My relationship with Craft got off to a rocky start. While the restaurant was getting a lot of good press, my first few meals weren’t that impressive. In fact, I pretty much wrote the restaurant off as one of those places that was liked by a less discriminating diner than I imagined myself to be. I also criticized the way chef/owner Tom Colicchio had deconstructed upper-middle cuisine, turning it into a modern-day version of an à la carte steakhouse; further, Colicchio’s deployment of the “great ingredients prepared simply” strategy didn’t always bear fruit. On certain days the ingredients could be terrific, but on other days not much better than average. And as is occasionally typical of ingredient-driven restaurants, sometimes the food seemed overly plain. One of the first meals I had at Craft seemed to encapsulate this particular problem—an order of softshell crabs was delicious, but the roast baby lamb didn't have much flavor and was tough.
Then one day I was invited to a dinner at Craft that forever changed the way I viewed the restaurant. Not only did I love my meal, but since that day it has become my “go to restaurant” in New York City. It all started when Mrs. P and I were invited to dinner at Craft by Geoff Troy, the owner of the New York Wine Warehouse, and his wife, Jane. It seems the Troys had attended a 9/11 benefit auction and were the highest bidder for a Chef’s Tasting Menu dinner at the restaurant. Since I'm not known as someone who would turn down an offer of a free dinner, I accepted, justifying it as a good occasion to break my self-imposed soft boycott. Not long afterwards, I found myself at the restaurant, seated at a table for four right near the door to the kitchen. A few minutes after we arrived, a chef came out to greet us. Geoff knew him and took the honors. “Steve, Linda Plotnicki, I’d like you to meet Marco Canora.” The five of us chatted for a minute or two, when suddenly Marco turned to me and said, “You’re the guy on the Internet, aren’t you? I knew your name from somewhere, but at first I couldn’t place it and then I finally remembered. Wait right here, I’ll be back in a minute.”
What happened next was a seminal moment for me, because two minutes later, none other than Tom Colicchio himself appeared at our table (I'd met him a few times at Gramercy Tavern), and he was loaded for bear. “I have four pages of your comments that I downloaded from the Internet. I am going to go up to my office to get them and I want to go over them with you.” Not only was it an amazing scene to watch, but it was an amazing display of the power of the Internet. Here I was, Joe Shmoe, never had a piece about food published anywhere, and Colicchio wanted to ask me about my comments. Okay, so I’m not giving myself enough credit for making comments that obviously hit close to home for Tom, but who was I to have my criticisms taken seriously? That interaction has a lot to do with why I am here writing on this platform today. After all, if I could say things that got under Colicchio’s skin, and which he didn’t dismiss as the writings of some nutjob, maybe this Plotnicki guy actually knows something about food and dining out.
To fast forward to the end of the story, we sparred about the details for a while until he got fed up and said, “I’m just going to have to show you.” What followed was one of the great meals I had eaten in New York City. We were bombarded by an avalanche of dishes—a battery of raw fish dishes, homemade proscuitto and mortadella, various terrines, foie gras, a course with cooked fish dishes, and then a course with various meat dishes. Each course came with its own group of salads and vegetables. And talk about vegetables. I think we were served every vegetable on the planet. In my past meals at Craft, there would typically be four to six different mushrooms available, and maybe we would order one or two. But here was a plate of assorted mushrooms with every type on it. And the dessert course was more of the same with six different ice creams, six sorbets, soufflés, roasted fruits, and various baked items. Somewhere during the latter stages of the meal Marco came out to see us and asked, “How am I doing?” After telling him the meal was great, I couldn’t help but ask him how I could get a meal like that in the future. “No problem,” he said. “Just have the server tell me you’re here and you want the Chef’s Tasting Menu.” And so a style of dining at Craft was born.
Since that day in late 2001, I have eaten between two and three dozen meals at Craft, almost exclusively different variations of the Chef’s Tasting Menu that Marco served us that day. And other than inquiring to see if they have any special ingredients on hand for that evening, I always put myself in the hands of the kitchen because I am confident they will choose to serve what is best that day. All that’s left for me to do is to tell them how many courses I want. The optimum meal, which is served for a party of six, starts with an aperitif of Champagne to sip with the amuse, followed by a raw fish course paired with a Riesling from Alsace or Germany, then a charcuterie course including various terrines and foie gras paired with a red wine from Italy or the Rhone, a warm fish course with White Burgundy, and a meat course where we usually drink red Burgundy or sometimes a Bordeaux. When I first worked out this progression, the staff at Craft were concerned about the progression going from white to red wine, then back to white and then back to red. But I held my culinary ground, and it has been smooth sailing ever since.
When I posted a review about my newfound success at Craft, some people were skeptical that the meal could be as good as I said it was. After all, wasn't this still the same food that had disappointed a variety of people when it was ordered à la carte? I explained to everyone that whatever deficiencies I had found in the à la carte Craft meal were overcome by two factors. When the kitchen chose your meal, they made sure you were served the very best ingredients on hand. But if for some reason the batch of string beans they chose didn't live up to expectations, it was only one dish in a cascade of vegetables, as opposed to being the primary vegetable you ordered with your main course. The practical result was that most of the downside of ordering à la carte was corrected or made irrelevant by allowing the kitchen to choose your meal.
