S’top chef! As a dedicated viewer of Bravo’s Top Chef, I am now seriously questioning the critiques decreed upon the contestants by head judge Chef Tom Colicchio. That’s because I ate at his restaurant Craft over the weekend, and if the food we were served is any indication of Chef Colicchio’s top standards, I’m not wowed.
I had been delighted to score a four-top on Saturday night at 8. We had arranged plans to celebrate the recent engagement of a darling young cousin of mine and meet her fiancé, so I had been checking Open Table for a couple of weeks to find something special. I had reserved tables at two other restaurants (one was a great restaurant but the reservation time was a bit too late and the other was just a good restaurant but with a more appealing reservation time) and I was going to let our guests choose between the two. On a whim, I searched Open Table one last time the Sunday before, and found the 8:00 opening. Not an hour after I booked it, though, my cousin had to reschedule the plans. Well, I had been dying to try one of Chef Colicchio’s restaurants, and I surely didn’t want to give up a prime Saturday table, so I contacted some dear friends in the City who, by some stroke of luck, were actually free and happy to meet us.
The concept of dining at Craft is to order a bunch of small share plates served family style and savor the experience. The reality is that it’s a good thing the company of our dining companions was so stellar. We ordered four appetizers, a truffled pasta dish to share as an intermezzo, four entrées, some side dishes, and four desserts. In my opinion, if you’re encouraging diners to taste so many dishes – the majority of which are selected by the others at the table – they’d all better be damn good. Otherwise it puts a lot of pressure on each diner to pick a winner, so you’re not feeling badly that the monkfish you ordered is a dud, while you’re gobbling down the quail the guy across from you ordered.
Our server was pushing white truffles, which she said we could add to any dish for a premium. Devout truffle aficionados, we revel in the short season, and decided to treat ourselves and showcase them shaved over the potato puree side dish. Our companions, who had dined at Craft before, knew the chef de cuisine, who came out to greet us, and corrected our server that they were actually featuring black truffles, the less aromatic, less expensive sibling of the treasured white rarity.
We started out okay, with cocktails, nice bread and an amuse bouche of raw halibut with seaweed. The appetizers were good, with the standouts being the silky hamachi with bartlett pears and the frisée salad with coppa. The Wagyu carpaccio appetizer was fine, but to be honest, even looking at Craft’s menu online right now, I don’t remember what the fourth appetizer was.
The Maine lobster tortellini intermezzo dish was our first serious disappointment. First of all – correct me if I’m wrong – I believe it should have been called “tortelloni” instead of tortellini, as it was one large filled pasta. Second, this was our introduction to the flavorless “truffles” we had specially-ordered with the potatoes. And third, the lobster filling was bland, shreddy claw meat. All in all, not a winner.
Next came our entrées. The beef short ribs were caramelized and succulent, and would have been decadent and satisfying as my sole entrée. Problem was, I only got to savor a couple of fleeting forkfuls because, after all, we were sharing. Unfortunately the other dishes were not nearly as pleasing. The sweetbreads were dried out, which is exceedingly unappetizing in what can be an exquisite dish. The quince accompaniment couldn’t save it. The lamb loin was bland but inoffensive. Unimpressed with the sweetbreads and lamb, I didn’t want to wade into the stream of disappointment any further with the chicken, so I passed. The consensus of my dining companions was that the dish was fine but certainly not special. The extravagant potato purée for which we had such high expectations was nothing I couldn’t make at home with a potato ricer and some cream, and the purported black truffles looked like shreds of elephant ears, and though I’ve never tasted elephant ears, I’ll bet they don’t taste any less like truffles than what we had splurged on.
Dessert included some yummy, warm, small sugared doughnuts (I’ll admit that nothing fried can be terribly bad) with chocolate and concord grape dipping sauces, a mediocre apple tarte tatin, a scoop of unexciting, not particularly malty malted milk ice cream, and ironically my favorite dish – which we hadn’t ordered but the server somehow misheard us – the roasted banana, a deeply caramelized, buttery sautéed sliced banana. What we had ordered instead was a chocolate soufflé. The problem was that the service was so slow all evening that it took 10 minutes for us to even flag down our server to let her know of the error, and then another 15 for them to bake the soufflé. Total dining time was almost four hours, and the four of us agreed, in the end, that there are far better meals to be had in the City. (I felt particularly bad for the table of three immediately next to us, who based some of their order on plates they had admired on our table, and were crushed when told that the restaurant was out of doughnuts. Sadly all we could offer them was a few stray sugar crystals at the bottom of our bowl.)
The highlight of the evening, undoubtedly, was the excellent company. It was glorious to catch up with our friends in a personal, leisurely way, and find out what they’ve been up to, as well as have a basis to learn more about their culinary passions and recommendations. As I always say, the food is secondary when you’re with good friends. We had a sublime feast with friends this past summer at Topper’s at the Wauwinet on Nantucket, and while I can’t off the top of my head remember any particular dish we ate (and believe me, we relished every bite of the six paired courses on the chef’s tasting menu), I will treasure the memory of toasting friendship with two of our favorite people in the world.
At one point during the evening, feeling a bit sheepish to be criticizing such a costly meal at a celebrated chef’s establishment, David apologetically referred to us as “snobby” when it comes to food. One of our friends disagreed. “Nonsense. You’re discerning,” he corrected. And he granted that dining at this level entitles you to certain expectations.
In each of Top Chef’s three seasons, Chef Colicchio has waxed philosophic about taking a single ingredient and preparing it expertly and simply. With Craft restaurants in four cities, Craftsteak in three, Craftbar and ‘wichcraft in New York, and his involvement in Top Chef, perhaps it’s time that the Chef gets back to his roots in his own kitchens for a while, instead of promoting his brand and diluting it in the process.