Restaurant Reviews

For Now, Stick to the Small Plates at Commonwealth

For a “small plate,” the charcuterie and foie gras grilled cheese at Commonwealth is surprisingly generous — not to mention beautiful. Four crunchy squares of a deeply toasted, buttery foie gras sandwich mind one side of the big wooden tray while mound after mound of paper-thin prosciutto adorns the other. In the middle are small heaps of microgreens, oil-cured sundried tomatoes, shreds of confit onion, blistered yellow cherry tomato, pickles and toasty chopped walnuts. Joining the crowd are rounds of capicola and a perfect white ball of dense goat cheese. It’s a great dish, and at $16, a good value, too.

French-influenced dishes like these are wildly successful at Commonwealth. It is obvious that chef Michael Lee Sanguinetti, formerly of Artisans and a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, is trying hard to produce unique and creative fare. Sometimes it works. Other times, the ideas don’t pan out, and that’s more likely to happen with hearty dishes than delicate ones, which are usually quite grand.

A case in point: the polenta-crusted chicken-fried steak. All sorts of places try to come up with their new-and-improved riff on the original. There’s chicken-fried steak battered in crushed cornflakes and chicken-fried steak covered in chile con queso instead of gravy. Then there’s the abomination of chicken-fried steak covered in brown gravy instead of thick, white country gravy speckled with black pepper. What is this world coming to?

The only time any of these “improvements” surpass the classic is when the meat itself has had an upgrade. Traditionally, a cheap, tough piece of meat that’s been tenderized, like round steak, is swapped for a higher-grade cut like New York strip. It’s nice and fancy, yet cheap cuts are often just as intensely “beefy” when treated right.

Commonwealth is using tender 44 Farms skirt steak, and it’s by far the best part of the restaurant’s take on chicken-fried steak. The thick, tough, grainy polenta crust is best scraped off and set to the side. This is not a good application for coarse cornmeal. Some classics should be perfected, not reinvented.

There are mashed potatoes on the side that could also use some help. They’re close to being good — just not quite there yet. They seemed like an amalgam of two parts: one mashed until just chunky, and another whipped with plenty of cream, butter and salt. The restaurant says that’s not the case, that these are all made in one batch, so it’s a mystery how they can be both pleasingly chunky and unpleasantly sticky at the same time.
The flavor is good but the potatoes are a shapeless mass. They flatten and extend, like a big, white, lumpy spoonful of pancake batter. The lightly breaded, slightly briny okra that also came with the chicken-fried steak, though, is a side dish to eat like popcorn at a movie theater.

It’s typical for a dish — especially if it features meat — to sound really promising at Commonwealth, only to be thwarted by poor execution. Cider-brined, fennel-rubbed rack of pork from Black Hill Meats sounded as if it was going to be a clear winner (and at $45, it really needed to be).

When the platter arrived, the “rack” had been cut into just two thick pork chops. It was surprising, considering the price, that the rack wasn’t at least three bones, first of all. Second, why ruin the presentation by cutting it apart before it hits the table?

We called to find out the answer. It turns out customers complained about receiving a rack that needed to be cut apart. That just figures — try and do something cool and then someone has to spoil it for everyone else.

Unfortunately, the rack didn’t get good treatment in the oven and cooked too hot, too fast. The exterior was as dry as cardboard while the sides of the chops that had been on the thick interior of the roast remained pink and raw. It was heartbreaking to see such a good piece of locally raised meat miss out on its potential.
The sliced chicken breast in a lunchtime Greek salad had more of that sawdust character. The salad itself was fine, though very standard, with lettuce, plenty of halved, marinated artichoke hearts, and feta cheese crumbles lightly bathed in red pepper vinaigrette. Here’s where some of that creativity really could have been put to work. Olive tapenade was promised, but whole black olives were received.

Yet amid the failures is more glory. The avocado in the avocado and prawn lumpia was undetectable, yet the dish resolutely succeeded without it. The big prawns were wrapped in crispy pastry similar to that used in egg rolls — deep-fried, pointy, prickly heads and all. They were as crispy and crunchy as thick potato chips and just as tasty, while tempered a bit with the boundary-breaking addition of smooth, silky queso fresco inside the rolls. The tray of three disappeared quickly. That’s a theme at Commonwealth, by the way. Most small plates come with three pieces and are ideal for three friends to share — or two really close ones.

The list of white and sparking wines is meager — only 21. These are the best friends of summertime dining, but the list has twice as many reds. It would have been lovely to have been able to order a white wine from Alsace, but the only one on the list was a sweet Gewürztraminer, which just wasn’t going to go with everything ordered.

A middle-of-the-road Riesling from Noble House in the Mosel was settled on, and it was serviceable if not inspiring. No vintages are listed, which makes ordering even more difficult. The markup here is roughly three times retail, so don’t be surprised to pay $45 for a bottle that can be had for $15 at Spec’s.

There’s evidence, though, that cocktails are what to order at Commonwealth. A layered riff on a Dark and Stormy, made with pear- and vanilla-infused dark rum, seemed poised to be too sweet. Instead, it was fragrant, cold and balanced. Our server (who also did a wonderful job making the cocktail since the bartender was MIA) suggested pushing the lime slice on top down to the bottom of the drink to mix it, taking a bite of the crisp, raw wedge of pear balanced atop the rim, and then taking a sip. Some of us don’t like being told what to do, but in this case, it’s advice well worth taking.
Kudos to Commonwealth for actually having a pastry chef — something many restaurants decide they can’t afford and yet which makes so much difference in the dining experience. Commonwealth retained Kelly Alsobrook, who, like Sanguinetti, used to work at Artisans. She has received classic French training at Culinary Institute LeNôtre, and it shows. There was not one loser among the desserts we tried, although Houston’s famous humidity was not kind to her sugar work.

The crust of sugar on the crème brûlée was a bit soft instead of a hard shell to be broken through with a spoon. The same humidity factor turned the pretty mass of spun sugar on top of an otherwise perfect Pavlova into sticky strands that practically melted when touched. Houston is hell on sugar.

Regardless, the crème brûlée custard, served in a bowl big enough for a crowd, was perfectly smooth and thick, and the Pavlova was even better — a huge, snowy-white, crusty meringue with just a touch of sweetness. It was topped with a generous swirl of whipped cream and garnished with delightful brittle-encrusted hazelnuts. Crowning the whole thing was half a sliced Bosc pear macerated in brandy.

The space hasn’t changed much since it was the cleverly named, agave-spirit—focused bar and restaurant TQLA. The bar area, which runs half the length of the back wall, is still there. The rest of the space, where the individual tables and chairs are, is sufficient if a little austere, with a concrete floor and floor-length windows that face Washington Avenue. There is a free garage in back, which is extremely helpful in the parking-starved area.

Commonwealth is as likely to delight as it is to disappoint. The dishes that benefit from its eccentric bursts of creativity, such as the charcuterie platter, are well worth checking out. However, until Commonwealth masters meat cookery and rethinks its wine list, restaurant-goers should stick with the small plates, desserts and other non-meat-centric dishes and have a cocktail or an interesting craft beer alongside. 

4601 Washington, #130, 281-501-9516. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Seafood gumbo $7
Scotch quail eggs $10
Greek salad $12
Avocado and prawn lumpia $14
Charcuterie and foie gras grilled cheese $16
Polenta chicken-fried steak $14
Pan-seared gulf snapper $30
Rack of pork $45
Candy bar $7
Crème brûlée $7
Poached pear Pavlova $8
Stormy pear cocktail $10
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook