx bar along which are perched equally glowing models. There’s no worry about having to endure boring food conversations here. Thanks to its thumping disco soundtrack, Commune is so noisy that, unless you go at lunch time, conversation is virtually impossible.

With Commune, Mr. Kenney clearly set out to repeat the success of the hot spot Canteen, which replaced his relatively short-lived Monzù beneath the Guggenheim Soho. The restaurant, which seats 180 people and has a private dining room for 40, was designed by David Schefer and Eve-Lynn Schoenstein, who also set the stage at bold-face favorites Moomba and Veruka. The main dining room’s leather booths are bifurcated by a high, communal table made from onyx, around which are set 24 leather stools. The table is back-lit like the bar, to an eerily beautiful effect. Logs burning in a double fireplace add warmth and atmosphere, if not light. In fact, it’s so dark you can barely read the menus by the flickering light of your table’s votives. There is something vaguely disquieting, even sinister, about the decor. If this were a bedroom, it would have black satin sheets.

Mr. Kenney launched himself on the Upper East Side with his Mediterranean restaurant Matthew’s, following it with Mezze, Cafe M. and Monzù. The latter was a Sicilian restaurant featuring unusual and exciting Mediterranean fare–with such foodie dishes as monkfish liver rolled in seaweed–but it failed to gain any real following. So Mr. Kenney trimmed his sails to the prevailing wind and reopened it last fall as Canteen, a simpler endeavor that appeals to the club-hopping crowd it continues to attract in droves. Over at Commune, Mr. Kenney and chef de cuisine Christopher Robins are continuing along a similar path. The menu reflects some

of Kenney’s interest in Mediterranean spices, but it is more straightforward, with homey dishes like macaroni and cheese and steak au poivre.

Commune has an interesting and extensive wine list, with a wide range of bottles under $40–not to mention good choices by the glass–from lesser-known producers and “boutique” vineyards. It’s clever to serve three-course prix fixe menus paired with wines for $49. It’s also clever to serve wine-tasting flights–three glasses for around $16–as well as to offer a cheese course consisting of handmade farmstead cheeses (despite the fact that half the people at Commune look so young, they were probably still into Cheez Doodles only a couple of years ago).

A good way to start dinner is to share a pizza. The thin-crust pie was topped with grilled asparagus and a gooey layer of pesto and melted fontina. Also delicious, and in a similar bar-food vein, were shrimp wrapped in a thin slice of bacon, with thick tomato-chili jam for dunking. The crab cakes, filled with snowy lumps of meat, were among the best I’ve had in a while, thanks in part to the sensational lemony tartar sauce. Tuna tartare was made with fresh chunks piled on diced cucumber and served with a lime-ginger dressing that had a good kick to it. It was a better choice than the oddly metallic-tasting ceviche, made with sea bass, mango and green chili.

A spit-roasted chicken was perfectly cooked, juicy with a crisp skin, but it came with surprisingly awful macaroni and cheese. Even a dash of truffle oil failed to rouse this gummy mess, and I was all the more surprised since I had tasted such a delicious version of the dish at Canteen. (Almost as good as my son’s favorite, the one that comes in a packet with orange powder.) But I had no complaints about the steak au poivre, which had a good, beefy flavor and arrived with a pile of crisp, hot French fries and parsley-flecked butter.

The seared tuna with sesame and wild mushrooms was a triumph, served with a rich foie gras-bordelaise sauce, making it a far better choice than the pedestrian salt-baked salmon. I also liked the spit-roasted duck, rare slices served with tart, pickled New York blueberries that complemented the richness of the meat.

For dessert, there was a lovely cold peach soup with passion-fruit sorbet and a creamy coconut crème caramel. While the chocolate cake was dull, the raspberry and fig tart with toasted almond ice cream was wonderful.

Commune was just too noisy for me to want to go back for dinner, but I might stop by again for lunch. They do a terrific lobster roll. That should give the foodies something to talk about. And at that quiet time of day, they might even be able to.

Food, food, food….

Commune

* 1/2

12 East 22nd Street (between Broadway and Madison Avenue)

777-2600

Dress: Casual but chic

Noise level: High

Wine list: Inexpensive

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses lunch $12 to $20; dinner $18 to $27

Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m.; Late lunch 3 to 5:30 p.m.

Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 p.m. To 1 a.m.; Sunday and Monday 5:30 to 11 p.m.

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday 11

To 4 p.m.

* Good

* * Very good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No star: Poor

The Dark and Lovely Commune Keeps Models Well-Fed