(See more photos of Common Pub's uncommonly good grub here.)
A quick glance at the menu of Cass Avenue's new Common Pub might elicit a "ho-hum": burger, mac and cheese, fried chicken, fish and chips. Still favorites after all these years, and for good reason — but did we need another such menu, especially at the hands of award-winning chef (and now co-owner, Zachary Stotz, formerly of Atlas Global Bistro?
If you look more closely, though, you'll find intriguing touches: a burrito made with lamb and wrapped in housemade naan. A beet and goat cheese slider. A whole lot of duck fat, used to prepare the fries and the chicken. "Duck Noodles," too, in a broth with Chinese sausage. One of the ingredients of the mac and cheese is "Science."
"We wanted to stay away from pretentious," Stotz says. "We wanted a place where everybody could be comfortable and could afford to eat." He describes his food as "cutting-edge casual," which sounds right.
My first visit began well, with a generous glass of exceptionally tingly cava, which is becoming more common on area wine lists. A companion chose the cheapest red wine, a grenache — how often do you see a $5 glass anymore? — and we both liked its dryness. Servers here were not hired for their wine knowledge, but they will offer you a pre-decision sample so you can make up your mind yourself.
Beers are priced for student budgets and include both familiar labels and a selection of craft bottles.
On my second visit I was kicked by a Moscow Mule, more limey than gingery, served in the traditional copper mug, and delicious. Other classics are a sidecar with sugar rim, an old-fashioned, and a margarita with jalapeño simple syrup. Bad Lieutenant, a tribute to Harvey Keitel, is a carryover from Atlas, and includes — I'm not lying — a pimento dram, Laphroaig float, and tobacco bitters.
- Photo by Tom Perkins
What Stotz calls "snacks" are plenty big. Calamari were numerous, chewy, and crisp at the same time, with cherry peppers for a mild bite. A huge "poutine of the day" included steak, a touch of good cheddar, and a luscious fried egg. Other poutines, which change daily and which Stotz defines loosely, have topped the fries with chickpea masala, or with country-fried steak with lamb chorizo gravy.
Stotz does the standards well. Onion rings are perfect: sweet and crisp. Mac and cheese is not your mom's; it's tart with white cheddar, Manchego, and smoked Gouda. Having just come from the April 22 March for Science that afternoon, I was avid to learn about the "science" ingredient. Turns out he uses sodium citrate to make the cheese-fat bond with water, creating a velvety consistency without having to resort to a heavy Béchamel sauce.
Stotz spends a lot of time on his fried chicken, which is nearly as much crust as bird. First, it's cured in brown sugar for four hours, then slow-cooked in duck fat. He next double-dips it in flour and a buttermilk-hot sauce liquid before frying. This dish and the fries are the reason Common goes through 20 lbs. of duck fat a week.
A burger can be one, two, or three 4-oz. patties on a super-soft brioche, with an aioli of truffles and poached garlic. Add an egg and feel it finish cooking as you eat. A single with duck-fat fries for $5 is surely one of the better buys in Midtown today.
I was less happy with the steak frites, where the hanger steak had been cut into too few bite-size pieces and was pretty chewy. Nor can I recommend the macaroni potato salad, with too much mayo. Why adulterate spuds with pasta?
The anomalous Asian-ish item on the menu, Duck Noodles, was lovingly arranged and presented. It's also the most ordered. Its pungent miso broth had absorbed some of the flavors of the mushrooms, sausage, and hoisin-braised duck that filled the bowl. If Stotz is saying that udon soups have a place on the menu with American comfort food, he'll get no argument from me.
For dessert, various $6 pies and puddings that change daily, we found two hits and a miss. I like beets, but apparently not in a beet-ginger pie. (After duck fat, beets are the menu's second sub-theme.) A thick lime pudding with mezcal whipped cream, though, was the right way to end a fat-enhanced meal, and a tamarind pie was a good tart-sweet, its strong Mexican and Indian flavor leavened by lime.
I would not have chosen the Pub's bland, nearly corporate color scheme, blond wood with gray tables. It doesn't fit well with the menu, nor with the "common" clientele the owners are seeking. There's a lot more soul on the menu than in the décor.
On May 15, for $50, Common Pub will host a five-course dinner with paired Clown Shoes beers, including Chocolate Sombrero (notes of Mexican chocolate, anise and chili). Courses will take off from Vietnamese or, mostly, Mexican — think duck pozole. Quack.