Toasted pita pieces accompany the salads at the Commonwealth Café, which opened in downtown Birmingham in October with a breakfast and lunch menu. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)
The Commonwealth Café is as fresh as the tall ficus tree in the middle of the room that every so often drops one of its bright green leaves onto the butcher block-style tables and barn-wood floors. The oh-so-French flavor of the patisserie that was previously in the space in downtown Birmingham has been swept away for a clean, spare look that combines minimalist contemporary style with a touch of the rustic.
Commonwealth may be known so far as that new coffee place in Birmingham (it opened in October); and the coffee is exceptional, but it has more than that going for it.
Named for the Detroit street where a couple of the proprietors once lived, and also for the word's broader meaning, it offers a concise menu of egg dishes, salads and sandwiches. While they are as basic as oatmeal — which happens to be on the breakfast menu — each one has a twist that sets it apart.
Ingredients come from local sources whenever possible. In fact, many of the names of the producers are listed on the small, two-sided paper menus. They include eggs and butter from Calder Dairy, Pinconning cheddar, sausage from Detroit's Corridor Sausage Company, applewood-smoked bacon from Nueske's in Wisconsin, Clancy's Fancy hot sauce from Ann Arbor and breads from Hampshire Farms, a centennial farm on the Thumb.
The turkey sandwich is a good example of the way Chef Whitney Smith tweaks basic dishes. Roasted organic turkey tucked between slices of rye bread gets a flavor boost from pickled tomatillos, cheddar cheese and avocado; and the salad at its side is much more than a mere garnish. It's a fresh and appealing mix of red and green lettuces in an almost imperceptible vinaigrette.
Two main dish salads — the Mediterranean salad, fragrant with fennel, feta cheese, roasted beets and tomatoes in a light dressing made with preserved lemons and olive oil, and the Commonwealth salad, a simpler mix including shaved Parmesan, sunflower seeds grape tomatoes and fresh greens, dressed with roasted shallot vinaigrette — are pristinely fresh and appealing.
Triangles of lightly toasted pita bread sprinkled with za'atar, the tangy mideastern seasoning, are a perfect accompaniment to the salads. Toasted pita also comes with the hummus trio, plain, cilantro and cashew varieties served in small white pots.
The fried egg sandwich may sound mundane, but the version here is a mind-changer. It includes two gently cooked eggs sparked with avocado and red onion, cheddar and a dash of hot sauce on multigrain bread. It is available at both breakfast and lunch.
Breakfast and dessert pastries — muffins, cookies, scones and brownies — are made in-house by Kristina Vartanian.
Coffee is, of course, a major feature. Each cup is made to order starting with the grinding of the beans to the 31/2 minute drip into outsized white china cups that hold a dozen ounces.
The coffee beans come from Latin America, East Africa and Indonesia via Madcap Coffee, a Grand Rapids company, and Portland, Oregon's Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
A simple cup of coffee made from Stumptown's Ethiopian beans is a revelation. It's smooth, rich and well-balanced, showing not a hint of acidity or harshness. Drink the painstakingly prepared coffee here, and you'll have a tough time settling for ordinary brews.
While Commonwealth doesn't offer full service — patrons order at the counter — the food is delivered to the tables by a knowledgeable staff. Commonwealth Café is the second restaurant for the team of James Hayosh and Hubert Yaro, who own Ronin Sushi Bar in downtown Royal Oak.