I’ve written before about the mysterious, salutary “Small Room Effect.” I don’t quite know why the same pork chop tends to taste better in a small restaurant than in a larger one, but it does. Small rooms add a kind of communal intimacy to the dining experience, which seems to magnify the pleasures of the food on the plate. Or so I used to think whenever I dropped into the original Craftbar, which during its brief heyday was the king of the city’s new small-plate, small-room restaurants. Tom Colicchio’s original establishment was grafted onto the side of Craft, his much larger, more expensive, more self-serious restaurant. The bar at Craftbar was long, the tables were snug, and the dishes issued from the kitchen in inventive little packages. There were pocket-size veal meatballs dusted with shavings of Parmesan, crisp-fried oysters set on little dabs of rémoulade, and a whole battery of pastas and toasted paninis, designed to be enjoyed in groups of three or four, or in solitary reverie, with a glass or two of wine at the bar.
The original Craftbar is no longer with us, sad to say, at least not in its edifying tiny form. Several months ago, Colicchio and his partners moved their operation to a much bigger space on Broadway just above Union Square. The new space seats 130, while the old held only 60. There is a large, elevated wine rack, complete with a vaguely treacherous-looking catwalk. There is a bar in front, designed not for contemplative dining but for the mass consumption of lots of very profitable cocktails. The menu has been enlarged, and those small finger-food dishes, like the meatballs and even the beloved paninis, have been struck. In their place is a more standard progression of seasonal salads, upmarket appetizers, and big, aggressive entrées flavored with obscure ingredients like stinging nettles, pickled ramps, and fennel pollen.
Given Colicchio’s talents as a chef and restaurateur (the man overseeing the kitchen at Craftbar is Akhtar Nawab), none of this food is bad. In fact, much of it is good. But the restaurant’s intimacy is gone, and with it that certain quality of specialness. The clean simplicity of the old menu is gone, too, replaced by a kind of baroque Greenmarket showiness. I suppose the excellent pigeon-and-quail terrine (all the terrines are excellent) benefited from a few sprigs of purslane (a healthful, smooth-leaf weed, much prized in gastronomic circles) and slices of pickled litchi, though I’m not entirely sure. Ditto the sweetbreads, which are crisp and buttery but come with a sidecar of pickled fiddlehead ferns and the extra flavoring of vanilla. My favorite appetizers tended to be the simplest, like the fresh, inventive salads, the octopus (well grilled, with big wheels of chorizo), and a simple, delicious dish called “young pecorino fondue”—a layer of pecorino cheese baked to a golden, faintly chewy richness and spattered with acacia honey and a scattering of roasted hazelnuts.
A few of the entrées were equally satisfying, and a few were not. The bowl of cavatelli I tasted was bland (despite the presence of cranberry beans and stinging nettles), and the bountiful $29 pork-and-bean extravaganza (belly and loin plus a mess of sea beans) could have done without all the beans. The rabbit at Craftbar is among the best I’ve tasted, but there’s so much of it, you feel like you’re eating an entire chicken. Except for a nice, pricey portion of wild salmon ($33), the seafood dishes like cod and black sea bass seemed overwrought (there are coco blanc beans in the bass, and bits of lamb’s quarters, a kind of green, in the cod). The duck is good, though, and so are the desserts, particularly a hot, melting version of chocolate tart wrapped in phyllo pastry, and the brown-sugar cake, which looks like a dense, deconstructed version of pineapple upside-down cake. Is this cake, served in this vacuous new space, as good as the desserts at the original Craftbar? Probably. Is the experience of eating it quite as pleasant? Definitely not.
The new restaurant BLT Prime springs from another inventive, modest dining concept now grown to gigantic size. It’s the newest outlet of Laurent Tourondel’s booming BLT franchise (the letters stand for Bistro Laurent Tourondel), which now encompasses a fancy seafood restaurant, a casual seafood restaurant, and two steakhouses. BLT Prime, which opened a couple of months ago in the Flatiron district, is a doppelgänger of BLT Steak, on 57th Street. The sleek zebrawood tables are the same as the ones uptown, as are the large circular lamp shades. But at BLT Prime, the proprietors have added a glass meat locker so diners can inspect the great, aging haunches of prime beef, which are tagged with dates and stamped with big purple BLT logos. They don’t serve those wonderfully large popovers before each meal like they used to do uptown (you get semolina garlic rolls instead), but otherwise the meal proceeds according to the expansive, expensive, and by-now-familiar BLT formula.