Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Crafty Menu Means Extraordinary Food

I wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding the menu at Tom Colicchio's Craft, because I was never lucky enough to go there…until LAST NIGHT, that is.

H(usband) had some lovely folks to take out and, after begging him to choose this place, he acquiesced.

Apparently, when Craft first opened, the menu was really complicated and extreme. Not only was it divided up by meat and fish etc., but ALSO by cooking method. So first you had to choose a protein, then you picked how you wanted it cooked - braised or roasted, for example - and THEN you picked the sauce. That was before you even thought about the side dishes, which all had to be chosen separately.

There’s something to be said for freedom of choice, but there’s also something satisfying about a chef preparing an entrée and garnishing it in the way that he or she imagines will make a perfect plate.

I like when there’s a vision, which hopefully will make the dish cohesive. Also having the extra accoutrements decided by the chef is a good way to taste things you’ve never tried before or didn’t think you liked. For example, I always think I hate quinoa, but, oh golly, was the quinoa great at Roy’s one night and I would NEVER have ordered it if left to my own devices.

Today, the menu at Craft is a lot simpler. It’s divided into first and main course sections, but you still have to pick your side dishes separately. That, to me, is absolutely no problem. You may have noticed that I’m rather opinionated (really about everything). With food, in particular, I have never been troubled by indecision.

I do know some people, though, for whom this kind of dining would be a disaster. They can’t decide on a parking place, much less put together an entire menu. Thankfully, my fellow diners had me to guide them. (Yeah, I know, they probably wished I was sitting at the next table.)

I started with my usual - ordering a Cosmopolitan made with Absolut Citron.

It was beautiful, it was lip-smacking delicious, but it was a bit different. It was more tart than usual and it tasted as if it could have been made with pink grapefruit juice. It wasn’t until later when I got home and studied the bill that I saw it had been made with Ketel Citroen. That’s funny that no one mentioned that.

Was it a fatal flaw? Of course not, but in as many places as not, I’m told that they don’t have Absolut Citron and they offer a substitute. In a fine dining establishment like this, I have to be honest, I think that’s unacceptable. And whether it was the server’s or the bartender’s fault, I think I should get back part of the SIXTEEN DOLLARS AND FIFTY CENTS that that drink cost! Luckily, I didn’t know any of this at the time, so I didn’t have to hold a grudge during the meal.

The amuses arrived in tiny cups on a single plate in the middle of the table.

Do you find that agreeably casual or do you think it’s annoying when you have to grab stuff yourself? I admit I prefer when the server SERVES. It was a slightly thickened broth of something, perhaps mushroom. I honestly wasn’t paying attention, but it was just fine.

The first courses arrived, each on its own plate, delivered to the table. That was good, because it made sharing easier.

But there was one weird thing. When we sat down, each place had a dinner plate. Fine, but there was no bread plate and the menus (changed every single day) were a single sheet of paper on a heavy wooden rectangular holder. There was no place to put the menu, except ON the plate, which left no place for the bread. Remember there was a similar menu-shifting problem at Bouley?

What should have happened (and I can’t believe that it didn’t) was for the principals of the restaurant to sit down and be served a meal. Surely the bothersome menu and service plate situation would not have gone unnoticed.

Anyway, the food was to die for.

The Artichokes were tiny, perfect representations of the vegetable, still on the tender stalk - the best part.

The Agnolotti were luscious pillows with a creamy zucchini filling and a surprisingly hearty tomato-flecked sauce.

The Hamachi was the perfect starter for a heavy meal to come.

It was impeccably fresh with a hint of spiciness. The bad thing about the simplified menu is that it doesn’t say all the bits and pieces that each dish comes with, so if you’re not paying close attention you (I) miss some of the elements of the dish.

A word of advice when you’re dining at Craft - do NOT have each person order a starch and a vegetable, like we (I) did. It’s too much food, it brings an already rocketing bill soaring higher, but it IS a great way to taste many of Craft’s offerings in a single visit.

Main courses –

The Beef Short Ribs are a signature dish and for a reason. They were meltingly tender with a robust meaty flavor. The dish was served in gorgeous little oval-shaped copper casseroles.

