The Commander is in former pub premises just off Westbourne Grove, whose opening was on the 6th February. The tiled floor is attractive, with a mix of booths, tables and bar stool and tables. A small shellfish counter is set into the bar, and next door there is a shop selling meat, fish and even flowers (though this was closed on this Sunday evening visit). There is apparently also a courtyard with an outlet of the John Norris fishmonger, though this was not open when I visited. The restaurant menu features crustacea at market price and other assorted starters, mostly around the £7 mark, mains ranging from a burger at £9.75 to a veal chop at £19.25, with vegetables extra at £2.50 - £3.50.
The wine list is printed on the back of the menu and features well-chosen producers, the wines organised by style e.g. “spicy and robust”. A good feature is that many wines are available by the glass and carafe, but bizarrely the vintages are omitted, which I simply don’t understand given that the list has a few fairly serious wines. Strangely, given the care over the producers, there are no dessert wines (at least not when we visited, a few weeks after opening). The terrific Rioja Alta 904 1997 is listed at £48.95 for a wine that you can find in the shops for £22 or so. Tim Knappstein Riesling is £20.95 for a wine that retails at about £9, while Stonier Pinot Noir is £30.45 for a wine that will set you back about £13 in the shops.
Bread is from “Boulangerie du Pain”, not a supplier I have come across, and unfortunately the slices of assorted bread that we were offered were a little stale, though it was claimed that the bread is delivered daily (bread 11/20). Fish soup (£6.50) is a good test of a restaurant, and here it was rich and had real depth of flavour, though oddly it was served merely warm rather than hot. With a rather subdued aioli and croutons, this was much better than most fish soups that I have encountered, which are frequently insipid due to insufficient investment in the fish stock. For me this was the dish of the night (15/20). Crayfish cocktail (£7.50) was served in a glass with crisp baby gem lettuce and, instead of a Marie rose sauce, a smoked paprika mayonnaise. The crayfish was tender, but the paprika was indeed smoky: really smoky, and this rather dominated the dish (12/20).
Chicken breast (£13.25) on a bed of cassoulet made with chorizo and black-eyed beans featured nicely cooked corn-fed chicken, tasty chorizo and beans which were still firm (possibly even a little too firm) and which was well seasoned (14/20). This was more successful than a fish “pie” (£13.25, made with mash rather than pastry) which suffered from gloopy mash, but had decent chunks of fish and shellfish, such as mussels and rather tasteless salmon; pleasant but no more (12/20). Chips were cooked with their skins on and unfortunately were soggy, though buttered beans with onion and almonds were fine.
Lemon crème brulée (£5.75) with sable biscuits was well made, the top crisp, the custard having nice texture and lightly flavoured with lemon; the biscuits were crumbly and enjoyable (13/20). Kahlua don Pedro was essentially a milkshake with vanilla ice cream, but was watery with not much of the coffee liquor evident (11/20). Service was rather mixed; remembering who ordered what and even the two specials of the night seemed challenging, yet our waitress (Sarah) was very knowledgeable about the wine, and showed genuine interest in what we thought of the food. They also lost our reservation, though luckily this was not a problem as it turned out.
The bill came to £125 for two, admittedly with one of the priciest wines, but without other drinks other than water. A rather up and down meal, but with the best dishes showing a kitchen with some genuine ability. Head chef Robert Staegemann hails from Johannesburg but has cooked at Launceston Place and Vivat Bacchus in London. Meat is sourced from the excellent Ginger Pig butcher.