When last the Underground Gourmet encountered Stephen Tanner — who, as any aficionado of the Buttermilk Brooklyn scene can tell you, is somewhat of a seminal figure, having co-founded the original Pies-N-Thighs and cooked at Diner and Egg — he was rather testily bemoaning the fried-chicken frenzy engulfing his neighborhood and anticipating his next gig, whipping up no-frills bar food at the old Black Betty. Asked to describe his impending menu, Tanner replied with nary a hint of irony, “like Applebee’s, but better.” And no fried chicken? “Maybe a thigh.” Well, we’re glad to report that Tanner has kept his word. At the six-weeks-old Commodore, Black Betty’s quasi-nautical replacement, the Georgia-born Tanner’s cooking might be the best bar food in town, chicken thighs and all.
The Commodore’s current clientele seems drawn in large part by the kitschy cocktails and cheap beer, the weekend D.J., and the festive vibe. But for the U.G., the food’s the thing, no matter what hoops it’s necessary to jump through to get at it, including elbowing your way to the bar to place an order, starting a tab or settling up at once, and claiming some precious real estate (the four back-room booths are your best bet).
When that chicken arrives, it’s a looker: three substantial thighs to a plate, with hot sauce, tender biscuits, and maple butter. It’s scorching hot and juicy with a craggy, ultracrisp crust that crackles resoundingly when you bite into it — the croissant of fried chickens. But there is much more to Tanner’s short menu. There is, for instance, the “adult cheese,” a pimento-and-poblano assemblage of such perfect creamy, crispy texture and rich, tangy flavor that it might be too fine to waste on the neighborhood’s booming toddler population. Other elevated pub grub includes a vinegary pulled-pork sandwich, a satisfying burger, and two soupy stews: a lovely green-chile posole with chicken and the “blackeyed pea surprise!” in which a biscuit or hunk of cornbread is drowned in legumes.
Tanner must have the vegetarian locavore constituency in mind with plates like springy sautéed rainbow chard and snap peas with hard-cooked egg. Even the chicken tacos — swaddled in double soft-corn tortillas and garnished with onion and cilantro — make a strong impression. Down-home and delicious, melding southern, Mexican, and (though he might shudder at the term) New Brooklyn Cuisine, Tanner’s take raises the bar-food bar. Take that, Applebee’s.
The Commodore; 366 Metropolitan Ave., at Havemeyer St.; 718-218-7632