An industrial, casual majesty subsumes Craft, the most formal of Tom Colicchio's three restaurants on East 19th Street. But in spite of gorgeously lit 20' ceilings, milk-chocolate leather paneled walls, and cherrywood draftsman tables that seem recycled from Valhalla, nothing's stuffy here. Horizontal, minimalist light fixtures run down fiberboard ceilngs and draw vision back into the restaurant's depths. The colors - muted cement and browns with navies - embue the space with an understated power. The back wall seems a kind of Turner-meets-Ed Ruscha seascape, on a grey-blue day in sun after rain. The taste evident in the space's design certainly contributes to why Craft consitently ranks among New Yorkers' favorites, but unquestionably it's the food that draws us back. No longer new, Craft has matured into a place where you are assured an interesting meal made with the finest ingredients and honed techniques, all of which hinge on Colicchio's fundamental commitment to simple, straight forward, well-crafted cuisine.
Recently, in a mood for red, we ordered the 2000 Roero CaRosso: a well-balanced, complex bottle with earthy, chocolate notes. Though it opened up over the meal, it matched astonishingly well with our first little plate: chantrelle mushrooms from Oregon. Colicchio's mushrooms have consistenly proven among our favorite dishes in town and these - simple, minerally, with a texture at once meaty, soft and crisp - did not disappoint. (He gives a comprehensive class on his mushroom techniques in to "Think Like a Chef," a book from which we'd also recommend his roast tomatoes.) We shared 4 other little plates as well: squid, presented with trademark Craftian simplicity in parsley and oregano, oil and lemon. Tender and bright spears of broccoli rabe, neither overcooked nor overgarlic'd, though not unlike many dishes at Craft, a tad generously salted. A rabbit ballentine, with a dollop of tapenade and gelatin cubes of rabbit fat and chicken stock, that inpired us to try a few at home.* And a solitary sour note: sardines we ordered, marinated in vinegar, which while not bad in themselves clashed with everything else. Grilled they'd have been a more harmonious component, but their acidity upset the more earthy harmonies, aromas and flavors of the other parts of the meal. Which brings us to the risky bit about a meal at Craft: one must take care to choose plates that will work with eachother. The menu, comprised of ingredients (vegetables, meat, fish) whose preparations (brasied, roasted, sauteed) diners choose, can be dizzying. We shared a stunning pomegranate sorbet for dessert and a couple Nebbiolo grappas from (genius) Steve McCarthy's Clear Creek Distilleries in Oregon. Of course, these wee plates together cost us about two weeks salary, so we've been overjoyed to find food on par with Craft's at much more reasonable prices, next door.
Recent meals at Craftbar have all been thoroughly delightful. With bit of care it has even proven possible to to walk out, sated with a glass or two of wine, for under fifty bucks a head. But then, we stick to small plates, which have proven better than mains. Chief among recent favorites: the poached egg, anchovy and dandelion salad with radishes and baby yellow tomatoes. Now granted, dandelions, poached eggs and anchovy happen to be among the holiest of trinities in our culinary constellations - but Craftbar's made a point of deliciously contrasting the bitter, salty and sweet. We fondly recall the wonderful combination of a recent bonito special, which they'd smoked but left rare inside, served with a lemon saboyan: smokey, citrusy, salty, light and fat.
A properly charred grilled octopus Craftbar serves with preserved lemon. Their meatballs are among the best we've had. Also recommended: fried sage leaves stuffed with boar have a delicious light, bitter crunch that gives way to soft, unctuous meat. Sometimes a bit greasy, but these primarily occur to us as a fine invention. Sweetbreads with a balsamic glaze, sliced turnips and carrots have proved the finest rendition in recent memory. The charcuterie with bressaola, soprresatta, proscuitto, coppa, salami is a great bargain at $17, and includes a especially wellmade duck ham. A moist and creamy Foie gras, with plentiful and high quality liver, drizzled with basalmic, should under no circumstances be missed. Additionally, we've never had or needed a reservation at Craftbar, which like Craft itself is a simply stunning place. We best like the bar there and have been impressed by the wines by the glass list, which is seemingly always in rotation and never without an intriguing new taste.
What we cannot for the life of us figure: among all this haute cuisine, what happened to the once-fabulous 'Wichcraft? A stellar idea, yes, but an exectution that has plumeted like a boulder from the sky. All serious passion and interest has evaporated from the sandwiches as far as we can tell. Among the losers: celery has proven to have a suprising capacity to destroy all the other flavors in a goat cheese, avocado, walnut pesto and watercress sandwich. Marinated broccoli rabe, roasted peppers, black olives, caramelized onions and mozzarella on a baguette tasted like leftovers from a family style Mama's Italian Eatery in the Burbs. Slow roasted pork, red cabbage, jalapeños and mustard on ciabatta roll has all the allure of a deli hoagie. But with a little attention, we're certain things could turn around at 'Wichcraft. There's no doubt that Colicchio's hat full of tricks is anything but tapped.