Perhaps you're like me and managed to live through the entire gourmet-obsessed nineties and not know, with absolute certainty, what a cranberry bean is. Perhaps you're unfamiliar with a ramp (it's sort of like a glorified scallion), or a bluefoot (it's a mushroom). Or maybe you didn't know that braised endives go nicely with roasted lobster, that Jerusalem artichokes have nothing to do with artichokes, or that the deeply rich, exotic taste of a batch of exquisitely crisped shiitake mushrooms (briefly sautéed in butter, then roasted with a sprig of fresh thyme) will perfectly complement a certain delectable recipe for duck confit. If you've half forgotten these little truths, or didn't know them in the first place, or if you're seeking a palate-cleansing break from what my extremely chaste mother-in-law refers to as "garbaged-up restaurant food," then a trip to Tom Colicchio's sleek new establishment, Craft, will set you right.
At least that seems to be Colicchio's novel idea. Colicchio, the gifted executive chef at Gramercy Tavern, is a fanatic for the integrity of ingredients and simplicity in cooking, and Craft is his extreme, almost priestly expression of this view. The room, in a former printing space in the Flatiron district, is a monument to what David Brooks, in his book Bobos in Paradise, refers to as "the perfectionism of small things." Pods of filament bulbs hang from the ceiling, above rows of draftsman tables lovingly crafted from cherrywood in Vermont. One wall is taken up with an elaborately tooled wine display, and another is covered in an intricately curving leather design, like reptile scales. The dinner menu contains roughly 65 items, divided into elemental foods (fish and shellfish, meat, vegetables, etc.) and, within those categories, into preparations (roasted, braised, sautéed, etc.). The idea is to compose a meal from these combinations, which is a little like sitting down to a hearty dinner and being asked to solve a crossword puzzle instead.
Whether this conceit is a testament to overprecious gourmet sensibilities or a repudiation of them depends on your point of view. "It's as if they've rearranged the way traffic works," said one non-foodie friend, as she composed an eccentric luncheon of skate, roasted salsify, and a pot of oversweet red cabbage. I had better luck on my first solo pass through the menu, following the foie gras terrine (two velvety discs, plus brioche toast, for $18) with lobster (roasted and served with a tarragon sauce) and a soothing helping of endives (the waiter's helpful suggestion). My lobster was quite delicious, although the blue ribbon in the roasted-seafood category went to the langoustines, bathed in butter, orange peel, and olive oil, with a bay leaf on top. In the crowded roasted-meats category, the loin chops of lamb seemed best, despite stiff competition from the sweetbreads and a simple country chicken with frizzled sprigs of thyme under the crackly skin.
If these choices get too overwhelming, there's also a tasting menu at Craft, which I ordered on my second visit after staring goggle-eyed at the menu for a minute or two. Our waiter had the chiseled, wholesome looks of an Ivy League cabinetmaker, and he described each dish, as it arrived, in the whispery tones of a sommelier. First came shavings of gravlax the color of apricots, followed by plum-size diver scallops from Maine and a dish of roasted Jerusalem artichokes. A hint of crème fraîche complemented the gravlax, and the sweetness of the scallops matched the Jerusalem artichokes, which were crisp around the edges and soft inside. A small portion of black sea bass (with green asparagus) arrived after that, followed by temperate helpings of sirloin steak and braised short ribs, served with gratin potatoes and a small copper pot of béarnaise. Each dish was prepared in the same elemental, monochromatic way, so after a while, even an undisciplined feeder like myself couldn't help noticing subtle differences of texture, aroma, and taste.
I didn't encounter an actual cranberry bean until one of my later visits, by which time my own snooty food tendencies were honed to a fever pitch. I found myself sniffing fava beans for their bouquet (too swampy) and swirling bits of gratin potato on the tip of my tongue. Most meals began in an orderly way, then degenerated into a tasting frenzy, and the bill at the end of the evening was unusually steep. A simple combo like black sea bass (not worth $26) and braised morels (delicious) cost $38 without an appetizer or dessert. But if you're feeling cheap, you can make a meal out of mushrooms alone, including the exotic hen of the woods, handpicked in the wilds of Oregon. "Braised" was my favorite meat category, particularly the duck confit, which retained a nice, crispy edge without turning soggy. My favorite fish was the cod, although it didn't quite mesh with the cranberry beans, which kept rolling off my fork like little pellets of wax.
Finding the perfect dessert was a little easier, despite six varieties of pastry, three custards, myriad fruits (roasted, poached, and fresh), nine kinds of ice cream and sorbet, eight sauces, and six cheeses. The cheeses were a disappointment (six meager slices for $30), but everything else was excellent, no matter how hard I tried to screw it up. Pastry chef Karen DeMasco's chocolate tart had a light, almost powdery exterior, which thickened into warm chocolate as you crumbled it with your spoon. It went nicely with hazelnut ice cream, or poached kumquats, or even a dribbling of sabayon. Ditto the eggy brioche pain perdu, which I enjoyed one evening with banana ice cream, some poached rhubarb, and a dollop of crème fraîche. This kind of culinary chaos may not put Craft in the pantheon of the city's great restaurants, but it tasted fine to me. After all, I built it myself.
Craft 43 East 19th Street (212-780-0880). Lunch, Mon.-Thurs. 12-2 p.m.; dinner, Sun.-Thurs. 5:30-10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. till 11 p.m. Dishes range from $6 to $32. All major credit cards.