Over time, as I took more and more people to dinner at the restaurant, most people got over their suspicions. Of course, there were a few naysayers; the misfits who always seem to have a bad meal no matter where they go, and people who still insisted that à la carte ordering was the right way to go. A logically flawed theory if I ever heard one, since the the Chef's Tasting Menu is merely the kitchen ordering à la carte instead of doing it yourself, plus there is much greater variety. But more typically the responses were raves, and that turned into a tradition of various OA forum members wanting to go there specifically with me. Periodically, I would find a personal message in my inbox that said: “Hi Steve, I am going to be in NYC the week of X, and I’d love to go to Craft with you.” Getting the occasional dish that wasn't on the menu only added to the lore of dining with Steve. At a recent dinner while we were chomping down a salad of arugula, goat cheese, pine nuts, and small bits of grapefruit, the person to my right leaned over to me and said, “If we weren't here with you there is no way we would be eating this salad. How would we even know it exists? It isn't even on the menu.” Of course, this type of comment made some members ask if I got special treatment at Craft. “Will we eat as well if we go without Plotnicki?” was something you heard from time to time. But others chimed in that they too were able to get meals that were specially prepared by the kitchen. The big secret is how to get them? Ask for them.
Which brings us to last week when a member of the OA discussion forum was going to be in town from London. Not surprisingly, Craft was her answer when I asked her where she would like to have dinner. We were a party of five. We started with an amuse of pork confit with whole-grain mustard. It was similar in taste and texture to rillettes of pork and had a nice flavor, but was served a little too warm for me. This was followed by a soup spoon containing an individual crawfish tail with a spicy tomato-infused sauce that was delicious (no photos of the amuse), and then a small plate with Kumamoto oysters topped with bits of cherries presented on a beautiful bed of varicolored dried peppercorns. The raw fish course arrived: individual plates with cubes of bluefin tuna that were sitting atop bluefin tartare; ivory salmon; and lightly seared toro. Served alongside the raw fish was a salad of wild arugula and a plate of asparagus. The bluefin is a Craft standby and always good, the ivory salmon was bland and not very interesting, but the toro was just superb. The first time I’ve had the dish at Craft and it was outstanding, as was the wild arugula.
The charcuterie course was next—a platter with a veal terrine and a round of rabbit ballottine, served with a mound of pickled turnips on the side. The veal was coarsely ground and moist. The rabbit is another Craft standby and always good. These were served with a very fresh hearts of palm salad. Then came a platter of the most amazing roasted foie gras served with bits of strawberry, lightly pickled mushrooms that had a slimy consistency, and balsamic vinegar. Similar to my experience at Per Se back in April, the foie was unusually firm for domestic foie gras. I wonder if this means there has been a general uptick in the quality of domestic foie gras? One of the attributes that always made European foie gras stand out was how firm it was compared to domestic foie gras. A truly superb dish and easily among the top five foie preparations I have had in the U.S.
The cooked fish course was codfish with wild asparagus, served in a milky almond sauce studded with green almonds. A nice hunk of fish, although not ethereal like it can sometimes be. But the sauce was unusual. A bit chalky, and the texture of the green almonds was interesting, more like a macadamia nut in texture than an almond. I thought it was a good example of how Damon Wise has stretched the Craft concept of top ingredients cooked perfectly by adding certain elements that one would associate with a more refined cuisine. Side dishes of baby zucchini salad topped with fried zucchini blossoms and a lemon risotto with crispy fried artichoke leaves were both delicious as well as perfect complements for the cod.
Roasted Blue Foot Chicken—a chicken raised in Sonoma County in the style of a Bresse chicken—was served with summer truffles and crosnes. I’m not a chicken fanatic, but this was excellent. Along with the free-range chickens that they raise at Stone Barns, this was the best chicken I’ve had in the U.S. The other meat course was a rack of pork in a light citrus glaze. When you took a bite, it had the lovely crunch that good pork has. It reminded me of a cote de porc I had at Troisgros a few years back. Sides were a fava bean ravioli filled with fava bean purée, sautéed mushrooms, and super-delicious roasted spring onions.
We drank: Perrier-Jouet Champagne NV – Nice as an aperitif.
1995 Veuve-Cliquot La Grand Dame – Better than I thought it would be. It had some breed to it but it was just very good, not a great champagne.
1997 Valentini Montepulciano Abruzzi – Terrific stuff. It managed to be intense while being perfectly balanced. A bottle of wine that will flourish with some cellar time.
1995 Bouchard Montrachet – Off the charts good. Full bodied, perfectly balanced. One of the best bottles of white Burg around and still undervalued on the secondary market considering what some other top Montrachets go for.
1996 Arnaud Ente Volnay 1er Cru – Lovely juice. I was afraid that it wouldn’t hold its own after the Bouchard and the Valentini but it had great intensity.
Desserts were a buttermilk parfait with rhubarb, a chocolate soufflé, roasted bananas with chocolate and caramel sauces, a pain perdu, apple fritters, six different scoops of ice cream, and six different scoops of sorbet.
I’m sure that you’re all full from reading this by now. But in case anyone is wondering what makes this meal stand out besides the sheer volume and variety of food, it’s the fact that there is more to Craft than just naked ingredients cooked perfectly. When the restaurant first opened and Marco Canora manned the kitchen, the cuisine was heavily rooted in a rustic Italian style. But now that Marco has left to open Hearth, Craft's executive chef Damon Wise has broadened the scope of the cuisine, and as a result it is both more inventive as well as more refined. And with Per Se opening in New York City last year and setting a new standard as to what a top New York City restaurant should be, the evolution of the Craft style couldn't be more timely.
I can’t think of a place that is easier to eat at, and where the food is less pretentious, while transcending the limitations that one often finds at ingredient-driven restaurants. And they manage to do it in an environment that is casual, but also smart in a New York kind of way. A feast at Craft, Plotnicki style, will cost you anywhere from $90–$130 per person for food, before corkage, water, tax, tip, etc. Not a cheap meal, but from a value for money perspective, quite inexpensive considering the quality of the ingredients they serve you, and the skill and inventiveness with which they prepare them. A