May 5, 2012


After our first trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, I knew I wanted to make a return visit to the gorgeous Southern college town.  This time I made the trek sans twin, but still had an absolute blast with a couple of great friends exploring the countryside and eating more food than I care to recount.  I had read about one of the restaurants on the Downtown Mall- an amazing strip of shops and restaurants with plenty of opportunities for people watching- that sounded promising.  Commonwealth advertises itself as serving high quality ingredients in simply prepared dishes- with a vibrant, sleek atmosphere to match.

They don't take reservations, but we were thankfully able to snag a table right away- a cozy corner table perfect for three.  Our waiter was a little aloof throughout the meal, but he got the job done.  After ordering an extensive number of dishes (all to share), he brought us a little dish of roasted tomatoes and cherry peppers to nibble on.  Coated lightly in olive oil and herbs, they were a bright and flavorful start to the meal- a nice change from the usual bread service.

Unfortunately, all five of our appetizers came out at the exact same time.  I know this isn't a tapas restaurant, but we clearly don't want to eat everything at once.  First up was a special app for the evening, changing up the regular menu grilled corn & veggie empanadas for a version stuffed with ostrich ($10).  This was a new protein for me, but the flavor of the lean, ground meat was overpowered by the thick and greasy outer pastry.  The ratio of breading to filling was extremely unbalanced, and the shell was soggy. Poor first impression.

The second dish contained another atypical protein- ale-braised rabbit tucked into a crepe with a bit of Appalachian cheese (like a mild, firm Brie) and figs ($12).  The shredded, tender rabbit meat soaked up the slightly sweet juice from the figs, balancing the sugar with a hint of abrasive gaminess (not a bad thing).  However, the dish fell flat due to the crepe wrapper.  I know how easy it is to make paper thin crepes, but these were thick, doughy, and chewy in the worst way.  The texture of everything was just too soft.  Great concept, poor execution.

Next up was a much simpler dish- diver scallops ($13).  Unless scallops are cooked to perfection, I find them inedible- so I was pleased to find these buttery smooth and perfectly palatable.  A light caramelized crust and a good coat of black pepper accented the sweet flavor of the mollusk.  A small piece of spicy chorizo made for a surprisingly good pairing.

I made a request for the lobster & salt cod cakes made with coconut ($12), a fun play on coconut shrimp.  The coconut flavor came through strong enough to suggest the use of a coconut flour to help shape the cakes, perhaps explaining why the cakes were so soft- a little too mushy.  I would have liked bigger chunks of lobster, but the seafood component certainly provided a salty seascape for both the sweet coconut and spicy red pepper aioli.

Our last choice to start the meal was the ginger braised pulled pork served atop yam croquettes ($9).  Deep fried sweet potato topped by braised pork?  You really can't go wrong.  Though I can't say I tasted much ginger, I thought the creativity in the kitchen finally played out well in this dish.  The general problem with the "misses" in this group of apps was too much creativity, not enough attention to execution.  One of my friends ordered an extra bowl of a plantain soup that tasted like straight curry powder- were the chefs actually tasting what they were making?  Regardless, I was glad to end the first course on a high note.

Thankfully, the entrees are a little less creative, sticking to the simplicity that the restaurant advertises.  One of my favorites was the grilled wild boar chops ($27)- three to an order served on the bone.  Boar is naturally a little tough, but the thick-cut, lean meat had plenty of flavor thanks to some beautiful grill marks.  A sweet and spicy gooseberry sauce full of softened, whole fruit was a great complement to the meat in terms of both flavor and texture.  Rough-mashed potatoes with a mild horseradish kick played their role as a salty starch.

My request was for the skirt steak ($23), ordered medium rare and served with a beautifully contrasting blackened surface to pink interior.  Salty and savory and charred- a rustic dish kept simple with the addition of grilled onions and peppers and roasted casava fries.  A lime-garlic mojo sauce tied everything together, adding a nice acidity.  Another great example of what Commonwealth is capable of when they don't think outside the box.

Keeping with the trend, we also opted to try the duck breast confit with green beans ($23), served with a chunky mango sauce.  The texture of the meat reminded me more of a high-quality pork tenderloin, but again the seasoning and cooking temperature were both spot-on.  At this point it's pretty clear that this kitchen knows their way around several types of protein (well-cooked scallops, boar, steak, and duck... impressive?).  I'm a sucker for fruit and poultry pairings, so I was satisfied with this ginger-tinted smothering.

I was approaching painfully full status (though I had plenty of help conquering all this food!) but dessert is a must in my life, so two of us shared the peanut butter pie ($7).  A crumbly cookie bottom and thick chocolate ganache top sandwich an extremely thick layer of frozen peanut butter mousse. Not overly sweet, the dessert played more on the bitter chocolate and salty, nutty elements.  Nothing life-changing, but a satisfying end to the meal.

It's quite clear to me as I reflect back on this meal that Commonwealth already knows their strength- the high quality dishes cooked simply.  To that regard, I would recommend avoiding some of the more adventurous dishes- particularly those in the appetizer department.  The atmosphere is classy and low-lit, escalating in activity as the upstairs bar scene built up as the evening wore on.  Overall I'm glad we checked out what the kitchen had to offer, but for the price point, it's definitely not worth making a trip back.

Charlottesville, VA

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