March 31, 2008 | Insatiable Critic

Classics Are New Again at Vintage Commerce

That green sauce under the veal is intense, heady, a bit salty. Photo: Steven Richter        

        If splendid food comes first, with points for local idol sightings, we’ll write off the painful din at Commerce and tonight’s over-anxious Mary Poppinjay server, and just shower this historic landmark spot with raves. Hidden away on a curving Village street our cab driver cannot find, this was once Grange Hall and before that Blue Mill Tavern, for fifty years, not far in yards but light years away from the tourist track on Seventh Avenue.

        We surrender from the moment Executive Chef-co-owner Harold Moore’s astonishing bread snuggery arrives warm from the oven, a standout even in this bread-savvy town – olive and sesame rolls, brioche, soft pretzel twists – inspiring the bread abstainer in our trio to eat three and ask for seconds. And most shocking of all, take the leftovers home. If only I’d gotten my dibs first

Reflections in a golden eye and nothing to absorb the din. Photo: Steven Richter.

          From where we’re parked tonight, bombarded with shouts bouncing off all the hard services, we can’t actually see the renovation of this historic space, once a speakeasy – the subway tiles, the chestnut leather banquettes, or the harvest mural by David Joel, financed by Moore and partner Tony Zazula who met at Montrachet.  Also can’t see signs of local literati – Jay McInerney and Gary Fisketjon – but will take Moira Hodgson’s word for it in the Observer.

        We shout to be heard, and marvel at the tingle of twenty herbs and lettuces in a remarkable salad with shards of Manchego and the yang to its yin, a lush ragu of long pasta tubes with oxtail, trotters and tripe. My guest, who would never knowingly order tripe, is head over heels for the voluptuous texture.  (I see they list it as “odd things” on the bill.) 
 A spring ceviche. Photo: Steven Richter.
Sweet Maine shrimp, the season’s first carrots and pea sprouts, bits of carrot gelée are the “essence of spring” promised in ginger-touched ceviche, rather skimpy for $16 but delicious. The transparent crisp flying overhead hardly seems worth the work of transforming tapioca starch, shrimp tentacles and lime zest and then making merry on a Silpat® in the oven. Moore rejects most molecular cooking tricks but he took a class at the French Culinary Institute and he doesn’t mind showing off a few.

        In this first tasting of the very serious kitchen, I am impressed by Moore’s  olive-oil-poached halibut in a heady stew of sweet peas, speck and black truffle infused with garlic and shallot, even though overly salty. Stuffed breast of veal gets a boost from the sting of horseradish and tarragon mustard sauce. Prices are serious too: appetizers $11 - $19, entrees, mostly less than $30 ($44 pp for porterhouse listed in “Things to Share”).

        Pastry chef Josue Ramos aims to startle with celery salad alongside chocolate peanut butter marquise. The roasted pineapple cheesecake is Barbie-on-a-diet size. And let’s give a STAR to Mary Poppinjay.  She takes my drink, “The Bronx,” her recommendation, off the check when she asks why I haven’t touched it.  “Just hated it,” I confess. I am happy with a sip of my pal’s lively “Nor’easter”  –rum, fresh ginger, lime, soda and honeycomb - and nurse a $10 Dolcetto instead.


50 Commerce Street near Barrow. 212 524 2301 Open 5:30 P.M. seven days. Dinner seven nights a week from 5:30 until 11:00 p.m. from 5:00 p.m.  Sunday.