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Craft and Commerce

675 W. Beech Street, Little Italy

Craft and Commerce occupies the spot in Little Italy where a wannabe trendy restaurant named Illume briefly bloomed and died, trying to be a magnet for the hip young crowd moving into the nearby condos. It flopped, but this new gastropub seems a roaring (literally) success. Prices are lower, and the very air beckons “come as you are” — although many in the crowd are spiffy as all get out, the women sharply dressed, the heavily tatted guys following the lead of the waiters in wearing cool hats or caps (e.g., Irish tweed newsboy caps — no loutish backward gimme caps like the kind you see in sports pubs).

The atmosphere is pubby and, well, atmospheric, with weathered wooden-slat walls, shelves to the ceiling stuffed with secondhand hardcover classic book sets, low lighting with glassed-in candles on the tables, and a din of exuberant conversation. The babble overrides the eclectic music, which occasionally includes somberly passionate country blues that seem to quiet the crowds suddenly, captured by the sacred beauty.

The menus are handwritten into softcovered, small, thick unlined notebooks, like those used for essay exams in school. They’re hard to read by candlelight; luckily, I’d brought a more legible printout of the website menu. (If you’re of an age to join the presbyopian congregation, consider bringing a penlight.)

“Fries and pickles?” asked Mark. “What’s that?” Batter-fried pickles are a Southern favorite, I explained. The fries in this instance are made of sweet potatoes, the house-made pickles (soft, sweet-sour cucumber chunks, parsnip spears) are cornmeal-battered, scattered with blue cheese, served with a habit-forming malt aioli for dipping. The pickles weren’t at all Southern, unless you mean Southern California, and they were fiendishly salty. The dish arrived before our drinks or water, and after a few bites, we all took an intermission until the liquids arrived.

The cocktails were creative and flavorful. They cost $10 to $11, same as a glass of wine from the pitifully short list. It was a hot night, and I tried a tall, refreshing Carolina Cross (gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, fizz, watermelon chunks on top, loads of ice). Scottish Sue hit the Pan American Highway (a small, intriguing glass of white rum, mescal, lime, a discreet touch of pomegranate molasses), while the Lynnester ventured on the Silk Road (rum, cognac, chai tea–infused sweet vermouth, and an overdose of Angostura bitters). “That’s a real adult cocktail,” she said. It tasted quite Caribbean, but there, they’d back way off on those Trinidadian bitters. Mark had a short glass of St. Bernardus, a dark, nutty Belgian ale with 10.5 percent alcohol.

Devils on Horseback proved a modest portion of various foodstuffs fried in bacon-wraps: cheddar-stuffed dates, apple slices layered with blue cheese, asparagus with mushrooms and garlic. It all seemed inconsequential, culinary trivia. (How I’d love to juggle these combinations, with challenging blue cheese in the sweet dates, the bland cheddar melting through the tart apples!)

A double order of broiled oysters (four for $9) divided the posse’s opinions. The bivalves are big, squishy meats served without shells, nicely topped with frizzled seaweed, scallions, and chervil with a parsleyed broiled lemon for squeezing on as desired. Mark and I both liked them initially — but we left over the two that Sue and Lynne left over for us. They tasted generic, neither briny nor distinctly regional, much like bottled oysters from Vons, sexy only until you kiss them.

The dish that spurred my visit (which Lynne had discovered online, of course) was roasted bone marrow. Each plate of it consists of two huge split-open caveman-size shinbones, full of that delicious stuff. It’s pale, fatty, satiny, with a melting texture like custard. It reminded Sue of escargots, mainly because the kitchen loads it up with garlic (and chopped scallions), plus way more salt than it needs or wants. You can scoop it straight from the bone to eat (with a fork, no spoons provided here) or spread it with a knife on the lightly toasted lemon bread alongside. It comes with a tall heap of young greenery in a light, barely sweet dressing, emphatically the most enjoyable salad of those we tried.

Panzanella salad was a disaster. I love it when done right: a mass of greenery, sweet onion, tomatoes, and herbs like Italian parsley mixed with chunks of lightly toasted day-old Italian or baguette bread in a well-balanced vinaigrette. The bread softens as it absorbs the dressing and becomes a jolly, sensual player in the cast. Here, though, we found a single slab of hard-toasted lemon bread served on the side. Tearing it up and mixing it in was DIY. But no use: the vinaigrette was swamped with vinegar (and — need I say it? — salt). None of us found this salad edible.

The duck Cobb salad was another doubtful do-it-yourself project. Here, a tender, hard-cooked egg with a good soft yolk. There, the salad mixture heavily dressed with green goddess. On the side, small slices of heavily spiced, overcooked duck breast. On another side, sliced avocado. Chop-ins include pleasantly firm asparagus and crisp bacon. The original Hollywood recipe (from the Brown Derby, wasn’t it?) called for a blue cheese (Roquefort or Gorgonzola). Here, they substitute hard little cubes of “aged cheddar” (same as is stuffed in the dates, but unmelted). It’s stodgy, with a gummy texture and no bite. Whatever its pedigree (certainly not Vermont’s Grafton or anything approaching that caliber), it tastes like supermarket deli cheese. Okay, prices are reasonable here, but they already have blue cheese in the kitchen, so why not use some where it really matters?

We’d chosen the Cobb as a main course after hearing the people next to us begging for black pepper, red pepper, anything to liven up the mac and cheese. That sounded our blandness alarm. At the table on the other side, a guy was clearly relishing his hotdog. These are good beef dogs with crackly casings. They come three ways: with sauerkraut, with crunchy Asian vegetables, and, our choice, with heirloom-tomato relish, chicharrones, chives, and spicy fondue. This proved the best of our entrées, fresh and lively.

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Naomi Wise Nov. 28, 2010 @ 9:08 p.m.

Mea culpa! (as it were). The intense anchovy sauce at Zingerman's that I identified by its ancient Latin name, garum, is nowadays called Colatura by the Neapolitans who bottle it. Costs $17 for a 100-ml bottle but keeps until ancient in the fridge. More frugal in the long term than opening a whole can of anchovies just to use a little shot in a Pasta Puttanesca or a frutti di mare spaghetti. (Though I do wonder if nam pla or nguoc manh might possibly work as well.)


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