An entrepreneur starting an Eritrean or Tibetan or Surinamese restaurant in New York can, by settling in the right neighborhood, count on a built-in audience of people who grew up on the food and presumably will give it at least one whirl. Not so for anyone setting up a Shaker-inspired restaurant, as Jody Williams and Rita Sodi have done on Commerce Street in the West Village.
Though the two have never had trouble drawing a crowd, their three-month-old restaurant, Commerce Inn, will have to get by without major support from members of the Shaker faith. At last count, there were three, all of them living at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Gloucester, Maine. By all accounts, they rarely if ever venture into Manhattan to have a look around the latest hot spots.
On the plus side, Ms. Williams and Ms. Sodi probably don’t have to worry about angry Shakers mobbing them on social media to tell them they’re doing it all wrong.
The long, crooked space they have taken over, located by the right angle that Commerce takes just past the Cherry Lane Theatre, seems to keep going farther back in time with each incarnation. Before the 1990s, it was the Blue Mill Tavern, a local hangout with Portuguese and American food and a dining room that looked as if it hadn’t been touched since the place opened, in 1941. When it reopened in the early 1990s as Grange Hall it looked several decades older, with an Art Deco motif that lasted, in some form, through subsequent changes of name and ownership.
Now the interior has jumped back to an earlier century of Americana. It could be a stage set for “The Crucible.” There are tight little single-seat pews in the bar, known in Commerce Inn parlance as the tavern. The dining room has spindle-back chairs, a wraparound deacon’s bench and peg rails to hang coats on. This furniture, built for the restaurant in the undecorated Shaker style, is more comfortable than its penitential appearance suggests.
Still, the dining room is not a place that invites you to linger for hours, as people do at Buvette (the warren of Francophilia built by Ms. Williams) and Via Carota (the antique-strewn trattoria she dreamed up with Ms. Sodi). Candles burn in the tavern windows but not in the dining room, where flickering shadows might help dispel the Protestant severity.
But nothing about Commerce Inn was designed for romantic evenings or, for that matter, businesslike Tinder vettings. If that had been the idea, I doubt that the short menu would be set in a font I last saw at Colonial Williamsburg, or that right in the center of that menu would be, on a line of its own, a family-size portion of baked beans.
OK, the restaurant calls them Shaker beans. And they are likely to be the best baked beans you will find in New York. They are soft but not disintegrating, they are rich with the liquefied fat of pork belly and they simmer in enough molasses to give them a coffee-like bittersweetness, but not so much that they taste like dessert.
Still, when you eat them, you might recall that the Shakers abstained from both sex and marriage, and that Shaker men and women ate their meals at separate, elegantly constructed tables before retiring to separate, sparsely furnished sleeping areas.
Only the beans are specifically identified as Shaker. Ms. Williams and Ms. Sodi must have studied both Shaker and non-Shaker cookbooks to arrive at items like raw oysters dressed with sweet, oniony brine meant for bread-and-butter pickles; spoon bread, half pudding and half cake, served from a big oval baking dish; and slender chilled leeks turned with cream and grated horseradish.
What we are really talking about here is pre-Depression Northeastern farmhouse cooking that descends, like Shakerism itself, from England, but has been rigorously edited because who, after all, wants to eat some of that stuff these days? There is certainly less cream than Great-Grandmother Wells cooked with. And I imagine she would have taken one look at the crisp, bright-green shaved brussels sprouts that Commerce Inn covers with hot bacon vinaigrette and wondered why they had been taken off the heat before they’d had a chance to turn gray. When you taste them, you will know.
But she would have been reassured by the meats, which are very brown and, with the exception of a tough and awkwardly carved veal rib, very good. The only one permanently on the menu is the roasted chicken, rubbed with herbs and interspersed on the plate with thick fried potatoes that become wonderfully soggy with chicken juices.
The others are written each day on chalkboards hung below the peg rails, with prices that are generally in the 30s. This seems high until you see the size of the platters. If you are in luck, you may find several bricks of slowly roasted pork seasoned with thyme and served with big, honey-colored pieces of skin that you can chew, slowly and appreciatively. Or a slab of pickled beef tongue, boiled to tenderness and then seared in cast iron until it is as brown as meatloaf. The patiently roasted veal breast offered recently gave a rare taste of a cut that has all but disappeared from American tables.
Although the restaurant has been in business since December, it gives the impression that it is still groping its way toward flavors that, in many cases, have to be surmised from cookbooks. When I go back to Commerce Inn, it will be because I’m curious how spring and summer vegetables are woven into the menu alongside those main-course blackboard specials.
I’m less likely to return for the brief regular menu, which has an inordinate number of disappointments. The chowder needed more potatoes, and lobster meat that hadn’t been overcooked. The so-called rarebit was more like melted and congealed Cheddar on toast. And while the cod cakes were very fluffy, they didn’t hold a lot of cod. A serving of two cakes costs $25 — an expensive way to eat fish-flavored mashed potatoes. I’d stick instead to the fluke sautéed in browned butter and thyme, with a side of shoestring potatoes that seem out of place but are so good nobody is likely to complain.
If the ginger cake and the pear-date pudding are being offered, leap. Both are so close to their English origins that they would no doubt drive on the left side of the road. They looked way too dense and rich after all that meat. Of course, they turned out to be just what I and everybody else at the table wanted.