Imagine the scene. These clever guys -- a sort-of-famous chef and a social wrangler -- have a hit hangout in SoHo called Canteen. Now they've snagged a restaurant space in the photo district/Silicon Alley. What to call it? "Give me a word with seven letters that starts with C," says one.
"That's six letters, idiot."
"That's just asking for it. I got it. We'll call it Commune."
"But everyone will be thinking Haight-Ashbury and tie-dye."
"We won't let them think. We'll say it's a tavern for the commune-ity. Get it?"
We're getting it. Commune is not about food. It's barely about dinner, though when he clicks, Matthew Kenney can do wonders. As in a black-bass seviche with mango and jícama, its lime bath softened by coconut milk so you want to spoon up the last drop. But right now, frankly, Commune is about pawing the floor at the bar and looking cute, maybe with a real cute friend so you'll look even cuter. You don't have to be brilliant or say much, since you can't hear anything anyway. It's perfect for a play date. You can always order something to nibble on, something easy to eat, the better to keep your eyes glued to the action. Oooh, it's dark. That's okay, too. I've chipped the polish on my big toe, but no one will see it. Is this cozy, or is this a cattle car?
But aren't I the one who used to rave about Matthew Kenney's food? Yes. Yes. Guilty. Someone at Matthew's on Third used to whip up stylish-looking goodies I just loved to eat. And I did purr over the savory meze plate and pan-roasted Chilean bass with fennel, clams, olive tapenade, and preserved lemon at Monzú, doomed ancestor of Canteen. But the truth is, Kenney blows hot and cold. Day to day and dish to dish. Not that he isn't trying hard. He tends to wander out of the kitchen looking so frail, a door slam would blow him over. It's true the lemmings surged in so quickly the kitchen never had a minute to practice, but a month later, ordering is still a gamble. I love the warm shrimp with avocado, tomato-chili jam, and bacon. His tuna tartare has big-time zip, but the crab cakes are just so-so. I don't get the honey in the grilled Parma-ham pizza. A real salsa cruda rather than just a few cuts of tomato and mozzarella would wake up his summer pasta. But I'd kiss his ring for another go at that dangerously marvelous truffled macaroni and cheese.
One day, the fries are crisp and perfect. Next time, they are sadly soggy. Steak "au poivre," as the menu has it, is not a pepper steak -- the quotation marks should have been fair warning. But Mrs. Mosely's fried chicken, the Saturday-night special, is irresistible, spicy and crisp. We should have called for the check after our cheese platter, because the mutant mint-ice-cream sandwich is a disaster. And the rhubarb-and-strawberry pie seems to be failing. A trifle should be really gooey, not so neat. Yet I can't remember a better apple strudel since Lichtman's was forced to abandon Amsterdam Avenue.
Amazingly, Commune becomes exactly what it pretends to be at lunch, almost serene minus the after-dark tumult. With light pouring in and doors open to the street, it draws the worker bees of the neighborhood. From a booth halfway back with the bare lipstick-red tabletop reflecting a rosy glow, I realize the kitchen is still batting .500, but I'm less annoyed. The salad with blue cheese, spiced almonds, and crisp sticks of pear is perfect. Some fresh cracked pepper helps the pea-and-green-garlic orecchiette tossed with goat fromage blanc. Perhaps the avocado BLT is a fatal concept. Avocado would work as a background for lobster or seared tuna. Here it's cloying. But then comes that apple strudel. And Matthew out of the kitchen looking dazed and weary. Let's hope he's wooing his lunch crowd because nocturnal birds have no pity, and when they catch a whiff of the next superhyped water hole, all they will leave behind are the dregs of their Cosmopolitans and a few bent straws.
Commune, 12 East 22nd Street (212-777-2600). Lunch, Monday to Friday noon to 4 p.m.; late lunch till 6 p.m. Dinner, Sunday and Monday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday till 1 a.m. Appetizers, $7 to $14; entrées, $15 to $24. All major credit cards.