The kitchen at the newly remodeled Commodore Bar and Restaurant has a bit of a rivalry problem. Any food served within the confines of this art deco stunner is going to somehow feel like an also-ran, like trying to be best friends with the beauty queen. The inset gold leaf ceilings, the lush buttery furniture, the checkerboard dance floor, the beveled mirrors everywhere — it's difficult to decide where to settle your eyes for the greatest admiration.
Everybody comes undone about the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda lived in the Commodore Hotel and drank heartily and often in the bar, which really means nothing to you if you're not a literature buff. What might mean something to you is that the bar was designed by a 1930s Hollywood set designer who took his inspiration from ocean liners. You can feel it. It's that transporting.
The simple act of sitting in the deco lounge here is a straightforward pleasure, like a bubble bath or sex. And like either of those endeavors, it's best taken with a libation. The bar program is headed up by Christa Robinson; her contributions are the most exciting part of the project. Naturally, she's focused on drinking trends of that era — pre-Prohibition, a term that gets bandied around a lot but essentially means the golden age of cocktails. She's hyper-focused on local distilleries. As she puts it, she's locked in on stills "within a day's drive — or a bootlegger's drive — to the Twin Cities." We like the spirit of that.
The drinks are big and boozy, not those little eye-dropper affairs that piss you off because you know you'll have to order another in about five minutes. No, these are grown-up things that you can hold with your whole hand. Spend an hour going over the finer points of your crappy day as the cocktail and your cares magically, simultaneously, rinse away.
The Sidecar is a wide-mouthed martini glass of oak-barrel-aged apple brandy and Minnesota-made lemon ginger liqueur, contrary forces merging for a complementary experience. The rim is caked with a smoked bourbon sugar you'll want to lick away like a lollipop. Or try the Zelda, also with intense ginger, blackstrap bitters from local Bittercube, and opulent Prosecco bubbles. It comes finished with a bit of lime and candied ginger on a stick, which you could, in fact, treat like a lollipop.
Beer is served by the bottle or can (they were unable to add a tap system to the historic building), and wines by the glass and bottle are mostly affordable and approachable. There's something for everyone, but a tall frosty flute of rosé bubbles is really the can't-go-wrong choice for this occasion.
It can almost seem like sacrilege to be slurping, sipping, and slopping in a space so outrageously grand. If the Commodore were a museum, or a home, or a public space, then people could just wander around agog, jaws unhinged, and marvel at its utter beauty. But it's a restaurant and a bar, and so they've come up with comestibles that somehow seem sensible within these sanctified walls. In a very savvy move, they've refrained from going too far into fine dining territory, the obvious temptation. Instead, they've managed to keep the place jovial; it's a space for all occasions, a stop-in-two-or-three-times-a-week type of joint.
All three of the differently appointed lounge areas are seat-yourself, so there is little pressure to make reservations, even during peak weekend hours. The dining room, all grand piano, tiny table lamps, and drama, is reserved for more formal dining.
The price points are impressively egalitarian — as in $5 for the entire dessert list egalitarian. Starters usually hover under $10, and when they exceed that, it's worth the splurge. Three sandwich options including a Limousin beef burger, a pork cutlet sandwich, and a veggie burger offer something for the casual diner at $12 to $14 a pop, and the only entree over $30 is the pan-roasted ribeye. Otherwise, prices in the low twenties and teens make us grin with "hey, we can actually afford this place" contentment.
The best way to eat here is with drink in one hand, snack in the other. The smart, $6 "snacks and relishes" plate arrives at the table as quickly as a bartender can stir a martini. A little hill each of spiced nuts, pickles, olives, crudités with a wee pot of creamy dip, and a couple of garlic toasts means a person can take the edge off the hangries in a civilized way, tout de suite.
Classic apps of beef tartare and shrimp cocktail are done by the book. The tartare is animated with the briny interest of refrigerator pickles; shrimp are plump and al dente with a spot-on horseradish cocktail sauce. Deep-fried ham and cheese croquettes as well as house fries, dusted with rosemary and Parmesan and served with garlic aioli, appeal to the sensible imbiber in search of a base. Both are precisely prepared and playfully indulgent. A roasted red pepper bisque was like drinking red velvet, smooth and sublime.
If you're in it for a true dining experience, with entrees and all the rest, it might be wise to keep expectations in check. Chef Chris Gerster is formerly of the nearby University Club (also run by Commodore ownership), and sometimes the cooking veers a bit into catering territory. Many of these dishes could impress at a plated wedding dinner, but they leave something to be desired if you're in search of ingenuity. This is classic American cookery done mostly well, if not exceedingly so.
Olive oil poached salmon is cooked to mid-rare temp and anchored by a lake of potato puree that's practically a sauce, enlivened with a fig-almond relish. It was the best of the entrees we sampled. A vegetarian dish of grains with wild mushrooms, glazed vegetables, and a sunny-side-up egg was prettily plated, but was little more than two veggie-burger-quality patties wearing window dressing. A braised rabbit entree was truly unfortunate and off-puttingly bony; woody mushrooms and a white wine cream sauce did nothing to offset the pale, dry flesh which showed no signs of braise. The pork cutlet sandwich with gouda, kraut, apple, and dijon-mayo is a solid rendition of a bar sandwich — no better, no worse — and ultimately a safer bet than the entree list at a fair $12. Service is swift and excellent; Lorin Zinter, formerly of also excellent Heyday and Il Foro, acts as maître d'.
While the Commodore may very well look like a movie set, a cruise liner, and the belle of the ball, it's really only a bar — a bar fit for dignitaries, yes, but still a bar. Use it as such, and you're going to love it. You're going to love it a lot.The Commodore Bar & Restaurant
79 Western Ave. N., St. Paul
menu items: $4-$32