The Commissary, Chef John Tesar’s indoor-outdoor burger & bites venue in One Arts Plaza has been packed since day one. Reasonably so. The restaurant, which specializes in daring combinations of ingredients (burgers made from braised pig’s tail, pork, and beef) and new approaches to old standards (avocado fries), is to summertime what the swallow is to spring—a harbinger of good things to come.
(Writer’s note: To be clear, this review of The Commissary was done incognito. We paid for everything we ate, and no preferential treatment was given. My later visit to The Table, which is mentioned as a “nice detail” toward the end of this article, was part of an invitation dinner and was hosted after the review process was complete. While I mention The Table in this review of The Commissary, it is added as an aside and is not reviewed herein. We apologize for any confusion or underrepresentation of the tots.)
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The set-up: When I was in high school, my PE teacher looked at me one day and said, “Well, you may not be fast, but at least you’re uncoordinated.” Why do I bring this up? Because, luckily, I wasn’t any more interested in being an athlete than The Commissary is in fine dining. Had Tesar (or I) aimed differently, neither of us would have found our respective niches. In Tesar’s case, a tightly packed and, dare I say, cheap gourmet burger joint in an easy-to-get-to location with excellent views.
On the menu: While an appetizer is not a must, a few items on the menu make notable showings. Several diners were happily tucked into a mountainous bowl of Parmesan popcorn, and while I do not eat them myself, I hear from a trusted source that the deviled eggs are bright and seasoned to perfection. For myself, I headed directly to the salad section of the menu, where the reputation of the fennel hearts, shaved artichoke, reggiano cheese, lemon and olive oil made ordering it a must. The fennel’s refreshingly high water content and lemony dressing disappeared into each other so completely that it felt impossible to differentiate the two—as if the lemony edge rose up from within the fennel itself. The tomato-based salads, especially those with Paula Lambert’s cheeses, will only improve as the season progresses.
The unorthodox Burger Bar appears to be Tesar’s wheelhouse. Sure, when faced with the 14 variations on the menu you could order the more traditional Magic Burger (with aged cheddar, bacon, lettuce, and tomato on an English muffin), but such prudence would be a crime in the presence of The Rib, a falling-apart, braised short rib topped with collard greens and horseradish mayo and served on a brioche bun. Seriously. Likewise, the lamb-based Tandoori Burger sings with tandoori spices, pickled cucumbers, and tzatziki. (Unfortunately, our first run at this burger arrived in a tartare state as opposed to the medium-well we’d requested. Its replacement was a little long in coming but was, while still not medium-well, at least more cooked.) The jury is still out on The Tail End, a patty of braised pig’s tail, ground pork, ground beef, topped with roasted pork belly, green tomato chutney, and jalapeno mayo and served on a brioche bun. The comments boil down to this: love it, but don’t want to look at it or think about it. Fair enough. And while I did not order The Farmer, a fried duck egg, Vermont white cheddar, and speck atop a beef burger served on a brioche bun with eschire butter, my colleague who did had nothing but praise, despite the messiness of the fried egg topper.
I could order the sides alone and leave completely happy. The sweet potato tots could easily double as a dessert. The onion rings are crisp and batter-dipped, and the salty fries (both skinny and fat) have the option of being topped with Tesar’s secret-recipe magic or disco sauces. As for desserts, if Tesar’s doing his job right you shouldn’t have room for one. But if you do, the chocolate and hazelnut tart with caramelized bananas and chocolate sorbet is small enough to not overwhelm yet large enough for two people to each feel like they’ve had a sweet spoiler.
Who was there: Lunch draws the downtown business crowd, natch, while the dinner bunch appears to be 75 percent theater goer and 25 percent anything goes.
Where to sit: Because the room is so tightly packed, I’d sit in the banquette seating or on one of the outside patios. Because of the restaurants western-facing glass wall, most seats offer that sought-after view of downtown.
Price: Impressively inexpensive. Burgers start at $6 and only go as high as $14 (for the crab cake burger). Most fall around $9. Tap wine is $6-$7 a glass. Wine cocktails are $9. Sangria can be ordered by the punchbowl for $35 for a 9-glass bowl. Beer ranges from $3 (Blue Ribbon Lager) to $19 (750 ml bottle of Saison Dupont).
Mild concern: While the servers run hot & cold, they do seem to be improving. By the time summer evenings are fully upon us and downtowners flock to the patios for after-work cocktails, I feel confident that the service kinks will be worked out.
Nice detail: On a separate occasion, Tesar invited me to a private tasting preview for The Table, Tesar’s gourmet tasting room within the restaurant. Unlike other private tables, this one will be open to singletons, couples, and larger groups and will be treated as a community table serving a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings. On the night I visited, it became clear very quickly that no one else in town is doing anything like this at this price point. The table is casual, yet refined. Friendly, yet elevated. Six-course, fixed price menus will run you a mere $55 on Thursday, $65 on Friday, and $75 on Saturday evenings. Wine adds a modest additional expense. Menus start with canapes, amuse-bouche, and a cheese cart and finish with the restaurant’s signature candy cart (think macaroons and toffee). Best of all, when you reserve a seat, it’s yours for the evening. No bum’s rush. The atmosphere is intended to be deconstructed, communal, and fun.
The takeaway: Two sentences—I would walk a mile for The Rib. It’s that good.