CommonWealth Mixes It Up With Fine Fare, Pub Comfort

CommonWealth, the newest restaurant by chef Jamie Leeds and business partner Sandy Lewis, opened in August as the area’s first “gastropub.” The gastropub movement, which began in the early 1990s in England, was designed to give diners a broader range of better food while still enjoying the comfortable atmosphere of a traditional British pub.

In opening CommonWealth, Leeds offers a new take on the bistro trend popular in D.C. with good food at lower price points in a more casual setting. It’s a model Leeds is familiar with. Her first two solo ventures, Hank’s Oyster Bar in D.C. and Alexandria, Va., were designed to provide reasonable cost alternatives to the larger seafood establishments. With CommonWealth, Leeds has taken on a bigger challenge, both in choice of location, Columbia Heights, and in her palate, English cuisine. Columbia Heights, though a vibrant up-and-coming neighborhood, is less well established than either Dupont Circle or Old Town Alexandria as a dining destination, and English cooking, long the butt of many jokes, isn’t as easy a sell as fresh seafood.

That being said, there is every reason to make a trip to CommonWealth. The “British-inspired, American-bred” menu is all local, seasonal and humanely raised, according to the restaurant, which says it seeks to promote the common well being, or wealth, of its community. Leeds has actually been delighting the D.C. community since 2002 as an early proponent of the comfort food movement in fine dining, serving then as the executive chef at 15 Ria. Turning her sights from Southern to English comfort food seems like a natural progression — one she handles with ease at CommonWealth, where she has put together a menu of English pub favorites, a few formal dinner dishes, and even a Sunday roast special served family style.

Whether as a bar snack or starter, the small plates on the menu offer a number of must-try items. Fried lemon-stuffed olives are little bites of salt and sour that are a perfect complement to a butcher’s or cheese plate. The frog in a puff — a long lamb sausage wrapped in an oily-rich puff pastry — is probably as bad for you as it is delicious. And the Scotch eggs, hardboiled with a crisp, thin sausage shell and served with three different sauces, are tasty packages.

The menu also offers a variety of pies and pasties, including a traditional chicken pot pie filled with diced chucks of garden vegetables and chicken in a thick gravy, as well as a steak and oyster pie and an interesting vegan version of shepherd’s pie made with lightly smoked tofu.

As CommonWealth is a pub, one expects fish and chips, and expects them to be good. They are. Chunks of haddock are beer battered and deep fried to a medium golden brown. Each piece breaks with a satisfying crunch to reveal tender, moist, albeit slightly greasy flakes of fish. The chips meanwhile are thick wedges of fresh potatoes, browned but not crisp, with an unusually strong baked potato flavor. A surprise comes in a few lightly battered and fried pickled green beans and carrots, whose acidic bite is the prefect accent to the mild fish and potato dish.

From bangers and mash (sausage and potatoes to us Yanks) to London broil and whole-roasted trout, the menu offers enough choices to suit almost any appetite, although strictly vegetarian entrées are limited. But for a meatless meal, there are a number of excellent side dishes, including baked potatoes with a variety of vegetarian toppings (the bacon and crème fraiche is almost irresistible, though not vegetarian), an ultra smooth cauliflower gratin and a green been casserole in a cremini cream that brings to mind the richest and best mushroom soup. For serious meat eaters, a butcher’s plate, offering cold and hot choices, spans the spectrum with country ham, headcheese, a variety of cold sausages, black pudding, stuffed trotters, pork belly and deviled sweetbreads.

In a departure from Hank’s Oyster Bar, Leeds has included desserts on Commonwealth’s menu. Dessert, or pudding as it’s called in England, is perhaps the one category of English cooking that has always been taken seriously (despite having names like roly-poly, fruit fool and spotted dick). Although she hones closely to traditional versions of the dishes, one distinct characteristic of Leeds’s desserts is that they are not excessively sweet. CommonWealth ’s trifle is the classic English dessert, made in individual serving dishes with layers of pound-like cake, a tart lemon mousse-like filling, raspberry sauce and a dollop of cream. The sticky toffee pudding is a warm, moist little cakelet doused in a rich butter-sugar sauce. And the elegant Earl Grey semifreddo (semi-frozen) is a subtly flavored creamy delight, featuring just a hint of bergamot paired with a caramel shortbread. If chocolate is necessary to make the meal complete, the chocolate pudding cake with ice cream packs a serious chocolate punch.

Business partner Sandy Lewis, who is also the restaurant’s beverage director, has put together a nice collection of beers, from well-established British and American favorites such as Boddingtons pub ale and Old Dominion lager, to more unusual selections such as Belhaven Twisted Thistle India pale ale and Victory Golden Monkey ale. Wines are not neglected on the CommonWealth menu either, with Lewis selecting a group of wines from both sides of the Atlantic to complement the dishes.

GDM Design’s Eric Gronning, who helped create the look of the two Hank’s, worked with a palate of dark tones to create an almost industrial feel for CommonWealth. And in a nod to the environment, he incorporated recycled materials into the design. Wood reclaimed from the sides of barns is used to create strong brown accents that break up the stark gray cinderblock wall. Browns are echoed in the wooden tables, bar stools and the comfortable leather seating. Large black-flecked floor tiles in red and gray are reminiscent of the London Underground, while the entrance is dominated by a large red structure that looks for all the world like an oversize British telephone booth. During the day, floor-to-ceiling storefront windows let in the sunlight while at night, hand-blown glass fixtures cast a warm glow over the dining areas.

CommonWealth has caught on quickly, and space in the bar area, which cannot be reserved, fills up quickly. And as the days grow shorter and cooler, and appetites for hardier food grow, so will CommonWealth’s appeal. The only thing missing will be a roaring fireplace. CommonWealth 1400 Irving St., NW in Columbia Heights (202) 265-1400

Hours: Sun. and Tue. – Thu from 5 – 11 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. from 5 p.m. – midnight Closed Mon.

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About the Author

Rachel Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.