Craft has found its niche as both a power-lunch and relaxed-dinner haven
Celebrity restaurateur Tom Colicchio, the straight-shooting chef of the Bravo cooking series Top Chef, doesn’t believe in recipes. He believes the best dishes are inspired by first being stripped down to essential ingredients and then tossed with a dash of creativity. At Craft, located on Constellation Boulevard in Century City, he puts his premise into practice, offering an alternative to California cuisine with his own interpretation of American East Coast comfort food that highlights one star ingredient in each dish.
Even for a chef with the Midas touch and a string of Big Apple successes such as those Colicchio has had with Gramercy Tavern, ‘Wichcraft, Craft Restaurants (New York and Dallas) and with Craftsteak in Las Vegas, as well as a James Beard award (2002) for Best New Restaurant, Los Angeles foodies still wanted him to “show me” when Craft opened its doors.
Swaggering into town and opening on the “lucky” day of Friday, July 13, 2007, Colicchio’s high expectations for Craft met with dismal results, with reviewer comments of “overpriced,” “disappointing,” “underwhelming,” “excessive saltiness” and “insipid.” Now, under the watchful eye of Colicchio’s young protégé, chef de cuisine Matthew Accarrino, with kinks worked out in the kitchen and menus revisited, Craft has found its niche as both a power-lunch and relaxed-dinner haven.
Anticipation and an appetite
I arrived a few minutes before Nikki, my fellow foodie friend, so I headed for the bar. From the street, Craft presents a rather austere concrete and windowless single-story front. But inside, warm-toned wood, high ceilings, gilded wire partitioning and tiny golden mosaic suspended lights offer a welcoming elegance. Curious, I peeked into the main dining room, which seats 300. It has the same low-key, minimalist yet warm feel as the bar, but the most striking feature is the floor-to-ceiling backlit glass rear wall of the restaurant showcasing Craft’s impressive selection of wines.
The wines range widely, with a $2,800 crown jewel Chateau Haut-Brion 2000 Graves Bordeaux topping the extensive list. The dining room looks out upon an ample courtyard for patio dining surrounded by trees sparkling with tiny lights. The reflection off the monolithic glass high rises was quite dramatic — a truly cinematic image of Los Angeles, stark with power.
Nikki arrived and we sat a few minutes at the bar while waiting for our table. I ordered a Ginger Pear Sidecar, conjured with pear eau de vie, ginger liqueur and lemon juice. Delicious and refreshing. Nikki sipped her nonalcoholic Blackberry Izze soda with fresh berry juice with pleasure.
Seated at our table, exactly on time, we were welcomed by our friendly server, Kyle, who explained the “family-style” signature service at Craft. Portions are abundant and made for sharing, served on sizzling platters or in serving dishes and placed center table. No more reaching across to your companion’s plate to steal a forkful.
Truth is in the tasting
Kyle promised to let us know if we were ordering too much, but I was already thinking about how nice it would be to have doggy bags in the fridge for tomorrow’s lunch. Live a little, Nikki and I told ourselves. And so we ordered first courses: a foie gras with sour cherry and spice crumbs, an appetizer-size chestnut tortellini with Piave (an aged cheese similar to Parmigiano Reggiano), and an endive, pecan and bacon salad. For entrees we chose diver sea scallops sautéed in vermouth butter and a heritage rack of pork with cranberry. Side dishes we opted for were Swiss chard and assorted wild mushrooms.
Now … about the bacon. As the food arrived, Nikki and I started realizing that practically all the dishes were made with it — or heavy fat or sausage. As an old friend once said, “Fat tastes good.” However, as the dishes kept arriving and we ate, the preponderance of bacon, pork and heaviness started weighing (forgive the pun) on our enjoyment of the food.
The foie gras was delicate, but glistening with fat — only slightly offset by the tartness of the cherries (which seemed to be canned). The chestnut tortellini — Nikki’s favorite dish of the evening — were lightly pan sautéed in a butter sauce — a bit over the top, but the creamy filling was delicate and light — and included bacon.
My favorite dish, the endive salad, also had big chunks of bacon, which, if this had been the only bacon present, would have been delightful — sweet, crunchy, fatty and a great juxtaposition for the pecans and subtle bitterness of the crisp endive. The trouble was, it didn’t stop there.
Onward and outward
The entrees arrived, timed so we could enjoy a leisurely pace. The scallops were seared to perfection, but the vermouth butter, barely hinting at its alcoholic origin, ended up weighing down what should have been a delicate yet substantial and subtle dish. And I seemed to get a whiff of … yes, bacon grease, lacing the butter.
As for the pork, the presence of both bacon and rimmed fat was bold and clear. The meat was relatively moist, but unremarkable in depth of taste. Simplicity can be elegant and refreshing, but unfortunately, this pork was simply boring.
By the time we sampled the Swiss chard and the mushrooms (a mix of hen of the woods, trumpette, baby shiitake and oyster), both dishes swimming in butter, the taste of bacon was truly pervasive. I was getting the uneasy feeling that this experience — the “antidote” to California cuisine — was not going to sit lightly in my digestive system. Nikki mused about a return to vegetarianism and I pondered just how flexible bacon could be as a culinary additive. Craft is definitely an advocate for the “other white meat” and its cured and smoked versions.
Room for one more?
Then the dessert menu came. Soldiers that we are, we opted for a small sampler of the homemade ice creams: coconut milk, spiced bread and Ceylon cinnamon. We also chose the gingerbread, which was the only plate of the evening decorated as befits a $100-a-person meal, with kumquat marmalade, ginger sorbet and eggnog gelato — the last was my favorite, creamy, custardy and with a hint of rum. And believe it or not, Craft also offers a maple bacon ice cream.
During the meal, we were treated to small tastes, offerings from the chef: sweet shrimp with mango puree (too sweet), a tiny panna cotta with persimmon (delish), a tidbit of torrone candy and a tiny cream puff. We were sent home with cellophane-wrapped chocolate chip muffins that sadly were dry and uninspired. The service was superb — unobtrusive and attentive.
The evening’s adventure had a positive outcome — it reinforced my and Nikki’s preference for light, healthy California cuisine and told us we didn’t need to experience another night of bringing home the bacon at Craft.