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Culture / Foodie Events

Meet the Chef

Commonwealth’s Commencement

BY // 02.07.15

Championed as one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the season, Commonwealth is bringing the bang back to Washington Avenue. I sat down with executive chef Michael Sanguinetti and the Commonwealth team (sous chef and pastry chef Kelly Alsobrook, sommelier Kenneth Lounge and director of marketing Samantha Simpson) for the inside scoop on this new kid on the block (which is remodeling TQLA’s old digs) and Sanguinetti’s next Washington spot, Black Orchid.

TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT COMMONWEALTH.
Michael Sanquinetti: It will be high-end but still casual. A lot of our food tends to be eaten with your hands or shared, I wouldn’t call them shared plates, but there’s a whole section in roast that has meals for two people. That’s how I generated the menu. The base of the cuisine is French — I [myself] have a French culinary base, but it varies between my influences. My family is Cajun, so I have a lot of Cajun influence; I spent a lot of time in Hawaii, so I have a lot of international influence and Asian cuisine from that. I made a broad menu here, but I put everything in to flow well together. And I’m doing it with local ingredients as much as I can, either from the Gulf or from local farms and ranches. The concept of the restaurant is nice but not overwhelming. You come in here feeling like you’re at home — you feel relaxed … The staff we’re hiring understands that that’s what we want to do. It’s going to be really tight service, really good food, but with an emphasis on making sure the guests are having fun and relaxed and not feeling stuffy.

DESCRIBE THE IDEAL COMMONWEALTH DINER.
MS: I always felt I alienated a lot of my friends when it came to my cuisine, because it was always higher-end cuisine, no matter where I worked. I never got to see my friends — and I use the word “friends” as a loose term. I never saw the people I cooked for. The reason I got into cooking was to cook for my people. That’s why I came here. I said,”Let’s grab this place and really turn it into something.” You can come here two to three times a week, and you’re not going to spend a load of money, but you’ll get really good food.

FAVORITE DISH ON THE MENU.
MS: That’s a tough question for a chef; all of your dishes are your favorite. I actually like our roast section the most. I’m going to do a deep-fried whole chicken with cauliflower au gratin, and it’s going to have a bit of Asian flavors in there, and it’s going to be really good. I really like this one because I’ve never worked at a place where we served carved meats, and I’m excited about doing that.

HOW DID YOU MESH THE DIFFERENT CUISINES?
MS: I take different aspects of the cuisines that I like — what I love about New Orleans, Korean food, Japanese food … It’s not a fusion in the sense of “this is part French” and “this is part Japanese.” I just take interesting flavors and grow from there. I’m always thinking, ‘How can I do something differently?’ I have a Korean oyster — it’s butter and kimchi on top of a grilled oysters. Totally different from anyone else. I want to be different; I want to be unique but also recognizable. That’s the mentality I have: Do everything right at the base level, then just add certain flavors to mix it up.

DESSERTS?
Kelly Alsobrook: It’s a French-based menu. What I like most is to be around friends and family. I want the desserts to bring people together.

Holiday Gifting

  • Cle Du Peau - Lip Gloss
  • Mariquite Masterson
  • Bond No 9 - Perfume
  • Loeffler Randall - Shoes
  • Casa di Lino
  • Cle Du Peau - Nail Polish
  • Oscar De La Renta - Clutch
  • Bond No 9 - Candle
  • Loeffler Randall - Clutch
  • Mariquite Masterson
  • Nocturne Studio
  • Oscar De La Renta - Earrings

MS: We’re going to have beignets, milk and cookies, things that are sharable. Sometimes I go out and don’t get dessert, but if I had milk and cookies on the menu, I would ask my friends if they want to share some. There will be six to eight of them in a set, and you can have one or two, and I’m going to find a tray and an old-school milk jug, and we’ll set it up like that. I told Kelly, “If we’re doing milk and cookies, we’ve got to knock it out the park. We better have the best cookie in town.”

THE DECOR IS STUNNING! WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION?
Samantha Simpson: Growing up, we had very tall ceilings. We had deep colors on the walls and big bright windows. We’re going to have that home feeling — the golds, the browns and all that stuff. Black tablecloths to make it more intimate. All the cuisine is going to be very well-dressed. We’re going to have a lot of antiques around for that home feeling, like grandma’s house. We want a sense of community. Very private but also like a party. We are excited for the cocktails, which are going to take it away from that home feeling. You get the best of both worlds.

SPEAKING OF COCKTAILS, IS THERE GOING TO BE A SIGNATURE DRINK?
MS: Andrew Grala (beverage director) is working on the drink menu right now. He’s going to chop it into sections.

Kenneth Lounge: Most likely, its going to be three sections: classic, modern and then unique to us. Maybe five selections on each, which pretty much can change with the weather. During hot weather, we’ll have drinks with crushed iced, very refreshing. Andrew has a good sense of balance; he is a very sharp, makes very cool, wildly creative cocktails. It’s not just going to suit people who like bright, tropical fruity drinks or drinks with lots of acidity. There isn’t going to be limit on the wine program— there’s going to be selection from around the world. The specialty will be French, for sure —French and American will probably make 60 percent of the list. The last 40 percent will be spread from around the world, anywhere from New Zealand and Austria, even places like Hungary, Greece and Lebanon. Lebanon has some good wines. It’s not going to be your typical Cabernets or Chardonnays by the glass. I’m not on a crusade to educate people about wines, but I like to show people new things.

WILL COMMONWEALTH HAVE A BRUNCH MENU?
MS: Yes, Kelly worked on it, and I just tweak it. It’s around 20 to 25 items. We will be serving brunch Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

KA: My family is from Louisiana, so it’s a menu of items I grew up eating. My favorite is the gumbo, which comes with a biscuit and poached eggs.

MS: We want people to have breakfast food on Friday. We will make our own granola, oatmeal and grits with Texas-based products. I looked at the brunch menu and thought, ‘This is going to be good.’ It’s an opportunity to do something different. We’re hoping to knock brunch out of the park. We will also have a great live band Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. We are hoping to have two contrasting entities, but also two that work very well together.

SO WHEN’S THE OPENING?
MS: We’re planning a soft opening to the public, but our main day is going to be Valentine’s Day. (Note: Commonwealth will open from 6 to 10 pm on Valentine’s Day and will be accepting reservations by February 18)

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE WASHINGTON AVENUE AFTER ALL OF THE RECENT CLOSINGS?
MS: Washington Avenue is coming back, and it’s coming back hard. And with all the other places planning on opening, it’s going to be a great scene. It’s great: The flow of three years ago was in Washington Avenue before everyone went to Midtown. Hopefully we get good impactful restaurants and bars coming in, and the scene will be here from now on, and it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s not going to fade away. Both locations (Commonwealth and Black Orchid) have phenomenal parking. That’s a perk of what we’re doing. This location has a whole garage.

WHAT’S THE CONCEPT OF YOUR BLACK ORCHID?
MS: It’s going to be half the space [of Commonwealth] and be more of a lounge. The space is beautiful. It’s going to be high-end, elegant, with a focus on seasonal tasting menus, which will probably change weekly. And it will be more cocktail oriented. I will have a 20-item menu on a regular basis but focus on the tasting menu. Tasting menu is where I personally cook for them. Of course, desserts will be more elegantly plated.

MUSIC?
MS: We will have a grand piano and live music later on in the day. We’re planning a service with SUVs to pick you up within a three- to four-mile radius so you can come and hang out with us. It will be great place for a beautiful Sunday fun day.

OPENING DATE?
MS: At the latest, May 1. I’m hoping for April.

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