Oysters marinated in a brine of bread and butter at the Commerce Inn.
Photo: Andrew Bui
Over the years, I’ve seen diners express their displeasure with a meal, or a certain dish, in all sorts of ways. There’s the usual call to the waiter when a steak is too bloody or a delicate piece of fish is overcooked, of course. There’s the subtle push favored by professional eaters like me, which tends to be quieter and more understated as the establishment and chef become more reputable. There are the age-old facial expressions telegraphing different levels of distress – the arched eyebrow, the rolling of the eyes, the sour-lemon look of disgust. At the polite review dinners I host, these outbursts tend to be rare, especially in the age of COVID, and usually involve a dyspeptic soul or two (hint: it’s usually me), although occasionally Occasionally, you have a dish or two where the frowns and subtle eye-roll and sour-face stares happen all at once.
This happened more than once during my visits to Jody Williams and Rita Sodi’s experience of Shaker and early American “kitchen”. Trade Inn, which has been selling Yankee specialties (chowders, baked beans, vintage cocktails spiked with red wine and apple brandy) since opening in a historic West Village tavern several months ago. To be fair, no one really knew if it was our fault (reviews were good; everyone around us seemed to be having a good time), or the kitchen (we were all admirers of the other excellent efforts by chiefs in West Village). : I Sodi, Via Carotaand the French bistro snack bar), or the Shakers – members of a Christian sect who, for the record, were more famous for their carpentry skills than their cooking and have now mostly disappeared from the face of the Earth (it didn’t help that they advocate celibacy).
In their heyday, however, the Shakers displayed many qualities (self-sufficiency, thrift, farming and pickling skills, a love of beans) that might appeal to anyone opening a new restaurant in the depths of a pandemic, and the little d he bright space on Commerce Street is full of examples of their understated, refined aesthetic. There are boxes of oyster shells stacked near the entrance, and if you’re wearing a large woolen winter coat (or a pilgrim hat), you can hang it on one of the rows of pegs in carved wood that run the length of the dining room. room. The only decorations on the walls are white serving trays, and unlike the noisy tavern side of the room, the tables are set like a church supper, with tapered chairs and folded white napkins.
The waiters at the Commerce Inn aren’t dressed in hand-sewn Shaker suits (they wear suitably cut brown colored waistcoats), but the small pub menu “Bill of Fare” is printed in the type of font that you’d see in a museum exhibit or on the wall of a library in Salem, Massachusetts. It advertised fresh, marinated oysters on the half shell, which our little party had no problem devouring, and a disappointing version of that comfort food favorite British rarebit, whose cheesy cheddar top was not quite melted when I tasted it another time. There was also a $33 serving of lobster chowder, which looked like it was conjured up from a 17th century Puritan recipe (gooey and gray with bits of tiny lobster leg sticking out of the bowl) and a small pair strangely listless $25. New England cod patties, which lacked any hint of sizzling, just-cooked crunch.
The mood at our table was brightened with the arrival of a salad of folded chicory with hazelnuts and lots of raisins and very good pork and molasses “shaker beans”, which we enjoyed with servings of hot bread with a spoon, as they did before. make it back to the old farmhouse. My salty roast chicken wasn’t horrible by big city standards, but much to the chagrin of the ham lover at our table, the “country ham” turned out to be a few meager slices of smoked ham resembling prosciutto with a portion of crusty bread on the side. If anything involving the word pork (chewy, savory ribs; a bountiful fatty chop) is scribbled on the daily special board, get it, but I never saw any evidence of the “fortifying patties” promised on the website, and when I inquired hopefully on the rabbit stew at 7:10 a visit I was told the kitchen was already sold out.
Given Williams-Sodi’s track record, I’m sure these flaws will be ironed out in time, and as any country cook will tell you, the menu always gets better as the weather warms and the onset of spring sets in. slowly turns into summer. However, as one seasonal “heritage” recipe ruthlessly followed another, I couldn’t help but dream of a good pub burger, perhaps, or a mint sauce to go with my fluffy lamb chops, or even a serving of mashed potatoes poured over with gravy. Comfort, when it finally arrives at this oddly uncomfortable establishment, does so the traditional way, at dessert time, with slices of cloth-bound cheddar and Bayley Hazen blue cheese and a series of cakes and puddings ( a very rich ginger cake, pear date pudding sitting in a pool of caramel, rhubarb crumble with a pot of cream), which brought only smiles and looks of happiness and contentment to the Pilgrims gathered at our table.