I’ll admit it — I wasn’t expecting much from Commonwealth Bar & Stage’s “Cafeteria.” Leery of it being trendily touted as a “street food commissary,” I decided I’d have to eat it to believe it.
Visiting the lounge on a quiet Wednesday night, I’m impressed with the club’s transformation — formerly the Warehouse (my formative stomping grounds), the now-defunct dungeon has been updated with warm wood tones, a cabinet of curios and a murder of taxidermied crows adorning the bar.
Still not convinced, I test the barkeep — ordering the Apple Shrub cocktail ($8), a refreshing drink featuring Maker’s Mark bourbon, grapefruit bitters, lemon and ginger beer.
It’s fantastic, emboldening me to venture a few selections from the snack list. For those who want a nibble or two with their libations, you can get three tasty bar snacks for $7 (or $3 each). I go with the cheese puffs, chips and olives.
Nothing disappoints. The cheese puffs turn out to be a Parmesan snack imported from Italy called Grok. The puffs taste exactly like those magical bites of crispy cheese left on your pan after making pizza. Also good are the crispy house-made chips tossed with chili, lime and sea salt. I love the marinated Turkish olives — they pop with fresh orange and spicy chile flavour.
Easing into the menu (created by Cafeteria chef Mark Rebalbos and Una’s Steve Smee), I refresh my palate with a Bourbon & Tea ($8, steeped black tea with a touch of sugar, peach bitters and Maker’s Mark).
The first dish to arrive is the slider ($15), featuring three decent-sized steamed buns with pulled pork adobo. I really like the flavour of this dish. The bun is warm and soft, the pork is tender and flavourful and the “quick pickles” add a perfect hit of acidity.
We also try the taquito, ($9, and nothing like 7-Eleven’s). The plate features four crispy tortillas stuffed with beer-braised chicken and Mexican cheese with a side of hot sauce and crema (similar to sour cream, hold the sour). I’m surprised by how light and airy these taquitos are — nothing heavy or greasy here. The beer-braised chicken flavour is subtle, but serves the dish well.
On the side, we share bites of the greens ($9). This sensational salad is bursting with fresh flavour. Topped with hot and crunchy wasabi peas, crisp snap peas and a tangy ponzu vinaigrette, the dish earns a solid thumbs up from our table.
The dumplings are great, too ($11). Wrapped in wonton wrappers and stuffed with fried mushrooms, ground shrimp and ground pork, these little gems are topped with a vibrant scallion sauce. Once again, this is a solid example of fatty and acidic flavours mingling in all the right ways.
Rounding out our dining experience, we have the meatballs ($9). I like the twist on these bad boys — made with chargrilled ground chicken, they are imaginatively topped with a salsa verde and Parmesan. The result is tender, juicy and tasty. Stay tuned for Meatball Mondays.
Overall, I have no complaints from our night at Cafeteria. Visiting on a “Britpop Wednesday,” it was definitely quieter than it is on the weekend, but we loved the music and the laid-back energy of the room. The service was friendly and courteous (especially when it came to sorting out the bill for a large group). As for the cool factor, Commonwealth has it in spades — and thankfully it’s not just an act: the food and drinks really do deliver.
The Cafeteria is open from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. On Friday, it’s open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.