Mon 25 Aug 2008
When Elizabeth surprised me with a weekend in London last fall, we found our lunch options somewhat limited on Sunday around noon. As it turns out, many British eateries open late (if at all) on Sundays and, when they do open, they offer a prix fixe menu known as a “Sunday Roast.” It’s not just a clever name. The standard Sunday Roast consists of a larger joint of meat that is slow-cooked and served with potatoes and vegetables. Not exactly haute cuisine, but solid pub fare made to be shared.
Last night, we paid a visit to Chef Jamie Leeds’ newly-opened CommonWealth in Columbia Heights - something we’ve been eager to do since it opened two weeks ago. Following up on a tip from Metrocurean, we wanted to check out the new gastropub’s take on this UK tradition, so we decided to go with some friends to sample the weekly special.
Roast report and first impressions after the jump.
We arrived at CommonWealth for a 7:30 reservation and were seated almost right away – despite a decent crowd outside, there were still a few tables available in the spacious interior. As we walked to our seats, we took in the decor. The monochromatic British and American flags stood out immediately, as did the servers’ red and olive CommonWealth shirts featuring witty British illustrations, the bar tables inlaid with game boards and the chalk board that runs across the top of the dining area and the bar. I took a look at the cheese options that were listed on the board above the bar, and was happy to see favorites like Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk and Sweet Grass Dairy’s double-cream Green Hill.
We took our seats and were presented with a bowl of pickled vegetables that included a carrot, cauliflower, green beans and squash. They were lightly vinegared and even a bit on the sweet side. One of our friends immediately lit up when he saw Scotch Eggs, and so our appetizer was set even before we had ordered a drink or heard about the specials.
If you’ve never had a Scotch Egg (or heard of one, for that matter), CommonWealth’s version makes for a phenomenal introduction. Two hard-boiled eggs are peeled, coated in ground sausage and then deep-fried before being halved and served on a stand that seems to have been designed as a conveyance for oysters or similar shellfish platters. They come with three sauces (described to us as “spicy mayonnaise, sweet mustard and ‘green sauce’” with the last tasting like a pesto), but these things are delicious on their own. And at $7, they’re well worth the price for a starter.
We knew we were interested in trying the Sunday Roast, so we didn’t expect to have any options when the time came to order our entrees. We were pleasantly surprised, therefore, to receive a Sunday Roast menu that listed not one, but three different main courses to choose from. We could have enjoyed a roasted pork shoulder ($19 per person), a leg of lamb stuffed with merguez ($22), or a roast beef ($24). All three were to be accompanied by the same sides – a seasonal vegetable succotash and potatoes roasted with celery, carrots and onions. Given the choices, we went for the lamb.
If you’re like me and you remember reading “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, this is the point where you’d mark the page just in case you made a bad choice. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for us. The lamb was tender and juicy with just a hint of pink, and the sausage pieces were spicy and dense. The glace which served as a sauce for the dish was a great complement, though we found it a bit salty when sampled on its own with bread. The dish was absolutely the star of the show, and it was something that we would definitely seek out to try again in the future. Unfortunately, the sides didn’t do much to stand out. The vegetables in the succotash – corn, tomatoes, green beans and zucchini – were certainly fresh, but there was nothing that compared to the powerful flavors of the lamb dish. The roasted potatoes had a great texture and were well-cooked, but they were bland. Spooning some of the entree’s sauce over them helped considerably.
Although we could have been perfectly satisfied with our dinner choices, we were persuaded to check out the dessert menu (a category labeled ‘puddings’ in a nod to the British use of the term). The Sticky Toffee Pudding came highly recommended, and it didn’t disappoint. Rich and sweet, it was almost too much – I shudder to think how cloyingly sweet the Warm Treacle Tart must be! But the table made short work of our single dessert (as well as the root beer float that was described as one of the best our friend has ever had).
As any new restaurant does, CommonWealth has a few kinks that need to be worked out, starting with the ‘pub’ part of its gastropub moniker. When one of our guests asked for a Harpoon Summer Beer that was no longer available, the first recommendation for a suitable alternative was Michelob Light. And although the bar offers an impressive twelve beers on tap, its selection of British imports doesn’t really go much beyond the basics – Guinness, Harp, Smithwick’s, Newcastle Brown and Strongbow Cider aren’t especially hard to find in DC. More noteworthy are the bottled selections and the American drafts – including selections from the Commonwealths of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia and rotating cask-conditioned drafts.
Service was good, but it bordered on over-attentive on several occasions. Unattended silverware and plates were like sirens’ songs, calling out to be collected and removed time and time again by the numerous staffers who passed by our table regularly. Our server asked if we were ready to order drinks immediately upon setting down our menus, though he was good enough to give us time to make our choices after that. When it comes right down to it, this isn’t such a problem to deal with; I’d rather have a server paying me too much attention than one I have to beg to honor me with the check after ignoring me all night.
We had a chance to chat with Chef Leeds before the end of the night, and she informed us that this was only the second Sunday Roast that they’ve done so far. She also told us that this weekend marked CommonWealth’s first brunch service, in which the regular menu is supplemented with a number of additional egg dishes as well as pancakes. With the Sunday Roasts off to such a strong start, I would fully expect them to become a regular appointment for friends throughout the city who are looking for a fun way to catch up over good food.
1400 Irving St., NW
Washington, DC 20010