In thinking about it afterwards, even though I know the idea at Craft is to serve everything family style, I still would have preferred the dish served on a plate with whatever starch I was ordering. I definitely didn’t get all the sauce out of the casserole and I think I left some delectable little onions behind. I’d really like a second chance with that dish. Unfortunately a gremlin got to my entrée pictures and these are the only ones:

The Halibut and the Suzuki (a Japanese sea bass) both came out simply prepared. The suzuki was really delicate and the halibut was meaty, but still extremely moist.

The sides –

OMG, honestly, you could forget the main courses (well, maybe not the short ribs) and just order side dishes and you’d dine magnificently.

The best was the potato purée. It must have been passed through a tamis strainer. It was smoothness personified and so rich and creamy. It definitely was not whipped, but strained, maybe over and over again. I think there was garlic in there and you could have eaten that purée alone with no problem. But with the short ribs, it was a match made in heaven.

The polenta was pretty great.

Thick and smooth, and maybe if I hadn’t had the potatoes too, that would have been one of my favorites.

One problem with having a daily changing menu, dishes rotate. I had seen Rouen Duck on the menu the day before, so I was all ready to order that. Sacre Bleu! The duck had flown, so the short ribs were deputized in its place.

Luckily, there was duck risotto on the side dish menu. Wow! THAT definitely could have stood on it own.

In fact, after our all-encompassing ordering frenzy at Craft, I would feel much more prepared to go back and order with more restraint. And if I didn’t find the Rouen duck, I would be perfectly thrilled to order the duck risotto as an entrée.

The Romano Beans were wonderful.

Not usually everybody’s favorite, these very starchy, thick, flat beans were cooked to complete softness, just the way they should have been. Perfectly seasoned, they could have been ordered in place of one of the starches.

The Swiss Chard was also not cooked timidly.

It must have been blanched first and then sautéed. Perfect with the short ribs and potatoes. Again, I would have loved to have been served the short ribs, potatoes and Swiss Chard on one plate, rather than serving myself from the center of the table, so I could have gotten every last bit of juicy yumminess.

The mushrooms are special at Craft.

When there some hesitation (I know, not usual for me) about which of 4 or 5 mushrooms to order, the waiter (the same one who tricked me with my vodka) kindly offered to bring an assortment of sautéed mushrooms. They were sooo good and another great choice for a non-meat eater.

There really was no room for dessert, so, as a result, we (okay, I) ONLY ordered for HALF THE TABLE, instead of my usual ordering for HALF THE RESTAURANT.

We had one Malted Milk Semifreddo.

Actually, it was okay, but a little timid and nothing that I would have to have again. However, the ice creams were another story.

I’m so happy that my father taught me so many years ago that vanilla ice cream is a great way to judge a pastry chef.

The Vanilla Ice Cream was fantastic.

It must have been made with the finest vanilla beans (from Tahiti? Madagascar? Actually, for all I know, those are the same places), because the flavor of the vanilla was outstanding and very, very pronounced. And it tasted as if the richest heavy cream and eggs were used. AND it was quite a generous scoop.

The Pumpkin-Maple Ice Cream was on an equal footing with the vanilla.

The pumpkin flavor was intense and sweetened and spiced perfectly. Plus they were the steal of the night at $5 a scoop.

It’s funny that reader Amy recently reminded me about Tom’s impatience on Top Chef when Angelo (I think it was) wanted to tell diners HOW they’re supposed to eat something. Tom got all hot and bothered when that was used as an excuse for a poor showing with a particular dish.

Craft definitely doesn't tell its diners what to order and, more particularly, what to order TOGETHER. It's left up to the diner with a server's intervention only if requested.

What I really appreciated about Craft was that, even though it showed off American cooking at its best, other cuisines are definitely represented in its excellent dishes. The sautéing is all French; certain vegetables get a distinct Italian handling. Even Asia is represented somewhat by the fresh fish offerings for the first course.

Desserts are a great combination of American, French and Italian. The dessert menu was apparently as confusing as the main one in the beginning. But that’s been simplified, and the pastry chef, Jennifer McCoy, puts it all together for the diners in a most delicious way.

