A funny thing happened on the way from farm to table. All over the Boston area—and all over the country, for that matter—the rustic, heirloom, freshly picked ingredients espoused by chefs and food fanatics… well, they got fancy. The farm eggs bubbled in a sous-vide bath; the heritage pork became an aspic-glazed terrine. Even humble greens became frightfully composed salads.
Thankfully, along came Steve “Nookie” Postal. The chef/owner of Commonwealth, a restaurant-market hybrid that opened in Kendall Square in November, has long advocated using local ingredients. (He even sourced locally while working as executive chef at Fenway Park.) But Postal also has a passion for cooking people-pleasing, unfussy fare: “I’m not a formal guy,” he explains. “My favorite meal is a perfectly roast chicken, potatoes roasted in the chicken fat, and broccoli.”
The result is a highly edited menu that changes day to day and week to week depending on his purveyors’ offerings. Stripped-down preparations—“no foams, no crazy sauces, no molecular techniques”—mean flavors come through with remarkable clarity. A salad of farm greens, radishes, heirloom carrots and pomegranate seeds ($10) is barely dressed, but each forkful yields intense texture and flavor. Baby spinach leaves in a salad with Honeycrisp apples and candied pecans ($10) are so tender and fresh they’re almost plump, and the crumbly granules of aged, clothbound cheddar lend salty richness to the plate.
Grilled squid paired with strips of soft, salty La Quercia prosciutto ($10) offers a similar pleasure, with smoky charred flavor and bits of pickled pears on the plate. Postal’s clam chowder ($10), topped with steamed littlenecks in the shell, is a contender for the title of best in town. With hunks of bacon and potato, it’s creamy but not overly thick, and topped with tiny snipped chives. The promised “Commonwealth crackers” may have been missing when the chowder arrived on our table on a recent visit, but it was hard to care.
Scattered service was a fail point on multiple occasions. One visit, our cocktails didn’t appear until well after the first course. Sometimes we were greeted with warm pull-apart bread and butter; sometimes it only showed when we asked (and with no butter). At our second dinner, our server explained that all of the dishes, including the proteins, are served family style and meant to be shared. Wait, what? That explains why our previous night’s meal included enough meat to feed a pride of lions.
Still, you probably won’t regret overordering—you’ll just overeat. Venison steak ($24) is presented more like a loin: thick medallions with a deep pink center, a superb crust and just a pleasant hint of game flavor. A long flap of Pineland Farm skirt steak ($23) is tender, with an excellent charred crust; it’s great when dipped into the classic steak sauce. The short rib ($26), also from Pineland Farm, is a straightforward Flintstones-style hunk of meat that pulls cleanly off the bone; it’s perfect with sides of sauteed black kale and cheesy polenta ($9 each).
(I didn’t think any Boston chef could pack more richness into polenta than Barbara Lynch, but Postal’s is absurd.) Ask nicely and they’ll do a half portion of the sides, which is a good way to sample more of the offerings, like duck-fat fries or an iron skillet of intensely earthy foraged mushrooms.
For desserts, there are no gelees or quenelles, no fruit in powder form. Instead, there’s an ice cream program: Pick your house-made base flavor ($5), like a boozy chocolate-bourbon or an aromatic cinnamon-honey, and then, with the glee of kid at a soft-serve bar, add fixings like a warm apple beignet, fudgy brownie or banana-chocolate chip bread pudding ($3). Sauces ($2) include cocoa-nib “magic shell” and homemade marshmallow fluff, which comes torched brulee-style.
Of course, if a multi-course dinner isn’t in order, Commonwealth’s bar bustles with folks sitting down for just a cocktail—the list ranges from classics like Gibsons and Collinses to tongue-in-cheek choices like the Appletini and Pina Colada—and a few local oysters off the raw bar. The decor sets a warm, casual tone for nights like these, with accent walls covered in brick and upcycled wood shipping pallets. The mood is unfailingly jovial, and many patrons pop over to the adjoining market to grab snacks and items like house-made Sriracha pasta, marinara sauce and seasonal produce to cook at home. (Occasionally, the cooks pop over to grab an extra onion too.) The vibe is friendly. Unstuffy. And, most important, the ingredients get their due.
-Spinach, Honeycrisp apple and clothbound cheddar salad
-Littleneck clam chowder
-Chocolate bourbon ice cream, homemade fluff
Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11 am-4 pm; dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5-10 pm; bar, Mon.-Sat., 11 am-12 am; brunch, Sun., 10 am-7 pm
Credit Cards: Yes
Parking: $1 validated parking in the Kendall Square Garage on weekends and after 4 pm on weekdays
Liquor: Full bar
Commonwealth | 11 Broad Canal Way, Cambridge | 617-945-7030 | commonwealthcambridge.com