Thursday, May 18, 2006

Missing Craft

43 East 19th Street
New York, New York
Chef Tom Colicchio
Chef de Cuisine Damon Wise
Dinner nightly

Craft on Urbanspoon

Tried: May 2006

Like the rest of country, I have been religiously following Top Chef on Bravo, and I was quite excited to try Craft. The restaurant is beautifully appointed with tan leather panels on the walls, dark yellow filament bulb lamps hanging from high ceilings, and an entire length of the wall from the lounge area through the dining room displaying wine racks. The sophisticated low lighting is flattering to everyone without being overly dark, adding to the sexy and modern atmosphere. The dark wood tables in the dining room are all extra large to accommodate family style dining, with sliding drawers on the side covered in felt for servers to use for support in displaying and opening wine bottles.

With such a large wine storage facility right in the restaurant, I had expected the wine selections to be extensive. While the wine list was sufficiently hefty, it was one of those lists where I had a difficult time finding wines under $100 a bottle (and no half bottle selections). While I appreciate the cachet of an illustrious and pricey wine list, I have no desire to blow through my credit card limit just for dinner. I found this particularly surprising given that Craft is supposed to be family style dining, albeit elite family style dining with roast chicken for $28 and sirloin for $50, a la carte.

Which brings me to the menu. Everything is a la carte. Not just appetizer, entree and dessert but every side dish as well. I dine out quite frequently. I also cook when I have time. But since I am not a professional cook, I was not crazy about having to assemble every component of my meal. Part of what I look forward to in going to a restaurant is to see how a chef puts a dish or tasting menu together. I would rather not have to figure out which mushrooms, vegetables, potatoes, grains, or pasta would go with which fish, shellfish, or meat, and then to figure out whether they should be roasted, sauteed, or braised. I felt like I was shopping for an outfit as opposed to ordering a meal (and I hate shopping-- after twenty minutes, I get a headache and need a drink). I was, however, quite happy to receive a tasty amuse of hanger steak tartare with jalapeno and citrus served in a Chinese soup spoon while I studied the possibilities.

Conceptual difficulties aside, our dining party finally selected a series of appetizers, entrees, side dishes, and wine. Half a dozen oysters of different varieties was an easy and successful starter. They were fresh, plump, and briny, with the mignonette sauce lending just the right amount of piquant acid. The marinated Peruvian octopus, served on a bed of soft and buttery circles of fingerling potatoes, was also fantastic, with the charred suction cups adding great flavor to the tender and not too chewy bite-sized tentacles. The yellowfin tuna tartare, however, was sufficiently past its prime that not even the toasted garlic and pepper crust could hide the fishiness, and the quenelle of chopped tuna mixed with scallions on the side was even more fishy. The mayonnaise sauce served with the tuna was so dissonant that it seemed like it was plated on the wrong dish. The hamachi, although slightly fresher than the tuna, was still quite chewy in texture, and the stringy sinew of the fish had not been removed before serving, making this delicate fish as tough to cut as steak. The Tasmanian sea trout was probably the freshest among the three fish appetizers, but I could not really taste it underneath the aggressive pepper and thick layer of chopped chives and less than ideally fresh trout roe covering the fish. The last appetizer we had, the Maine diver scallops, were actually fresh, but again, their delicate flavor was drowned by the mound of toasted garlic chips and peppercorns thickly spread on top.

Things improved with the entrees. The roasted loup de mer was delicate and flaky with crispy skin, and presented very simply, highlighting the flavor of the fish. The 21-day dry aged Porterhouse for two was exactly the kind of rich, melt-in-your-mouth marbled meat that I crave in a good steak. It was served in a large copper pot, with the meat pre-sliced by the kitchen yet still left just barely attached to the T-bone, allowing easy access for sharing. The roasted branch of rosemary on top still gave off a faint herbal scent, and the glistening fat that had melted during roasting clung to my knife and fork as I easily sliced off a forkful of the tender pink-red meat with smoky black char on the edge. The only thing that was not perfect on this dish was the jus which had an oddly sweet barbecue spicing that was incongrous with the flavor of the beef. The Porterhouse is probably ample enough for three or even possibly four people, but then some of you may fight over the bone marrow. The dish comes with two large bones generously filled with that glorious meat butter. If I ate nothing else that night but the bone marrow (which was perfectly salted to bring out maximum richness and flavor), I would have been happy.

Among the side dishes, the roasted hen of the woods mushrooms were the clear winner. The flavors were clean yet earthy and intense, and the texture was perfect. Although the braised local ramps were also appetizing, all I really tasted were garlic and butter. The potato gratin had a nicely browned top but the inside was lumpy and curdled. I was least excited by the bacon and egg risotto, which tasted like overcooked rice mixed with bacon fat.

To conclude the meal, we had a selection of cheeses: Hoja Santa (goat cheese from Houston, Texas), Evora (sheep cheese from Setubal, Portugal), Idiazabal (sheep cheese from Basque, Spain), Sechon de Pays from the Rhone Alps, Mountain gorgonzola from Lombardy, Italy, and Cabrales (combination goat, sheep, cow cheese from Asturias, Spain). We also received a dessert amuse of a shotglass filled with white chocolate panna cotta topped with a thin layer of rhubarb jelly. The panna cotta was a bit jello-y in consistency and difficult to spoon out of the shotglass but the flavors were quite scrumptious.

I learned later that the week of my visit coincided with the opening of Craftsteak in New York. Although I could see the possibilities of Craft and there were definite moments of brilliance, I do not know that the demanding and picky Tom Colicchio I have seen on Top Chef would have been entirely happy with all aspects of this dining experience.


Damon Wise said...

Wow-sounds like you really hated it-sorry to hear about it!

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