The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?
Chef Dennis Marron designs a menu of modern-American fare at The Commoner in the downstairs space of Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh.
PHOTOS BY LAURA PETRILLA
The Commoner in the stylish Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh need not try so hard to let you know that it’s different from a typical hotel restaurant. Or simply try so hard at all.
You’re going to hear quite a bit about how The Commoner, downtown, is connected at the hip to Pittsburgh. The restaurant even is named for William “The Great Commoner” Pitt the Elder, the guy for whom the city is named.
The most Pittsburgh thing about The Commoner, though, is a throwback that most new restaurants are getting away from: wheelbarrow-sized portions of food. If you’re not already staying at the Hotel Monaco, you might want to book a room … because you’re likely to leave The Commoner needing a nap.
Happily, just about everything that’s going to entice you into that after-meal coma is excellent. The talented Executive Chef Dennis Marron runs the kitchen. He comes to Pittsburgh by way of Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia, where he previously ran the kitchens at Kimpton hotel restaurants Poste Moderne Brasserie, Jackson 20 and The Grille at Morrison House.
At The Commoner, we’re told that Marron’s menu is meant to evoke a modern-American tavern but with homage to the chef’s Irish and British roots. It’s an assortment of largely comforting and familiar dishes with enough contemporary edge to hold your interest.
The pie bird that vents the steak and ale pie is, you guessed it, a penguin. Never mind that it doesn’t look like the hockey team’s mascot; it does its job. The suet crust, layered with a flaky crunch, is perfect. The pie as a whole is outstanding, though I’d like it better if the planks of steak were cut smaller.
The brick chicken and its can’t-stop-eating-this skin is a must-get. Beef tartare, infused with woodsmoke, tastes better than most hamburgers in town.
Pay attention to the specials. Marron turned a pork tenderloin from a whole hog primarily destined for housemade charcuterie into the highlight of one of my visits; contrasting textures and flavors, balanced acidity and a brown butter-carrot purée contributed to a fully composed plate. On another night, the diver scallops served with compressed apple, kale purée and cauliflower were an outstanding start to a meal.
There’s even a cookie table for dessert. It’s very Pittsburgh, and pretty, but I prefer the decadent sticky-toffee pudding — which transported me to London — and the delightful chocolate pot de crème.
Brunch is one of the best in Pittsburgh. The bacon beni is a standout: Perfectly poached eggs pick up porky smokiness and melt into a housemade English muffin. Pierogi and eggs is satisfying, but with so much “We are Pittsburgh,” I would’ve thought the pierogies would be better. The mammoth Bloody Mary bar is a lot of fun, and with garnishes such as grilled cheese, charcuterie and banana peppers, you practically can make a meal out of it.
Cocktails at The Commoner all are properly executed — the team of bartenders is impressive — but problematically designed. It’s another case of doing too much when refinement would have been a better choice.
The Oaked Vesper is emblematic: A classic Vesper is a frigid mix of mostly gin, some vodka and a hint of Lillet Blanc vermouth. Here, orange bitters, white oak and Fernet Branca are added to the recipe. The flavors clash and cancel, resulting in a drink that, as a friend said, “tastes like nothing. It just tastes like cold alcohol.”
The Commoner Old Fashioned is worse. Smoked pork belly is infused into bourbon, and barbecue bitters replace the classic Angostura bitters. Yikes.
I hope the servers skip from their scripts a little bit because corporate branding is worse when it pretends to be personable. If they had more freedom, I would have steered clear of the salty onion-soup burger. A server did try to guide me toward the classic Pa. burger, but I shouldn’t have to decode “That dish is great” from “That dish is ‘great,’ wink wink.”
Overall, service feels too heavily orchestrated, and at times it can be overbearing. Instead of replacing the 1-liter bottles of water on each table when they’re empty, servers refill water glasses practically every time someone takes a sip. You’re then left with two options: either constantly interrupt your conversation to say “thank you” to the server or pretend you’re a 19th-century baron who feels entitled to ignore the server’s humanity. Neither choice is appealing.
The Commoner doesn’t need to convince us that everything is “just great.” Trust us, we’ll get it — because overall this restaurant is great. Marron is an important addition to the city’s cadre of top-notch chefs. Between his menu and what I hope will be a more liberated service team, this is an important destination not just for hotel guests and downtown workers but for all of us who live in Pittsburgh.
458 Strawberry Way, downtown
Dennis Marron, Executive Chef | The Commoner
What’s your history working in kitchens?
I’m 41 now, and I’ve been in and out of restaurants since I was 15. I started working as a dishwasher. I hated it and swore I’d never work in the business again. But I was a little surfer bum, and [the] next summer, I needed money [for a new surfboard], so I went back again. I went to college but dropped out and went to culinary school instead. After that I went to San Francisco and worked front-of-house as bar manager with Kimpton at Scala’s Bistro. I eventually became a chef with Kimpton, left and worked as a chef in Minnesota. In D.C., [I] worked at Bistro Bis before I started working for Kimpton again.
What excites you about being a chef?
Could you be more specific?
Being involved every day with the people in my kitchen and getting them fired up about what we’re doing. This is a fun industry. People should be coming in here to have fun. We play with fire and drinks and knives, and it should be a good time.
You were involved in a lot of elements in The Commoner beyond menu planning, right?
I like to be involved with everything. I love it. When you look around here, you see a lot of my ideas. I picked all [of] the plates and flatware and glassware. I even picked out the uniforms.
Were you able to be this hands-on in your other jobs with Kimpton?
This is a step up as far as that goes. The others were properties that had been around for a while; Poste was around for eight years before I took over, so I couldn’t make huge changes. Here, we were building from the ground up, so my hands were on the steering wheel from the get-go.
What’s the difference between running a hotel restaurant kitchen and a standalone restaurant?
In a standalone, you don’t have to worry about the extra amenities [such as] in-room dining or do catering for all the banquets. It’s still fun and rewarding; people can get really good food in the middle of the night, and that’s good. It’s extra work, but it pays off. But we also want people to know our restaurants as their own entities. We like to say that, “We are the restaurant [that] is adjacent to the hotel.”