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Feb 18, 2009 07:18 AM

Review: Tom Colicchio's craft

Tom Colicchio is underrated. Yes, he's the host of the best show in reality TV history. Yes, he's a five-time James Beard Award winner. But after dining at craft this past weekend, I'm pretty sure he's actually better than anyone gives him credit for.

The first thing my boyfriend, Kamran, and I were struck by upon entering craft is that the hostesses and servers were actually nice. Like "good evening" and "how are you?" and "thank you for coming" nice with genuine smiles. Kamran theorized that once you get to a certain point in your money-spending, restaurants no longer have to pretend to be exclusive and desirable because they actually ARE. And we, of course, laughed self-satisfiedly every time someone peered longingly in the windows at us but obviously couldn't come in.


No, I'm kidding.

The second thing we noticed is that the menu freaked me out. When Kamran and I first talked about Valentine's Day dinner at craft, I remember being wowed and excited by every single dish on the tasting menu. But when it was actually put in front of me, it looked like this:

Roasted Nantucket Bay Scallops
& Kaffir Lime Vinaigrette

Brebis Blanche Agnolotti
& Lamb Bacon

Wild Sturgeon
Beets, Blood Orange Sabayon
& Endive

Guinea Hen
Grits, Black Truffle
& Brussels Sprouts

Roasted & Braised Wagyu Beef
& Swiss Chard

Meyer Lemon Sundae
Hibiscus Syrup & Coconut Meringue

Chocolate Ganache Tart
Cocoa Nib
& Caramel Ice Cream

Two of the dishes were seafood (blech), and the course that says roasted and braised Wagyu beef on the online menu said Wagyu beef and Wagyu beef TONGUE on the actual menu. Not pleased. But we were there, and I wanted that Meyer lemon sundae.

As it turned out, of course, everything was great. I thought my first experience with scallops at Quality Meats during Restaurant Week recently was surprisingly good, but these bay scallops were ten times better. They were the size of cocktail onions and had a thin little crust on one side from searing. The lime broth would have been delicious on any protein, but it was the micro herbs and onion slivers on top that really made the flavor of the scallops stand out.

When our server set down our second dishes and said, "This is a brebis blanche agnolotti with matignon," I was like, “I don't know what a single one of those words mean.” But after a little Googling, I think it roughly translates to ewe's milk cheese in blanched ravioli with a topping of cooked diced carrot, celery, and onion. (One of you French types can correct me on that, if you please.) Basically, it was long, thin pasta stuffed with a ricotta-like cheese, drizzled in some herby sauce, and sprinkled with some tiny vegetable chunks. I wondered if the sous chefs in the back were constantly talking about how ridiculous it is to send out an entire giant plate with exactly three pieces of pasta on it. I'm sure they never say anything bad about the slices of lamb bacon resting on top, though. They looked like regular (perfectly-cooked) bacon, but they tasted distinctly lamb-y.

The next course was the sturgeon, which I was looking forward to least, but it was done perfectly. Tom's always talking on "Top Chef" about how seasoning is the most important component of a dish, and I've kind of gotten sick of hearing how vital salt is, but the seasoning on the fish was what made it. One whole side of it had been encrusted with a layer of salt, and it tasted GREAT. The blood orange sauce was totally different than anything we'd ever tasted before, and there were two kinds of beets. What? Yes, two kinds of beets. In addition to the dark, earthy ones you always see, there was a lighter kind that looked like hunks of tomato (which I hate) but tasted sweet (which I love).

The guinea hen course was definitely my favourite and is the single best dish I've ever had. It was a breast sitting on end and wrapped in pancetta, with slivers of black truffle resting on top. Underneath were grits made with black truffle oil and Brussels sprouts leaves sprinkled about. As soon as our server set it down, I was like, "THESE ARE ALL OF MY FAVOURITE THINGS IN LIFE IN ONE DISH!!!" Poultry, salted cured meat, corn, and Brussels sprouts. If there had been a scoop of ice cream on top, I would've died right there. I was so overwhelmed by the first bite that I got chills for five minutes and almost cried. I'm so serious.

