Four months after opening, reservations at The Commerce Inn are nonexistent. The “early American tavern and cookery” with Shaker influences is the latest from hospitality superstars Rita Sodi and Jody Williams, whose previous partnership Via Carota (2014) is still perpetually packed. Sodi also opened I Sodi in 2008 and Williams followed with Buvette in 2011, among other West Village-dynasty establishing destinations.
“Have you been to Disney,” the friend I joined for a recent, rare reservation asked. I’ve only been to the mall store, but he’s familiar with both Shaker fashion and theme park style. The Commerce Inn flies close to the latter and lands the former. Outside, the picturesque little street looks like a sound stage that turns Manhattan into an idyllic hamlet. Inside, white tablecloth-topped tables can be found in the dining room to the left and the bar and tight church pew two-tops are to the right. The space is encased in wood from the floors to the beams overhead with a row of Shaker-appropriate peg rails between.
Mixed font-printed menus include small plates and one main, the excellent roast chicken. The rest of the entrées are off-book specials like fish with shoestring potatoes, rabbit, sliced pork chop and salt beef. The offerings are on a spectrum from after-school microwaved snack to ideal execution.
The permanent bill of fare’s rarebit ($19) is the least successful plate. Rarebit tops toast with a cheese blend. The seemingly simple combination is rich with almost unending possibilities considering the dizzying potential base, spice and dairy or alternative options. But the toast should be toasted and the cheese should be a saucy blanket evoking notions of reconstructed fondue. It's also sometimes served with a lightly torched surface, closer in texture and appearance to a vegetarian croque monsieur. The Commerce Inn’s rarebit is curiously neither. Its thick-cut vehicle is charred at the edges and soft through the center. The cheese seems to have been heated separately and assembled just before plating to Fisher-Price effect.
Pale cod cakes ($24) are puzzling, too. One bite might be dry and as salty as grandmom’s pasta water, the next might be as good as any fish ever flaked, and then you might just get a mouth full of doughy filler. Fortunately, there are much brighter plates ahead.
Satiny bone marrow ($22) could be a culinary school final exam. It soars over the aspic quality that lesser kitchens deliver and lands on the ideal yielding, uni-like texture and inimitable near-buttery flavor that only the best in class ever achieve. It's topped with dainty mushrooms that would be easily annihilated elsewhere, but are perfectly executed here. This, paired with a 50/50 martini ($19), pulls the place into focus.
The salt beef with raisins and carrots is another hit, well-sourced and beautifully sliced with a thin ribbon of silken fat that mirrors the marrow. But the $26 special is a little startling when it hits the table. It’s a modest portion of beef and the number of raisins and carrots would garner too many winners in a jelly bean jar contest. Things cost, as they should. But nobody wants to feel like the goofball who ordered two dainty strips of delicious, but paltry beef while their friend tears into a hunk of that marvelous half chicken.
It’s fun to be able to mix and match smaller plates like a madcap choose-your-own adventure, but the roast bird ($32) is what makes The Commerce Inn a viable dinner destination rather than an erstwhile tavern facsimile. There’s a plump, photogenic leg, and even the hunks of white meat are juicy all the way through, with a deep golden finish and a coating of aromatic herbs. It's served with French fries, the best of which are underneath the generously plated bird and soaked with jus.
Considered in conversation with this powerful hospitality pair’s other operations, The Commerce Inn creatively expands a formidable portfolio. In a vacuum, it's an interesting lark with some real winning plates. In either case, walk-ins are welcome, so, with a little luck, it could be another option for both aspiring diners and devotees of the beloved local empire.
It’s a small world, after all.
The Vibe: The tavern side near the bar is as cozy as a train car. The adjacent dining room is a little roomier and more formal. Service is unrushed for such a popular place that might otherwise transparently turn tables.
The Food: The bone marrow with mushrooms and peak-form roast chicken stand out on the permanent menu. A salt beef special is also terrific, but closer to an appetizer for two in size.
The Drinks: A tidy list of nicely prepared cocktails like the 50/50 martini, bourbon-based Old Commerce and milk punch are $19-$20.
Time Out Tip: Pay attention to the specials. Aside from the terrific chicken, items that most would consider mains are off the printed menu.
The Commerce Inn is located at 50 Commerce Street and is open Tuesday-Sunday from 4pm to 10pm.