Did I expect a good meal? Of course. Did I expect an extraordinary meal? Yes. But what I didn’t expect was the luxuriousness of each and every dish, almost without a single ingredient out of place or added unnecessarily. Tom Colicchio has crafted a memorable experience with his approach to a simple, and simply remarkable, cuisine.


Anonymous said...

$16.50 for a drink?!? That's ridiculous, especially if they are not going to tell you it's not using the liquor you requested.

I like and don't like when restaurants make you order your sides separately. It's nice that you don't get stuck with what the chef thinks you should have (I hate rice), but then I get annoyed that I am paying separately. If they just put the two together and charged more for the entree, that wouldn't annoy me, but paying $15 for an entree and then $5 for a side. . .that annoys me. But then sometimes I think it's the restaurant's way of playing it safe - if the chard doesn't go well with the ribs, well that's your dumb fault for ordering them together, the chef never said you should.

Java Joggers said...

I've been to Craft a couple of times, and thought that the flavors of everything we tasted were amazing. One of the occasions was to celebrate Beth Anne's graduation from Barnard -- she picked Craft! I feel your pain on the $16.50 Cosmo... the drinks in NYC are ridiculously expensive, and it's terrible when you don't LOVE them.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

I sort of like the idea of choosing your own sides. So many times I find myself stuck between two menu items because the sides on one look so incredible while the protein on the other looks equally good. Then I have to decide which is more important to me.

I've had my shore of stick shock on NYC cocktails. I am not enough of a sophisticate to know one vodka from another, but I know enough to know an ounce of it doesn't cost $5!

Sue said...

Hiya Amy,
That cocktail price WAS ridiculous, but, amazingly, not unheard of.

I feel the same way about the sides. It's good and bad to have to order them separately. It skyrockets the price, though, which I WAS warned about when I read about Craft before going.

I really feel like I need another visit to put into effect all that I learned on THIS visit. I better not hold my breath...

You're so fancy! A couple of times?!! Wow! My kids got to order a la carte at Chili's when they graduated... ;-)

Hey Rach,
One of the reasons I like to order a specific vodka is that I know what it tastes like. You would too, believe me, if you drank as many Cosmos with Absolut Citron as I have. And, unfortunately, as we all know, it's not what anything costs, it what they can get away with charging that determines the price...somewhat.

Emily said...

Next time I'm at a bar or a restaurant I'm ordering your drink!

I'm extrememly jealous. Very jealous.

For a restaurant such as Craft, I think it would be annoying to have to reach for your food.

Honestly, I want everything you guys ate! It all sounds so good. Especially the ice creams!

Anonymous said...

Did they tell you who did the actual cooking that night?

Expensive drinks are becoming the norm as more and more places hire bartenders who make their own infusions, create new drinks or interesting twists on old ones, etc. A top-notch restaurant will want a top-notch bartender, and he or she costs money, like the pastry chef does. It ends up raising the price of everything even when you specify exactly how your drink should be made (and presumably doesn't require that experience)

Lys said...

I have yet to go to Craft but after reading this review, I think I will move it up on my "list of places to check out". However, instead of ordering a mixed cocktail, I'll just go for a Baileys straight. I hate when they substitute without telling me. There are certain liquors I can't drink (Bacardi mostly - causes me to behave, *ahem* very interestingly) and I prefer that I know what is going into a drink before I order it. Call me picky but ehhh...

Sue said...

You and me both!

And I’M jealous that you dressed up as a cupcake and got to go to a party with a fat chef.

I know Tom Colicchio wasn’t there, but whether it was the Executive Chef or the Chef de Cuisine, I don’t know.

That is such a good point about how the cost of everything involved with fancy drinks – the bartenders, the fresh juices, the exciting recipes – drives up the cost of the cocktail.

The food was out of this world. Funnily enough, so was the bill.

What you said about Baileys is WHY I often ask for Absolut Citron, as I said to Rach above. I know the flavor, which doesn’t mean I don’t like other vodkas, I just want to know when they’re substituting.

And picky is good.