The Wagyu course should have come before the hen, because while it too was great, nothing was going to top those grits. Luckily, the tongue was a paper-thin slice laid out underneath the lentils and chard, so I didn't have to worry about any of the texture issues I usually have with tongue. It was so delicate that it tore apart like tissue, and it tasted like a slow-simmered roast beef. The other piece of Wagyu was perfect in that one side of it was rare and buttery while the other side was crispy, as if Tom knew that Kamran and I like our steaks cooked opposite ways.

Our server told us that the first dessert course was more like an amuse-bouche than an actual dish, and Kamran said, "I'm not amused." OH! Obvious food humor for the win! It was a tiny glass filled with layers of crushed coconut meringue cookies in the sweet red hibiscus syrup with a miniature dollop of Meyer lemon sorbet on top. Like size-of-your-fingertip miniature. The glasses themselves were so small that our spoons almost didn't fit down into them. And despite the fact that I've had many a conversation about how pointless meringue is, the cookies were delicious and added the perfect texture.

The second dessert course wasn't nearly as tasty but made up for it by being even more interesting. It was a huge smear of chocolate paste, a crunchy chocolate tart with a liquid chocolate top, and a spoonful of caramel ice cream. The paste looked exactly like icing, so it was a huge surprise to put a big, old glob of it in my mouth and find out that it's not really sweet at all; it tasted like roasted, bitter fruit and had a grainy consistency. Which doesn't sound appetizing, but it was, especially when we tempered it with the ice cream. We decided that it was pretty smart of Tom to give you course after course of easily-lovable dishes and then to throw this crazy thing at you at the end that would keep you talking for days.

Kamran admitted that before we visited craft, he sort of thought of Tom as a semi-decent chef who happened to be a celebrity but that after tasting his food, he's a true believer. The interesting thing about a place like wd~50 is that your plate is filled with things you've never seen before, so they all taste new and exciting. But the more interesting thing about a place like craft is that all of the food on your plate is entirely recognizable, yet it's exciting because it manages to taste better than it's ever tasted before.

We also loved all of the little extras the staff provided, like the miniature gingerbread cookies and cream puffs they brought after our chocolate course. And all night, we kept seeing the hostesses handing something to each diner as they left, and we were dying to know what it was. I heard one hostess tell a woman it was "for tomorrow morning" and figured it was Tom's special blend of coffee, but I swore it looked like a cupcake from far away. We couldn't figure out where the hostesses were getting them, but halfway through our meal, we realized that what looked like a trashcan at their feet was actually a container full of the treats. We kept watching the contents of the container dwindle and kept worrying that they'd run out before we could leave, but Kamran was determined to have whatever it was. It seriously occupied our conversation for two straight hours. The thing we were really concerned about was the fact that we hadn't checked our coats; most of the other diners had to wait for their outerwear and therefore had plenty of time at the hostess stand, so Kamran was really pressing me to figure out a way for us to lollygag with the hostesses despite already having our coats on. And then just as we were finishing up, the container disappeared. There were exactly two of the little bags leftover and laid out on the hostess stand, and there were two people heading for the door, so we thought all was lost. But then the container appeared from out of nowhere again, brimming with the treats. You can imagine our relief.

As soon as we stood up to put our coats on, the hostess placed two of the bags on her stand and waited patiently for us. They turned out to be muffins bursting with chocolate chips and drowning in a layer of huge-grained sugar. Breakfast the next day had me thinking about Tom for another twenty-four hours.

I'm sad that I was too self-conscious to take any pictures of the amazing food and the entire side of the restaurant that was made up of a weird convex wall covered in a sort of patchwork of similarly-colored brown leather slabs. But I did manage to capture an incredible photo of myself in Tom's restroom, and that will be plenty to remember the experience by.

And speaking of restrooms, I should mention that the day after our dinner, Kamran told me that he needed to go to the bathroom but didn't want to poo just to be able to hold our delicious meal inside himself for a little longer. That's how good it was.

My original post can be seen in context here:

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  1. That service at Craft is great is not an accident -- Colicchio cooked at Gramercy Tavern for several years. GT is a Danny Meyer restaurant and known for great service, and they often do nice little touches like a takeaway muffin for the next morning, so I'm not surprised they did the same at Craft. I've always had fantastic service at Craft.

    (And they are perfectly fine with you taking photos of your food, BTW. I actually had a server confess to me that she did the same!)

    I'm glad that you enjoyed your seafood dishes. I actually think Craft's scallops are the best scallops in the entire city. But a lot of the credit should probably go to Damon Wise, the executive chef there.

