Restaurant Review: Commonwealth in Cambridge

While chef Nookie Postal’s Kendall Square venture has sincerity in spades, it sometimes gets lost in the farm-to-table shuffle.

Photograph by Anthony Tieuli

Photograph by Anthony Tieuli

The overall theme of Commonwealth, in Kendall Square, comes straight from the farm: Fruits and vegetables are proferred from time-worn butcher’s counters in the airy, cement-floored market; lunchtime sandwiches (pork bánh mì, chicken salad with fennel and cranberries) are written on a chalkboard. The walls and ceiling are lined with pallet bottoms instead of paneling—a nod to the wooden crates once used to transport produce. Raw wood, exposed brick, and an old sign from a shuttered Cambridge hardware store are meant to evoke a bygone era when rural simplicity went hand in hand with straight-dealing mom-and-pop shops.

And yet. Much of the produce looks like it comes from afar, though I’m sure the owners stock locally grown when it’s available. And, of course, Commonwealth isn’t located anywhere near a farm. Instead, it’s situated in a place worth celebrating for its own merits: along a canal I never knew existed in the most developed part of Kendall Square, surrounded by high-tech labs and offices and luxe new condos.

So the farm drag here seems a little hokey, but at least the recycled-wood tables and utilitarian metal-tube-framed seats (Belgian school chairs, the website says) do recall Cambridge’s light industry origins. With bare bulbs strung across the rafters and basket-shaded ceiling fixtures, though, the place has a vibe that’s more akin to a year-round indoor sukkah.

Commonwealth’s menu is -divided into short, stark sections. While the “To Start” items get a lengthy description, the entries for the “Sides” are limited to one adjective, and there’s hardly any verbiage at all accompanying the “Veg” and “The Meal” categories. And that’s where Commonwealth’s good intentions get it into a bit of trouble.

Such intentional simplicity is meant to emphasize the ingredients’ integrity and freshness. -Involved preparations, the thinking goes, would muddy what that honest farmer labored to produce with her proudly calloused hands. As it happens, I’m always on the lookout for this kind of fare. But the quest for purity does not grant a license for sloppy or uneven food, and in fact, it’s a style far harder to consistently execute than the typical catalog of restaurant tricks. To make uncomplicated food that isn’t deadly dull requires not just sparkling-fresh produce, but also attention to every step of the cooking process: storage, cleaning, and preparation. In short, it requires extraordinary care, time, and prowess to get just right.

Photograph by Anthony Tieuli

Sides of the broccoli and oyster mushrooms. Photograph by Anthony Tieuli

I’m sure from what I’ve read about the chef-owner—who has both a compelling name, Nookie Postal, and bio (he was executive chef to the Red Sox, and before that worked at Oleana)—and from my long phone conversation with his chef de cuisine, Ellie Campbell, that there’s nothing the least bit cynical, calculated, or corporate about what Postal and his team have created at Commonwealth. But that’s how the restaurant can come across to someone who doesn’t know its progenitors.

In what is likely an unintentional echo with Evoo, Commonwealth’s next-door neighbor and one of the first chef-owned restaurants in Cambridge to make a big deal of buying -locally, some of the food has the sprouty, doggedly multicultural echoes of the late ’70s and ’80s. A seasonal eggplant-and-tomato tart with mozzarella, labne, and harissa ($11) was as rich as moussaka, but clumsy, with hints of flavor drowned in a cream-heavy custard of bland cheese and yogurt. Chilled beets with burrata, carrots, and basil ($11) had a hard, undercooked health-food edge. Collectively, Equinox Farm greens with radishes, carrots, and yellow wax beans ($11) could’ve been the essence of seasonal bounty or the essence of a college salad bar. They were the latter.

That’s because they, like other salads, seemed completely unseasoned, the ingredients chosen for their confetti palette rather than any uniting theme. Candied pecans on a peach-and-spinach salad ($11) were so subtly sugared they didn’t taste candied, though the salad itself was refreshing, nicely spiked with a peach vinaigrette (it’s now made with apples).

Broad green Romano beans braised with tomatoes and peppers ($9), one of my favorite vegetable dishes, were well seasoned. English peas ($9), though, were too heavy on the salt, with an equally large hit of the assertive Japanese spice blend togarashi, which wasn’t mentioned at all on the menu. Without detailed descriptions and predictability, the dishes -alternate between whispering and yelling, and it’s hard to know which version will hit the table.

Some dishes, however, do come together: A first course of buttermilk-battered fried chicken thighs over a bed of raw beet, radish, and cabbage slaw ($11) was mild and agreeable, gaining a boost from a smear of fermented black garlic. Fried whole bass ($32) showcased tender flesh, with the blackened bits of bone and cartilage very worth the gnawing. A flattened half chicken ($22), the breast pan-seared and finished in the pizza oven, boasted crisp skin; the wings were cleverly deep-fried in the same buttermilk batter as the chicken-thigh appetizer. The skin on the pan-grilled trout ($24) was oversalted, but gained a pleasing garlicky punch from fresh chives.

These mains are served steakhouse-style without accompaniment—though they are called “The Meal” on the menu, you’ll need to order a “Veg” or a “Side” to round them out. Sides, like scalloped potatoes and green bean casserole with homemade mushroom velouté (in place of Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup) and house-fried onion strings (in place of French’s canned), are meant to be homey. In the case of the latter dish, the upgrades didn’t change it much from the canned equivalent—it remained, essentially, limp beans swimming in a soupy sauce.

The buttermilk-fried chicken thighs. Photograph by Anthony Tieuli.

The buttermilk-fried chicken thighs. Photograph by Anthony Tieuli.

Some of the vegetables do justify the menu’s effort to showcase carefully sourced, simply prepared ingredients: crisp, mineral-y jade-green broccoli and meaty grilled oyster mushrooms (both $9). This is the expertise and careful execution I’d hoped to see more of, and I’m sure the kitchen can master it.

Desserts follow the old-fashioned-but-better theme: just a long list of homemade ice creams, paired with sauces and bite-size toppings that are good enough to build an ice cream parlor around. The best flavor overall had to be the rose honey crunch, swirled with rose-water jam and shards of chocolate. The surprisingly wee scoops, presented in egg cups, are pricey at $5 each, but the superior toppings are a relative bargain at $3 apiece—browned chunks of bread pudding (peach and butterscotch when I visited), waffles, and even homemade pie. The nicely made sauces, including salted caramel and homemade fluff, are each $2 a dollop.

The smiling but mostly uncoordinated service is partly to blame for why Commonwealth can seem well meaning yet out of focus. No single server appeared to take ownership of a table, so orders were forgotten, while whole tables were roundly ignored. Maybe that approach is meant to imbue the place with communal spirit, but it makes for a bumpy dining experience. What the restaurant does have in spades is sincerity, even though every element of its back-to-honest-times look is being co-opted by businesses much bigger and much less heartfelt. Smoother service and more personality in the menu, a clearer sense of the homey style Postal and Campbell are aiming for, and a taste of the quirkiness that comes through in the décor will make Commonwealth a place memorable for more than its earnest portrayal of a past that may never have been.

Menu Highlights
fried chicken • $11
flattened half chicken • $22
oyster mushrooms • $9
fried whole bass  • $32
ice creams • $5 per scoop

11 Broad Canal Way, Cambridge, 617-945-7030,

Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.