Nestled away on a romantic little bend of Commerce Street in the West Village is Commerce, the newish bar and restaurant from chef Harold Moore and restaurateur Tony Zazula. Operating out of a carriage house dating back to 1911, the place was formerly a Prohibition-era speakeasy, then Blue Mill Tavern for 50 years, then the neighborhood favorite Grange Hall. You might assume that its new iteration is a fussy stab at resuscitating the past, but Zazula and Moore have breathed fresh air into the space while subtly nodding to their ancestors. Antique wall sconces salvaged from municipal buildings line the walls and a 1941 art deco Brunswick bar was reconfigured to fit with the existing front bar, but the airy room hums with a forward-thinking enthusiasm.
Moore's sophisticated but approachable menu has a generous, comfort food tone – there are dazzlers like the warm oysters in champagne with potatoes, leeks and caviar – but also heartier basics like the fettuccini with one-hour tomato sauce & house made ricotta, or a revitalized classic lobster Newburg. Moore's buzzed-about bread basket is made in house could be a meal in and of itself, but crowds are still finding room to put away his entrees made to share, like the porterhouse for two with cippolini onions, creamy spinach and red wine shallot steak sauce. We spoke with Moore recently about his festive new venture, its $100,000 oven and his gnarliest kitchen scar, courtesy of Daniel Boulud. [Commerce, 50 Commerce Street, (212) 524-2301.]
Was it daunting for you to open up a restaurant in the space formerly occupied by Grange Hall, which people have such an attachment to? It wasn’t so bad leading up to the opening. My partner Tony Zazula and I really tried hard to preserve the integrity of what was there, because so much was ripped out. It needed a completely new infrastructure. It hadn’t had any plumbing or electrical updating since at least 1965. The electrical was not sufficient for a modern facility. We tried hard to preserve it but you can’t please everyone. Half the people seem to embrace it the way it is now, the other half are saying, “You guys are jerks! What did you do?” The real die hard Grange Hall/Blue Mill Tavern people were angry we had done any work to the place. We didn’t really have a choice though. Yeah, daunting might be the right word.
How long had it been closed before you reopened it? It was closed at least a year before we got to it and then it took us about a year to do all the work. So, two years maybe.
Did the history of the place inform how you created the menu? No, we set out to do something different. My philosophy is that you don’t have to be so fancy; every place I’ve worked served really amazing food and it felt good doing the work but I wasn’t really busy and I looked around at the customers and realized they were all a lot older than I was. I started thinking that it was not a good career move for me; I needed to change something because I’m a young guy and I want to have longevity in my career. I wanted to do this food for a younger crowd, and what’s going to get a younger crowd in? A cool place downtown with nice looking people, where we’ll show them stuff they wouldn’t usually get. My kind of cooking if usually hidden away from them in expensive three star restaurants.
What aspects of the menu epitomize this attempt to reach out to this younger crowd? I think the items to share, the chicken for two and the beef shank and the dorade. When I worked in other places we would sell one or two a night for a special occasion. Now the younger diners come with a different mentality; it’s not just for a special occasion, it’s to have a good time. They share the big chicken or beef shank and it’s more convivial and family style. The majority of people in New York are from someplace else; everybody comes here for a dream. Either it’s to have fun or pursue some kind of art or business and it gives you a certain level of comfort to be able to have a roasted chicken, prepared in the normal way: hot oven, plain chicken, skin gets crispy, it comes out. I think people are sort of gravitating toward that because we are busy busy with those kinds of things.
People rave about the bread basket. Did you put that together yourself? Yeah, part of the business plan was that I wanted to bake my own bread because of the rising cost and stuff like that. I figured I could make my own and increase the payroll a little bit and not have to buy bread from outside. And the quality would be that much better because it’s in house and it’s very fresh. So me and my Chef de Cuisine guy Snir Eng-Sela worked hard to put together a basket I thought was interesting and achievable. So we have the pretzel – which is the runaway hit of the bread basket by far. And we have an olive roll that has roasted peppers, olives and garlic, which I really like. There’s a classic brioche, a sweet and soft sesame roll, a heavy baguette, and it’s just a lot of fun, too. The bread basket is something that reaches everybody – every table gets bread and it’s the one thing that I can sort of touch every customer with and I’m sure they’ll find something in there they’ll like. They may not like the mixed greens but for sure they’re going to like the bread.
There’s so much bread in it, it’s like the mother of all bread baskets – did you think at any point that maybe there’s just too much bread in it? There’s a lot of bread in there, that’s for sure. We give eight pieces of bread to a table of two. But I don’t want it to be cheap because then it sort of loses the feeling. I want it to be a generous bread basket where people don’t have to beg for more. I don’t serve the bread until after the order is taken so hopefully it doesn’t ruin anyone’s appetite.
What about the pasta; do you make that in house? Yes, we make all that ourselves.
The lobster Newburg is kind of a classic entrée. What sets yours apart? I think the Newburg in the traditional sense is very heavy and creamy and old fashioned, but it resonates with people. So I wanted to update an old classic but do it a little lighter. There is some cream in there but it’s mostly lobster stock, so it’s much lighter in spirit than a traditional lobster Newburg, which is a Sherry cream sauce. And we put some gnocci and spring vegetables in there so you have some balance to the dish. The lobster is poached and soft and tender.
