New restaurant

Sam Michael, executive chef/owner of The Commonwealth Gastro Pub and Beer Bar, which is set to open on Monday.

Sam Michael is back in town.

And the former head chef at Four Brothers Bistro is ready to open his own restaurant in downtown New Castle.

Monday is set for the opening of Commonwealth Gastro Pub and Beer Bar on the ground floor of the Riverplex on South Mill Street.

“It’s been a year in the works, and it’s crunch time now,” Michael said earlier this week as he and his staff were getting the place in shape.

As executive chef/owner, Michael, 36, has created a menu he describes as “pretty diverse,” one that has “a little bit of Mediterranean influence, Indian, Mexican” and even American.

“It’s pretty much what I love.”

The foods reflect his roots, what he has drawn from his experience working at or running nearly 20 restaurants over the years and his travels throughout the world, including the Caribbean.

“I love the Caribbean flavors,” he said.

Noting that his family emigrated from Beirut, Lebanon, 40 to 50 years ago, Michael grew up in Philadelphia cooking Mediterranean food. But he said he actually got started working in his mother’s bakery and his father’s pizza shop, both while in elementary school.

When he was 14, Michael got a job washing dishes at a small restaurant just down the street from where he lived.

Then, Michael recalls, the owner, Dan Funk, pulled him into the kitchen one night to help out, “and I never washed dishes again.”

“He was kind of my mentor.”

Michael, with his wife and daughter, moved to New Castle in 2009 and served as executive chef at Four Brothers. He later returned to Philadelphia, but said he wanted to get back to this area “and really wanted to do my own thing.”

He worked as executive chef at the Springfield Grille in Mars for about 2 1/2 years and returned to Four Brothers Bistro for about six months.

Michael said the Riverplex owners, whom he referred to as “awesome landlords,” approached him in February 2014 about establishing a restaurant.

The menu includes bar snacks, appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees.

Fried brussel sprouts with pecorino romano and lemon aioli heads the list of bar snacks.

“A lot of it is simple, but different,” he said. “I think this is what the area needs.”

Appetizers include vegetable risotto and poutine, a classic French dish that consists of fries, beer gravy and cheese curds topped by a fried egg.

Among the entrees are pan seared scallops, cavatappi pasta and pan seared fish of the day.

Michael said he will use local fresh products, including meats and cheese curds. He also plans to do some specials using locally raised bison.

The fish of the day will be fresh, Michael said, adding that he intends to begin with Pacific rock fish from Alaska. The fish, similar to halibut, “was literally swimming in the ocean on Sunday. You can’t get any fresher around here.”

The restaurant also features a tandoor — an oven used in Indian and Pakistani cooking — that he purchased in Baltimore.

Michael said he plans to change the menu “pretty frequently,” probably once a month.

Craft beers will also be a feature of The Commonwealth, which seats 75 inside and 40 outside along the banks of the Neshannock Creek.

Assisting Michael are sous chef Samuel Ollie and manager Vivian L. Sullivan.

Ollie, a New Castle native, worked in kitchens and breweries throughout the country. He returned to New Castle and partnered with Michael at Four Brothers.

Sullivan, a New Castle High School graduate, has eight years of hospitality management experience.

The Commonwealth will be open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The bar will remain open for a couple hours later.

Michael is planning Sunday brunches from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. beginning after May 15, the date he has set for the grand opening.


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John K. Manna is a retired New Castle News reporter.

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