The Commerce Inn, according to its website, is a “Shaker-inspired early American tavern and cookery.” It’s a curious tagline for a West Village restaurant that lacks a standing community of Smithsonian tour guides or Great Awakening scholars. Indeed, the venue is a departure for Jody Williams and Rita Sodi, two chefs known for their Euro-centric haunts, including the Gallic-leaning Buvette and the Italian Via Carota — where throngs gather for wantonly rich cacio e pepe and prosciutto-domed salads as tall as kakigori.
At Commerce Inn, by contrast, things can feel a bit more restrained, with austere booths that do their best impression of church pews and piles of baked beans unadorned by any verdant herbs or spices. They’re just beans.
Whether the entire menu truly represents the culinary mindset of an agrarian, monastic, celibate Protestant sect is a matter for debate — one thinks of the luxurious $33 lobster chowder. If I were writing copy for the restaurant’s website, I’d keep things simpler and more narrow: Commerce Inn is where you’ll encounter one of the city’s most extravagantly salty, fatty, and herby roast chickens. It tastes like something concocted by Bacchus or Brillat-Savarin, or let’s be honest, by Williams or Sodi.
That is to say: Sometimes things don’t feel so restrained here. And that’s quite appropriate for a slice of town where roast chicken can feel like a secular religion. One can’t talk about eating in the West Village, after all, without considering the cult of Jonathan Waxman, whose Barbuto turned roast chicken into a trademark of downtown dining. The chef still cranks out those Amish birds every night; he finishes them off on the grill to crisp up the golden skin and douses them in salsa verde for brightness. But lest we forget, Sodi has her own Tuscan chicken at I Sodi, where she cooks the bird under a brick for a sturdier crunch.
Commerce Inn’s bird is no less epic. Williams and Sodi dry-brine half an Amish chicken, slather it in rosemary, thyme, and fennel seed, and give it a good roast with chicken fat and lemon juice. The chefs then cut up the breasts and thighs and place them atop a generous mound of fries. This, incidentally, is where things start to get interesting. A sizable portion of the butter potatoes — they also use Yukon golds — retain their crispness and earthiness, but those sitting underneath the fowl soak up the luscious, schmaltzy juices. A single forkful conveys a duo of textures: welcome crunch and salutary sogginess. The flesh packs only a mild poultry flavor, which is fair enough because the soft meat acts as a conveyance mechanism for all the burnished herbs. Imagine the piney tang of rosemary dialed down a few notches, with the fire having turned the resinous plant into something pleasantly coarse and brittle, like toasted seeds on focaccia. Rip off the soft, heady skin and wrap it around a handful of fries for an indulgent little snack.
The chicken costs $32 and it is, alongside a strong martini, a wonder of a one-plate meal.
Sister Frances A. Carr, author of the famed 1985 cookbook, Shaker Your Plate, wrote that the Shakers were known for their “plain, wholesome food.” I felt that energy hard as I sampled a soggy $19 Welsh rarebit — albeit one with a nicely pungent Worcestershire aroma and cheddar-y tang. That line also rang true when I pushed myself to finish the venue’s “Shaker beans.” They tasted of bland grit. The brown sludge recalled the grim fare that the pious Jutland Protestants consume in Babette’s Feast before a certain French chef shows up to teach them about epicurean pleasures.
No matter, with chicken this wonderfully extravagant, one can forgive a miss of a side dish or a toast gone awry. Poultry is holy in the West Village, and I’m rating Commerce Inn’s chicken a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).