Upscale casual is a phrase I’ve heard used a lot lately, often with regard to a new bar-restaurant called Commonwealth. “What does it mean?” a friend inquired. “I get to eat $30 entrées in shorts and flip-flops?”
That is exactly what it means, it turns out. A commonwealth, at least according to the owners of this Washington Avenue establishment, is not a place devoted to the common good, as we were all taught in history class, but one where the wealthy can act like commoners.
Actually, you needn’t be wealthy to enjoy a meal there, particularly during lunch service, when chef Michael Sanguinetti’s heavenly ham and fried cheddar sandwich and skilled seafood gumbo left me, well, sanguine about his dinner menu’s extensive fish and seafood offerings. As day melts into evening, a different vibe descends on Commonwealth, one reminiscent of its immediate predecessor in the space, TQLA, which failed in its four-year attempt to convince Houston of the pressing need for an agave bar, presumably because there was no need.
As I padded past Commonwealth’s bar area on a recent Friday night, there was little doubt that the joint was hopping. Bartenders, though harried, executed with ease concoctions with names like Blood Orange Paloma and Pink Daisy and French 76. Most of the cocktail tables were full, the bar’s youngish patrons having apparently found the perfect spot to drink and text the night away.
The dining room seemed solidly attended, too, as we shuffled in our flip-flops—slap, slap, slap—to our table. Soon enough we’d received our drinks and first courses, discovering that the tomato soup was fine, the mac and cheese—or rather agnolotti and cheese—spicy but tasty too, an inspired marriage of jalapeños and aged cheddar. My table couldn’t resist trying a chargrilled oyster dish called the Houston, so-named because nothing says Houston, apparently, like caramelized onions and bacon jam on top of an oyster. It was not a hit with our party, which didn’t much care for the watery brown slurry created by the oyster liquor and the bacon, although we couldn’t deny that the dish said Houston—Houston Ship Channel, to be exact.
The grilled octopus, attractively plated with squid ink pasta—no horseshoes here—had a nice bite and flavor, as did the morsels of lobster served atop a tangy wild mushroom risotto. Indeed, Commonwealth is notable for paying as much attention to its vegetables as the entrées accompanying them. The luscious potato mousse in particular proved a great complement to juicy beef tenderloin topped with peppercorns.
The food was consistent and the service efficient right up to the end, with the arrival of one of pastry chef Kelly Alsobrook’s creations, simply called milk and cookies. This may seem to you a rather modest choice, particularly for a man wearing his best flip-flops, but Alsobrook manages to lure the dessert into decadence. Five chocolate chip and brownie batter cookies—hot, seemingly fresh from the oven, and flanked by generous puddles of chocolate sauce and toasted marshmallow cream—were delivered on a plain grey plank and accompanied by two plain glasses of milk. That the dessert was richly satisfying was plain to see too—the cookies were gone within seconds.
Cue the ironic conclusion: for all its devotion to frippery and the upscale, Commonwealth is at its best when finding wealth in the common.