When Tom Colicchio launched Craft in 2001, he was hot off a gig as the chef at Gramercy Tavern, where he’d pioneered farm-to-table dining along with co-partner Danny Meyer, taking full advantage of the nearby Union Square Greenmarket. He had not yet established himself as the towering television personality he was to become on shows like Top Chef, Best New Restaurant, and Treme.
Some 18 years later, Colicchio’s empire has grown and shrunk again. Craftbar and Colicchio & Sons are gone, fast-casual restaurant ‘wichcraft diminished from ten branches to four, while Temple Court remains open after a name change. But Craft, which has spun off into locations in LA and Vegas, maintains its wild popularity for well-heeled customers who want lots of options in their dining experience. We decided that his launchpad needed another look.
Some background: Right out of the gate at Craft, Colicchio stumbled. Subdivided into multiple sections, the menu required the diner to pick a raw material (say, pork chops), and then choose a cooking method (say, braising), and then a sauce (such as cranberry), as well as sides.
It was a case of culinary democracy run amok. Many diners were bewildered, forced to make decisions usually reserved for chefs. With all the choices, it was possible to pick ones that didn’t work together, resulting in a mediocre meal. As Williams Grimes pointed out in his 2001 Times review, “In the abstract, freedom of choice is desirable. But the arts, including the culinary arts, function more efficiently as dictatorships.”
The menu set-up changed not long after, so that less participation was required, though still with a bewildering number of categories and subcategories. It grew into a fine dining destination, and many noteworthy chefs trained in its kitchen. On my recent revisit, Craft still looks about the same as when I went there in the early days.
Upon entering, there’s a bar on the right behind which lie thousands of wine bottles in niches. On the left and continuing around the L-shaped dining room are tables, sofas, and comfy chairs in stained wood that look like a cross between Mission-style furniture and Danish Modern. Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling like glowing soldiers on parade, and instead of a normal wall, there’s a circumflex surface composed of leather squares, now plashed with nearly two decades of spilled wine.
A soundtrack that unites the talents of David Byrne and Bryan Ferry plays gently in the background as you run your eye over a menu that fits on a single panel, in contrast to a wine list that runs to 50 pages. While containing premium bottles, it mercifully offers many agreeable choices that fall in the $35 to $50 range. I picked a bottle of ciliegiolo from Liguria, Italy ($48) to share with two friends, a dark and assertively flavored rose that drank well with the mainly heavy food.
How has the food menu changed since the early debacle? Well, quite a bit, but not completely.
There are now 10 menu sections, or 11 if you count the desserts. Four of these are supposed to represent sides, but sides could sometimes count as satisfying main courses. Under the section titled “Grains” lies a risotto with bay scallops and chorizo ($18). Seeming very Portuguese, it is a good deal and perfectly conceived dish, representing a salty union of sea and land. Yet, you have to discover it among the sides.
Also among the sides appears a collection of six mushroom dishes, where a more conventional menu might offer one or two. The one called “assortment” ($19) turned out to be a broad frying pan filled with assorted fungi drenched in butter, a dish so rich and woodsy that it would also make a fine shared entree. There are 21 sides in all, and I’m sure other bargains lurk there, too, on a menu that generally seems expensive.
As with the original Craft, the menu remains bewildering. We ended up ordering eight dishes total. The salad, a showy pink-veined castelfranco radicchio in a cider vinaigrette, was glorious in its mild bitterness — there’s nothing better than a simple lettuce salad simply dressed. But it was meager for the $18 price tag.
We ordered other apps, too, including a pair of beef shin bones with marrow served with brioche and heaped with garlic and herbs ($29). It seemed a bit undercooked, with the tissue too wobbly and not toasty enough. We also picked a more generous plate of arctic char, cured so it achieves a pleasing density and deep orange color; it was served with crème fraiche, herbal relish, and more brioche. Bread is still a big deal at Craft.
Indeed, if we were to name a restaurant after its most prominent features, this one might be called Grease and Herbs. Those herbs showed up again in a big way in our main course. Priced from $35 to $65 and falling into two categories, the entrees are dubbed “Fish and Meat,” the latter containing beef, duck, rabbit, and Cornish hen. There are 15 main courses, and it is impossible to tell what combination of main courses and sides ought to be ordered to feed three people. Accordingly, we went with the most expensive entree, the venison Wellington.
It turned out to be plenty for three — two stout, pastry-wrapped cylinders of venison, with a thick layer of mixed herbs that prominently featured rosemary, mediating between the carbs and protein. The venison was assertively flavored, almost like wild deer, and to make the dish even earthier, a thick layer of mushroom lay underneath. (Yes, the waiter should have warned us that along with the mushroom side, our order represented too many mushrooms for one meal.)
A choice of six desserts and seven sorbets and ice creams caused a dilemma; we could only imagine sharing one since we were already so stuffed. The democratically selected offering was a Valrhona chocolate pudding ($14), with a crackly chocolate lattice sticking out of the top and tiny salted caramel beads rolling across the deeply brown surface, utterly delectable without being too sweet.
Does Tom Colicchio still cook there? According to a 2018 Times piece by Sam Sifton that analyzed the operation of Craft and the people behind the scenes, he does not — mostly keeping his hand in private dinners and special events in the restaurant’s private dining room. The day-to-day food is likely under the watch of current chef de cuisine, Abbey De La Rosa.
Colicchio or no Colicchio, Craft remains a good choice for special occasion dinners. Our meal for three ran to $283, before tip. But know that eating there still takes effort on the part of the diner in superintending a satisfying meal. One piece of advice: Strategize like a general approaching a battle, and pick the things that sound good, but then subtract a dish or two from your total. And don’t be afraid to pick you entire repast from the “Sides” sections.
This is the latest installment in a new series called Is It Still Good? Eater NY will be revisiting long-established restaurants that have acquired towering reputations and still generate plenty of traffic to find out if the food quality justifies our continued admiration.