The prelude was the house potato sourdough with smoked butter. I didn't know what to expect – smoked butter? - but as I am a bit of a butter fiend I dove right in. The butter was light, not particularly creamy, but with a gentle smokiness that made it interesting. The potato bread was also light and fluffy.
Back: cheeky snapper. Front: cheese and onion croquettes.
First course was the 'cheeky snapper' – flaked snapper cheek between two home-made potato chips. The presentation was impressive, and according to my fish-sampling dining companion, the snapper was as well. On offer for me was a specially prepared zucchini flower stuffed with goat's cheese. It was so light I finished it in two bites – a perfect way to begin the meal.
Next was cheese and onion croquettes, the second dish on offer for this course. They were covered in tiny curls of shaved parmesan. You wouldn't think that would alter the experience that much, but somehow the feather-light consistency of the parmesan changed the texture of what could have been a gloopy dish.
Second course was another fish dish: cured salmon with smoked yoghurt, watermelon and radish. For the non-fish eater they served up a tomato salad, and in all honesty I think I got the better part of the deal. While the fish dish was by all accounts a set of well-matched flavours, my tomato salad had gorgeous fresh tomatoes, some crazy kind of vinegairette gel, whipped goats cheese and truffled panko bread crumbs. Even more interesting was the garnish: salt bush, the kind of succulent you see on the beach, which I never knew you could eat. The leaves delivered tiny little bursts of salt water that was refreshing.
Third course was chicken two ways. First of all were confit chicken wings on a mushroom puree. I am never a fan of fat – seriously, I have to cut it off my bacon even if it means dissecting a burger – and chicken wings are never high on my list of things to eat. That said, these chicken wings were delightful. Something about the cooking process had rendered the fatty areas down into golden, liquid form that was pleasant in the mouth.
It was the second chicken dish that was the real show-stopper. Smoked chicken breast with roasted potatoes and a grain salad. Yes, it's that word again – smoked. I think the guys at the Commoner have a bit of an obsession with it, and by this stage I was starting to get a bit obsessed too. The smoky flavour in the tender chicken just lifted it to another level, bringing out those deep, essential chicken flavours which modern farming methods seem to have obliterated. From now on, for me, that chicken dish is the high bar against which others will be judged: it was that good.
Smoked chicken with grain salad and roast potatoes.
Having achieved a high with the savoury courses, it was time for dessert. First up was brown ale pudding with salted caramel sauce and cream, which was good but not as jaw-droppingly good as the previous dishes had been. This was succeeded by French apple doughnuts, small balls of dough with apple puree inside. These had a theatricality to them that was a satisfying conclusion to the meal.
Our cocktails deserve a mention. I ordered a summery strawberry concoction which was refreshing. My companion's cocktail was a mixture of whiskey and roasted orange, less of a success but a spirited try at something different.
It is possible to order from the menu at the Commoner, and many of the things that are part of the 'feed me' option are available separately. Overall, I left the Commoner feeling more satisfied in stomach and palate than I have at other, pricier restaurants' degustations. I felt the whole time that I was in the hands of a chef who had a journey in mind and was willing to lead me there by the tastebuds. I will go back.