Friday, May 30, 2008

craft - Less is Far, Far More

Click Here for a Quick Recap

My Momma's in town. Momma likes to eat well, with a sharp eye on quality, technique and value. In that regard, craft, opened and operated by Top Chef host, and top Chef himself, Tom Colicchio, provided us with an astonishing experience. The man running the kitchen is chef de Cuisine, Matthew Accarrino and the food was brilliant. The restaurant is in a beautiful, low, modern (in a Thomas-Edison-meets-Frank-Lloyd-Wright kind of way) building just in front of the new offices of Creative Artists Agency in Century City.

The skill of the folks in the kitchen made it seem like the food was exceptionally simple and the menu was a shining example of how the local-food movement can be a near-perfect thing. Dictated by what's at the farmers market that morning, the ingredients are the same quality as those that you'd find at Campanille, Providence, Father's Office or any other place that gives a damn about their guests (or their reputation). To be clear, everything on our table appeared to have been caught, plucked, dug up, harvested, butchered or in any other way gathered within the last 72 hours. The bread was also delicious. The rich and savory butter came with a few specs of sea salt, and would have made my socks a 3 star experience.

We decided to explore the menu, ordering 4 appetizers to begin with. First came an amuse bouche of calamari on a coconut gelee (fancy, molecular-gastronomical jello) in the bottom of a shallow, heavy spoon with a long curving handle that nearly met it's business end after wrapping around your index and middle fingers - like a super-shallow mug. The textures were a surprise. The squid looked to have been poached, or lightly sauteed then cooled. The gelee was firm at first but melted very quickly, nearly turning the squid into a flavor-vehicle, with only the faintest hint of its own oceanic flavor.

Our appetizers arrived all at once. The wild arugula salad was bright and peppery, topped with ultra-thin slices of lemon and a powder-fine coating of salty, hard cheese. It was dressed perfectly. Then quail with wild huckleberries. Cooked to perfection, the bird was soft and succulent with an intense, round flavor that tasted half-sweet-half-veal-demi-glace. It was the very picture of savory. The portion was on the small side at half a bird (the dark half!), but worthwhile, especially considering the flavor-wallop that it delivered. This was the first dish to truly amaze with its apparent simplicity. The flavor was ideal - an outstanding balance of salt, fat, acid and the spot-on preparation of what can be a very challenging meat.

Peruvian octopus with Greek yogurt was, for me, OK. But it sent Mom off the wall. Kat liked it too, until I ruined the dish by pointing out that its rich, salty flavor may have been due to something ominously similar to pork. Mom and Kat do not eat meats like beef or pork. Mom is allergic and it makes Kat's morals hurt. Bravely, they stowed their objections, physical or otherwise, and ate everything that hit the table.

Cobia tartar with cornichons was the one real miss of the evening. I was mistaken in thinking that Cobia was a generally mild fish - especially as it was prepared here, seemingly aspic'd in cornichon-flavored gelatin. Its taste was too sharp in contrast to the mellow, soft flavors that the other apps delivered. On a Sunday morning, in a light salad with a hearty bloody mary it might have been delicious...just not last night. We actually asked David (our omnipresent waiter) to take it back. He asked what we thought of it and I told him what I told you. The dish was whisked away and pleasantly banished from the bill.

Then, like Julia Child reaching down from god's kitchen and massaging your whole face with her warm, calloused, wrinkly hands - the sweetbreads and kumquat arrived. A good sweetbread (the thalamus gland of veal) should be crispy on the outside, almost like a chicken nugget, with just enough chew on the inside - like scallops. These were very much that. The flavor of this dish was epic in its scope. From the meaty glands and the piquant citrus of the kumquat to the robust sauce made with some great stock and caramelized onions (and other good stuff) the experience was revelatory - and absolutely delicious. If you get there, try it. TRY IT.

We blindsided David by asking him to choose his favorites for our entree. He sent us two proteins (both fish, he told us, as we ordered wine - Chardonnay for Mom, AlbariƱo for me) and three veggies. David made great choices - every single one.

Scallops in butter with thyme were the best I've ever had. Kat fell in love-at-first-bite with the skate wing and currants. But the real highlight, surprisingly enough, were the vegetables. The braised spring bulb onions were mild, but still crispy, an absolutely addictive texture. The roasted flowering zucchini also had a near crunchy texture, but relented after a chew or two, into a succulent goo that tasted like someone had wrung out the whole garden. Maybe the best dish was the assorted mushrooms. Hen of the woods, trompette royalle, and baby shitake mushrooms were all roasted to a firm, chewy perfection, still clinging to the flavor profile of the dirt from whence they were so lovingly (and recently) picked.

Dessert began with one more amuse bouche - apricot sorbet over panna cotta with another tropical gelee. Kat put it just right when she said that it was like a "Creamsicle for grown-ups." She and Mom shared a chocolate souffle with coconut sorbet which was so intensely flavorful that one bite nearly ended my meal...nearly. My desert was fresh glazed donuts with tangerine marmalade, chocolate pudding and (my favorite) vanilla custard. The donuts came with their tiny, fried holes which I eagerly shared with the ladies. It was just right. Crispy and sweet, wonderfully complemented by the rest of the food on the plate. I grew up in a family that re-fried their Krispy-Kreme donuts in butter, and it seemed that this was exactly what Pastry Chef, Catherine Schimenti, had done. It tasted like my childhood with a professional presentation and an out-of-this-world flavor.

We asked for the check - which was large - and we were given yet more free bites. Something like Turkish delight - but more coarse and crystalline in texture - and some black pepper madellines. Both provided a surprising and pleasant end to the meal.

Quick recap:

  • Knowledgeable, friendly and plentiful staff ( I can't even imagine what it must cost to run that dining room).
  • Great wine selection (and knowledge).
  • Wonderful, fresh, simple flavors.
  • Astonishing technique.
  • Expensive - $90 per person with 2 drinks each, a ton of food and 2 deserts.

Top dishes:
  • Veal Sweetbreads and Kumquat
  • All of the Fresh Vegetables and Assorted Mushrooms
  • Quail and Wild Huckleberry
  • Fresh Donuts with tangerine marmalade, chocolate pudding and vanilla custard
Recommendation: A definate YES! Make the vegetables the focus of the meal with some of the stranger meats as an exciting, if challenging, accent. Veggies also keep the bill down, which can really be an issue here. Open your mind and go, go, go...but save up first.