If the careers of prominent chefs can be divided into epochal stages, like the careers of playwrights, or metal bands, or ego-mad painters, then this recently ended decade was an eventful time for Tom Colicchio. First came his formative “Apprentice” period, which culminated when he became partner and executive chef at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern. Then came the breakout “Craft” period during the early aughts, when Colicchio opened his first trailblazing restaurant (he now has eight), published his first glossy cookbook (he now has four), and began to establish what many righteous Greenmarket chefs secretly crave in this multiplatform era: a formidable national brand. The Craft period was succeeded, in dizzying succession, by the “Spinoff” period (Craft begat Craftbar, which begat a slew of baby ’wichcrafts), the Go-Go “Vegas” period (a grandiose Craftsteak opened in Vegas in ’02, followed by a second giant steak joint in the meatpacking district in ’06), and the Hollywood “Celebrity” period, which began with the first season of Top Chef, four years ago, and continues to this day.
Brand-building chefs tend to do less actual cooking as their empires expand, and that’s been the case with Colicchio. But now he’s returned to the kitchen with Colicchio & Sons, a venture that has its roots in the big-box Vegas period (it occupies the cavernous former Craftsteak space on Tenth Avenue) but attempts to recapture the spare, folksy magic of the farm-to-table boom, which he helped create during the Craft period. Scale was always a problem at Craftsteak, however, and it’s a problem here too. The monolithic glass-and-steel “wine tower” remains in place (monolithic wine towers being one of the archaeological wonders of the vanished Vegas period), and so do the dark, skinny light fixtures, which hang from the rafters like stalactites in the Batcave. A wood-burning oven has been installed by the entrance in an attempt to create a sense of intimacy and warmth, along with stacks of logs and a few haphazard pots of rosemary. But like the retro trendy name, those touches don’t muffle the uneasy sense that with this restaurant, Colicchio and his talented cohort of cooks are behind the curve, battling to catch up.
This is a natural predicament for a celebrity chef (or metal band), especially one who’s been in the public eye for nearly two decades, and the natural instinct, when it happens, is to manically reprise as many of the old familiar hits as you can. There are two menus at Colicchio & Sons, one in the casual Tap Room up front and another in the proper dining room, where twelve appetizers and fourteen entrées are served as part of a three-course prix fixe, for $78, that was recently introduced as a more affordable alternative to the elaborate $125 tasting menu. Many of the Tap Room dishes—soft segments of quail piled on a softer layer of farro ($21), a crispy pink wheel of porchetta stuffed with mashed chorizo ($23), and two perfectly braised rabbit legs over buttery grits ($20)—could pass for signature dishes in many of the newly downsized restaurants around town. But the overall impression, as one item succeeds another, is of a kitchen throwing as many flavor combinations at the wall as possible, in the hopes that one or two of them will stick. If you choose wisely, several of them actually do. The finicky tasters at my table gave two thumbs up to the well-cooked oyster appetizer (butter poached, and served with a celery-root purée and caviar), and to the crunchy roasted sweetbreads, which are plated on drifts of sweet onions and dressed with a rich veal reduction cut with sherry vinegar and bits of crunchy bacon. My platter of slightly gummy gnocchi was more or less salvaged by a rich chestnut-and-honey sauce folded with bone marrow and bits of black truffle, and the alarmingly rich crab-and-sea-urchin “fondue” works well enough, provided you limit yourself to one or two spoonfuls. I’m not sure the rubbery squid I sampled one evening benefited from its stuffing of dry black kale, however, and the slim, tasty-sounding agnolotti turned out to be stuffed with a bland filling of mashed white beans and bombed with a random, overworked combination of chorizo, octopus tentacle, and braised pork belly.
Many of these ornate compositions have their origins in Colicchio’s “Tom: Tuesday Dinner” period (a subset of the Celebrity period), when the chef began concocting tasting menus several times a month at Craft. But Colicchio’s genius as chef is in the realm of technique and execution, not improvisation, and the more Top Chef–style ingredients he piles on the plate, the more stilted the cooking tends to feel. The roast sturgeon was muffled with a grim substance called “grape-pumpkin marmalade,” and the dorade (smeared with thick layers of “sweet and sour” shallots) tasted, as someone at the table observed, “like it had been under the heat lamp too long.” The tender, gamy squab was overwhelmed by a sticky-sweet garnish of beets, among other things, and the beautifully cooked rabbit was overpowered by too much rosemary. The monkfish (wrapped in a film of pancetta, with braised red cabbage) stands up well to this relentless blizzard of ingredients, however, and so does the loin of lamb, which is injected with spicy merguez sausage and served over a bed of lentils.
For an operation that strives for intimacy, Colicchio & Sons is still plagued by the problems that impersonal, crowd-pleasing restaurants in places like the meatpacking district tend to have. The quality of dinner can vary from evening to evening, and depending on which sector of the room you’re seated in, the service can be slow. You can distract yourself with plenty of wine, however (the Craftsteak list remains more or less intact), along with artisanal cheeses (fourteen varieties) and exotic teas imported from far-off places like Armenia and Taiwan. The dessert list includes fresh beignets rolled in powdered sugar, and a delicately compact banana upside-down cake stippled with pecans. The log-shaped coconut-cream doughnuts (with a tragic limequat marmalade on the side) had been mercifully banished from the menu the last time I dropped in, but you can obtain a nice slip of cheesecake, flavored with white chocolate and served with a scoop of pineapple sorbet. It’s not a groundbreaking composition, but at the dawn of this unsettled new fine-dining decade, it will have to do.