    3 Replies
    1. re: kathryn

      Oh, the Gramercy Tavern connection is neat. I haven't eaten there yet but keep meaning to; if only they didn't just do lunch for Restaurant Week. I love that you get to use the word "always" in connection to craft. I'm dying to go back.

      Taking photos always makes me feel like everyone's saying, "Oh, look, it's her first time here, and she's not sure she'll ever get to come back. How sad." I know I shouldn't care, but I do. Alas.

      I'm glad my tongue knows good scallops.

      1. re: kathryn

        tom didn't just "cook" at gramercy tavern, he was the executive chef, partner, co-owner and concept developer with danny. GT was a danny meyer/tom colicchio restauant!

        1. re: minhu

          That probably explains why both Danny Meyer and Colicchio's restaurants are very similar and equally amazing.

      2. Thanks so much for a great, fun review. I went to Craft once, a long time ago, for a very awkward business dinner (full of intrigue and subtle digs), and I admit to not having had a very good time. I remember the food as being good, but not one detail. Except the wine, which I drank a lot of.

        Your comments make me want to try it again.

        2 Replies
        1. re: drummergirl

          Hey, thanks for a great, fun comment. Your awkward business dinner sounds like the kind of story I'd like to read, especially with the wine involved.

          Whenever your company decides to send you there again on the expense account, please let me know, and I promise to provide intrigue but no digs.

          1. re: plumpdumpling

            Seriously, in retrospect, it felt like dining with the Medicis. Maybe that's why I wasn't enjoying the flavors as much.

            No longer with that company, so if I'm there again, it'll be on my own bucks. Trust me, I'd rather drop a couple of hundred dollars with someone I like than have it free the other way. Though we don't talk about it much here, the company one keeps has a lot to do with the overall dining experience.

            The service WAS very good, as I recall. They kept my wine glass full :)

        2. I completely agree - Craft is seriously underrrated. I have eaten at some of the best in NY because of the industry I work in and the entertaining we do but it's still my favorite in the city. His food is simple but so flavorful. The short ribs are to die for here - the glaze is just right and it's ridiculously tender.

          I also recommend the pork trotters to anyone feeling adventurous - you wouldn't know you are eating pig's feet cause they are that good!

          6 Replies
          1. re: GirlFoodieNYC

            Sounds amazing. How is the tasting menu sized? (ie were you stuffed?) I'm always wary of doing tasting menus with my gf as she has a small appetite and I hate wasting the food/money if we can't finish everything.

            1. re: Tubulus

              We were definitely not stuffed, but we were entirely satisfied. The portions were small enough that we were always ready for more, but the servers also gave us a little bit of time between each dish to rest.

              If you're a "normal" eater, I'm sure you'll want to finish anything your girlfriend doesn't, but I can't imagine that the dishes would be too big for her to handle. Several of them can be finished in just a couple of bites.

              1. re: Tubulus

                If your gf has a small appetite then tasting menu is the way to go. If you order from the a la carte menu, the portion size is pretty large (meant to be shared) and you will probably left very full or have leftovers.

              2. re: GirlFoodieNYC

                The fact that they're called "pork trotters" alone makes me want to try the feet.

                Thanks for the recommendation of the short ribs, too; the couple next to us was having them, and they looked as good as you say they are.

                  1. re: plumpdumpling

                    In the past I've loved their bacon and apple dish, scallops, short ribs, jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms, and any pasta dishes (especially if they have a seasonal ravioli). The pork dishes are good but I tend to think Momofuku's are a little bit better :).

                1. Great post. I've been trying to get my DH to take me, but he's biased against Tom. He thinks that since he's a reality star, the food must not be very good.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Little Cupcake

                    That's exactly what we thought, too! People who are great cooks don't have to go on television to prove it, right?

                    But no, even my super-doubtful boyfriend respects Tom after eating at craft. One taste of the scallops will change anyone's mind.

                  2. FYI, Brebis Blanche is the name of a sheep's milk cheese made by Three Corner Hill Farm, which sells at the Union Square Greenmarket (and to other outlets as well). It's pretty fab; I just finished snacking on some spread on oatcakes.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: bookseller

                      Okay, I love how when I Google image search "brebis blanche", a bunch of photos of sad-looking sheep show up. Looks like I'll be making a stop in Union Square this weekend.