Lost in Space
Commune 12 E. 22nd St. (betw. Park Ave. S. & B'way), 777-2600
The experience fosters a sense of potential, as if fun things exist in spades back there in the undulating dimness. At some imprecise point somewhere in that cave?you're still blinking from the street at this point?you're aware that scores of bodies writhe and twist and giggle and move against silk, and you're presenced to that sensation of youthful possibility that's one of the things you're paying so much to access when you persist in living in this city. In combination with the restaurant's pretty good food?which is expensive but not unusually so, with entrees topping out at $24?that glamorous sense of sexually charged possibility is probably what makes Commune so popular right now, and explains why it's so difficult to get a table. (That the aggressive young publicist Lizzie Grubman shills for the eatery probably doesn't work against its popularity, either.)
Commune's is a good spatial trick, especially given that the same location helped doom the address' previous tenant, the pretty good restaurant Cena. Cena seemed merely bleak and cold, which explained why I never wanted to eat there. At Commune, however, the design fosters a freeing variety of dislocation. Floating around somewhere in the cultural mind there's a potential graduate anthropology thesis to be written about the semiotics of restaurant design?and whoever eventually writes it ought to pack a gram of coke with his or her notebook and spend some time at Commune, either eating here or hanging out at the huge, packed bar or both. The mind-blowing space lends itself to theorizing. In the recession years of the early 90s, Manhattan was lousy with speciously rustic "comfort food" restaurants that allowed anxious patrons to situate themselves reassuringly in some dopey approximation of nurturing domesticity. So maybe seeking conceptual dislocation in a restaurant's an appropriate, if kind of decadent, response to living in the safe, moneyed imperial city that New York's suddenly become. Pretty soon, somewhat like that scene from Mark Helprin's phantasmagorial New York City novel Winter's Tale, people will be armoring themselves in militarized vehicles, surrounding themselves with machine-gun-toting bodyguards and making excursions into the last remaining geographies of outer-borough underclass desperation, to witness gladiatorial battles there. Someone will throw riffraff in front of lions in makeshift arenas, and you'll be able to wager.
But anyway, Commune serves meals to its fashionable crowd (which, yes, consists of girls in slips of dresses and the inevitable suited thirtysomething guys they rode in on), and of these a few are more worth eating, as long as you're there, than others. Among the appetizers?a couple of which cost almost as much as some of the entrees, which is weird?whoa, more disorientation!?we liked the ceviche of black bass with mango and green chili. The dish was served in the usual turn-of-the-century oversized white bowl, and consisted of a pretty big heap of the black bass, which wasn't black at all, of course, but rather a creamy white. So: chunks of limy fish, each about the size of your thumbnail, worked through sparsely with similarly sized mango chunks, the sweet fruit playing foil to the tart, tangy fish. The green chili component of the dish wasn't as intimidating as it sounds. It's not like Kenney or his chef, the almost-perfectly named Christopher Robins, larded the dish with big, vulgar peppers. Rather, the chilies came in the form of whatever that nice, mild, green, refreshingly vegetative sauce they make from chilies is called, and that they're always dribbling over food at upscale Mexican restaurants like El Teddy's. We enjoyed the ceviche very much.
Crabcakes with lemony tartar sauce are precisely that, and worth ordering. So are the oysters with mignonette and cocktail sauces. Avoid, however, the lettuces with cheese toast, which we could make neither heads nor tails of. This appetizer consisted of an unexceptional mound of lettuce greens in an unexceptional dressing, on top of which resided a long, narrow piece of toast, shaped like a giant tongue depressor. A viscous yellow shmear of sticky, warm cheese overwhelmed the toast, which we ate only a piece of before we set it at the side of the plate in a position from which it could harass us no longer.
As far as entrees go, I'd been told about the restaurant's truffled macaroni and cheese, which you can request as a side order on its own, but that also accompanies a plate of roast chicken. The chicken was fine?even though it wasn't as good as the amazing, garlicky roast chicken the Red Cat in Chelsea serves. The macaroni's disappointing, however. It's served in the little casserole dish it's baked in, and it's all crusty and dry on top where the oven's heat has gotten to it. Obviously you can't taste the truffle essence that's supposed to help define the dish. But that's less the restaurant's fault than the fault of Nature for inventing such an overrated, fraudulent fungus as the truffle in the first place. Macaroni and cheese is always a drag, no matter where you eat it, and restaurants ought to stop serving it.
You're better off ordering the seared tuna with chanterelles: five little chunks of perfectly cooked fish over a bed of meaty mushrooms. You can mop up the ambient stew that surrounds the chanterelles with good sourdough bread. There's a whole list of appealing side dishes besides mac and cheese: sauteed broccoli, parmesan custard, savoy cabbage potstickers and some other stuff. We liked a plate of creamy polenta mixed through with cheddar, though perhaps not with as much cheddar as we would have liked, our palates tending toward the coarse and sensational as they do.
The steak au poivre with french fries and parsley butter will disappoint nobody. And since we didn't drop by Commune on a Monday night, we didn't have a chance to sample that night's special, which is described as a "roasted Vermont pig," and that evoked in our minds the Green Mountain State's Sen. Jim Jeffords. Maybe we'll visit the restaurant on a Monday night. Or maybe you will, and you can order the pig and send us an interesting letter telling us in great detail about the exciting experience of eating it.
Commune offers a cheese course, but the restaurant was so crowded that we wanted to turn our table back over to our charming young waitress?she was at once reassuringly sweet and not too pretty, and that surprised us given the circumstances?and headed out into the night.
After a stop at the bathroom, that is, which was a conceptual adventure unto itself. Upon entering we discovered a female attendant attending to a long communal sink. Our hearts shuddered with the delicious loucheness of it all. But no. Actual toilet facilities are segregated behind their respective doors, leaving one only to wash one's hands with members of the opposite sex, and to theorize gloomily about the fleetingness of decadent potential. It's the fault of that goddamn Giuliani, man.