Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Dish on Commonwealth

1400 Irving Street, NW

Although I live just three blocks away from Commonwealth, I’ve held off on visiting Chef Jamie Leeds’ (at right) new gastropub in Columbia Heights since it opened on August 6th. The reason: I desperately want to love the place. I’m a huge fan of Hank’s, and Leeds in general, plus our hood could really use some great new restaurants. But what if it doesn’t blow me away? Or worse, what if it’s just plain bad? Much like a blind date arranged by a good friend, despite the strong credentials I’ve been afraid the in-person version just won’t live up to the hype. However, after getting back to town late last Sunday and feeling way too tired/lazy to cook, I figured it was time to finally make my date with CWG.

First of all, let me say I love the space – from the red “phone booth” doorway to the ample patio seating to the overall mix of dark wood and modern steel…at the very least, this is definitely a bar I can see myself wasting spending lots of time in.

So – on to the food.

A Jewish rebel after my own heart, Leeds’ butcher’s plate is a great starter, and one to which she clearly gave a lot of thought. Beyond the usual charcuterie selections, choices are divided into hot and cold and feature some pretty unique options, including black pudding, house-made head cheese, stuffed trotters and deviled sweetbreads. I went for the latter, as well as the Surrey country ham and duck sausage. The ham and sausage were great, particularly with the grainy mustard and sweet jam, respectively, that accompanied them. The sweetbreads, however, were another story. The first bite was all the gamey tenderness that offal should be; the next bite, all the gamey chewiness it shouldn’t. Though the sherry-spiked sauce was a nice touch, I’ll hope for a better specimen next time around.

As for entrees, the “Sunday Roast” was tempting – for about $25, a pick between two meats (beef or pork when we visited) as well as vegetables and potatoes served family style. However, in an effort to explore more of the menu, my date (aka Rory, my fiancé) and I went our separate ways.

Rory ordered the fish and chips, a good choice: tender flaky cod with a crackly crust and big fat fries, just the way those Brits like ’em. However, as Rory so aptly pointed out, what makes Eamonn’s – our hands down favorite chipper spot – such a standout isn’t so much the fish or the chips, but the variety of sauces available for dunking. A few more selections on CWG’s menu other than the standard tartar would be a welcome addition.

I ordered the smoked haddock cakes and mash entrée which was…ok. The cake, though relatively mild, seemed to be made more of chopped vegetables than fish. The lemony tartar sauce offered a light, bright note to the dish, but overall I was jealous of Rory’s more traditional entrée.

And that’s where my concern for CWG lies – I worry most DCers will steer clear of the black puddings and various pig parts and seek out the “safe” choices on the menu – the aforementioned fish, the grass-fed burger and the roast chicken will most likely see a lot of play. But are those few standards, particularly with their steep prices, enough variety to keep folks coming back? Time shall tell.

As for me, return trips to Commonwealth will most likely focus on further exploration of the beer and apps menus (lemon stuffed fried olives, anyone?) and the occasionally scary pork product. Though there were no fireworks on our first date, this is still a new thing we’ve got going, and I’m hoping we can get to know each other better before I start making judgments.

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