What else on the menu are you most proud of that you would love for diners to try? I’ve been serving the beef tataki in Manhattan restaurants since 2000 or so. There’s a story – and every chef has a grandmother and all that crap, but it’s really true. When I was a kid – I’m a quarter Japanese – and I would stay with my grandmother she would sear a piece of beef that she had cooked the night before, slice it and give it to me with a little scallion soy sauce. This tataki is the evolution of that and it’s something I can eat every day and it’s very sort of refreshing to me. The marinate is strong on it and it’s very different. That’s something I’m really happy about. What else do I like these days? The snapper with the Thai broth is very good; it’s very acidic and the spice is muted so it’s a very light dish.
The oven at Commerce reportedly costs $100,000. What makes it worth a hundred grand? It’s all stainless steel and the ovens are lined with bricks versus the regular jade stove. So it’s very efficient and uses much less gas than your regular suite of stoves. It looks beautiful; so that’s part of it. But it was custom built for us. The kitchen at Commerce is so small that I cannot put for stoves side by side in that kitchen. So they built this little peninsula with four stoves back to back. It’s very, very narrow and very short. And we’re a busy restaurant, you know: 300 covers on Saturday. I take myself and cooking very seriously and we use very serious equipment. And that’s part of the thing when you’re a young cook working in good places you want to use the best materials.
At the end of the day it really does help with the product because that $100,000 stove has only been off one day in the past three or four months. We’re working with it constantly, all night, every night. The guys start roasting the bones and caramelizing the meat to make the sauces and poaching the lobsters at 7:00 in the morning and we don’t finish until 2:00 in the morning. It’s a workhorse. It holds heat very well and you don’t get that level of quality with a lot of things. It’s definitely worth all that money.
You’ve said your parents influenced your approach to making a menu that’s accessible. Have they been to Commerce yet? Yeah, they’ve been a couple of times. They influence my approach in a way; it’s mostly the way I write a menu. Every chef I guess has a tendency to be very sort of precise and want to tell you the whole story about how this chicken comes from here and how we only use the best this and that. But when I think about my parents when they come to dinner – they’re regular people and they really don’t care where the chicken comes from as long as it’s good. They’ll humor me because I’m their son and pretend to be interested, but at the end of the day, when I’m writing the menu, I think about them and try to keep it concise and deliver on the promise.
Did your parents give you any feedback when they came? Yeah, my mom is very… We’re cut from the same cloth so she’s a little tough. She tells me, “This could use a little more or less.” Or: “The girl didn’t know how to open the wine.” They came on the first night and the girl who was working their table was a new waitress without much experience and was nervous as she could possibly be. And they told me about it; but overall they’re pretty positive.
If your career as a chef hadn't worked out, is there any other profession you could see yourself pursuing? I always felt that I was a good host. I know I have no talent for haircutting but I always felt I could be a salon person. Despite lacking the requisite skills of being able to cut hair, I always felt the part of being the host and nice to people would be something that would interest me.
What’s your worst kitchen scar? I have one on my forearm that’s pretty bad. It’s a burn that I got when I first came to New York and was working as an apprentice at the original Daniel on 76th Street. It was a very, very intense sort of kitchen; very tight with a lot of people. I was maybe a week into it and one day I pulled a hot tray out of the convection oven right as Daniel was passing. He inadvertently bumped me and pushed my forearm against the side of this tray that had just come out of a really hot oven. So I have a six inch burn that I can still see down the length of my right forearm. It’s like a brand from that day.
Any advice for young chefs? If someone’s going to listen I’m willing to espouse my twisted philosophy. I think when you decide to be a chef you really need to quickly make a few decisions because it’s very important where you work early on in your career. You can’t start out working in a mediocre restaurant and hope to be at the top of your field once you hit a certain age. In high school it doesn’t matter, but once you get out of culinary school or decide you’re going to take this career seriously you need to start on a career trajectory that’s going to take you where you want to go.
Those decisions need to be made early. You can’t worry about your social life when you’re in your early twenties as a cook. It’s those years I spent at Daniel in my early twenties that brought me to where I am now. It’s a lot of sacrifice but it’s the most important thing because so many people I went to school with sort of sold out and took jobs for money versus experience. Now I’m 35 years old and those guys either don’t cook anymore or they’re just miserable working in places they never thought they would end up.
I decided to come to New York and wanted to work for the best people so I went right away to Daniel and Jean Georges. It sets the tone for your career. It doesn’t happen right away but after five or six years good jobs start coming your way. It takes patience and a lot of sacrifice and a lot of commitment. And as a young cook that’s what you need to take into account; you have to put away the desire for money or to work in a fun place where it’s really easy. You have to ask yourself what you’re really learning.
Sound advice. Thank you. It’s tough to swallow that you’re not going to make any real money until five or six years in. But when you’re a young guy you don’t have a chance to get those years back. So many people I know said, “Oh, I’m going to go work in a country club after school for a couple years and make some money and then I’ll come to New York.” But then they get here and it’s $100 a shift and you work 16 hours a day and it’s very difficult to make that transition. So that’s my advice for a young cook: Stay focused on your career because working in the restaurant business but not at a high level is not very fun.