The Hot Plate: Unlikely British Import

CommonWealth Offers Up Gastropub Fare

Posted September 5, 2008 at 12:06pm

CommonWealth, the latest addition to the Columbia Heights dining scene, aims to give Washingtonians a taste of England. It certainly succeeds at that — though that may not be such a good thing.

[IMGCAP(1)]While Britain is known for many great things — Big Ben, beefeaters, David Beckham — its bad food is notorious. One has to wonder whether the lackluster fare at this

new gastropub is the fault of chef Jamie Leeds of Hank’s Oyster Bar or simply the British palate. Sure, steak and oyster pie ($18) and a butcher’s breakfast (two poached eggs, streaky bacon, black pudding, Surrey ham, pork and beans for $17) are a fun occasional meal, but with all the great international cuisine in this city, will diners be willing to visit this place more than once?

There is a certain novelty to the dishes served at CommonWealth, but it wears off quickly as we learn the truth: The quirky names for each meal are a cover for simple comfort foods that lack any kind of twist.

For instance, the Frog in a Puff ($7) sounds peculiar and fun, but in reality it’s a variation on a pig in a blanket, with a sausage in place of the hot dog. The rest of the menu is just as basic, with offerings such as chicken pot pie ($16), grilled fish ($18) and a grass-fed burger ($13). CommonWealth offers its own take on shepherd’s pie ($15) but makes it a vegetarian meal. Hot Plate is all about accommodating those who don’t eat meat, but to take this classic British dish and remove the signature ingredient is blasphemy.

In keeping with the theme of hearty food, a London Broil ($19) is offered on the menu. The well-intentioned dish — served with Worcestershire and Maldon smoked sea salt — was reminiscent of Hot Plate’s mother’s cooking, which is to say it was generic and lacked the sort of flare one hopes to find at a restaurant (sorry, Mom).

Make no mistake, the food is good — it tastes fresh and is cooked perfectly to order, but it’s nothing to write home about. Perhaps the greatest flaw in the menu is how basic the food tastes. Meat and potatoes certainly have their time and place, but that’s usually reserved for Sunday dinners with the in-laws, not Friday nights out on the town.

Hot Plate’s favorite item on the menu was the scotch eggs ($7). This diamond in the rough consists of several hardboiled eggs that are deep fried in a batter of pork and served with three dipping sauces. Crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle, the eggs are tasty and filling. Although they are listed as a “snack,” beware: These items are filling. Eat more than one or two and you won’t have room for the warm treacle tart.

Although much of the food leaves something to be desired, CommonWealth’s desserts ($7 each) really shine. The sticky toffee pudding was delightfully sweet, while the chocolate pudding was rich and creamy. The Young’s Double Chocolate Stout Float, one of the restaurant’s more creative offerings, features a scoop of ice cream in a pint of beer. At first this treat is bitter, but on a second or third taste is begins to shine as a chocolatey masterpiece.

[IMGCAP(2)]The restaurant offers daily specials that often feature more basic food, like locally bought pork and sirloin. Specials are rotated in and out every few days and are not limited to food alone. Recently the gastropub has offered a flight of local beers as a special. For $10, patrons would receive four small glasses of Old Dominion and the like.

One area in which CommonWealth truly channels jolly old England is its beer selection. With more than 40 beers available and 13 of those on tap, this is where the gastropub does not disappoint. The restaurant features such U.K. favorites as Boddingtons and Swithwicks, while still making room for domestic beers like Samuel Adams.

In addition, the restaurant also offers a wide array of wines, starting at as little as $26 a bottle and topping off at $90. Despite the drink menu, CommonWealth is too much restaurant and not enough bar. The bar is set in a corner with some two dozen stools, taking up only a quarter of the space. Hot Plate would much rather see a larger bar area peppered with tables.

The service at CommonWealth is touch and go. While one server was attentive, she lacked knowledge about the menu and refrained from recommending dishes. In fact, she repeatedly claimed that everything in the menu was great. Another server was extremely well-versed in the restaurant’s offerings but would often disappear from the table for long periods of time, causing diners to wonder whether they had been forgotten.

Despite its flaws, CommonWealth excels at ambiance. While it occupies a large space, the restaurant is cozy with tables set close enough so that diners can chat with folks nearby. It’s not uncommon to see a dozen people gathered around one, throwing back a few beers and having a laugh. And that’s not such a bad thing.

CommonWealth is located at 1400 Irving St. NW. Reservations can be made on Open Table or by calling 202-265-1400.