You might think that all chefs aspire to the trappings of culinary greatness: the Beard awards, the celebrity following, the Iron Chef victory. But for some, that’s not enough. In their quasi-candid moments, they’ll confess their true desire. More than fame, more than fortune, more than a fat cookbook contract, what they really crave is a good sandwich. The more refined and elegant their own cooking, the greater the hankering for unpretentious food and an atmosphere to match. Even our loftiest gourmets have their underground moments.
We recently heard Tom Colicchio divulge a particular weakness for Melampo, a Sullivan Street takeout shop adored by sandwich cognoscenti. But in between supervising the kitchens at Craft and Gramercy Tavern, consulting at Bid, launching a line of packaged foods, and strategizing the forthcoming Craftsteak in Las Vegas, the man can’t have very much time for SoHo sub runs. Maybe that’s why he and Marco Canora, his deputy and the de facto chef at Craft, opened craftbar, right next door. )
Think of craftbar as the place where the author of Think Like a Chef invites you to eat like a chef. It’s a more elaborate take on ‘ino or Bar Veloce — two popular restaurant-industry hangouts — crossed with more than a little Lupa; this is a place where you might expect to spot Mario or Rocco, or at least their sous-chefs, downing a beer and some fried oysters at the bar after a long night of braising beef cheeks.
But in spite of its name, craftbar is a full-fledged restaurant, with solicitous service of the Colicchio-Danny Meyer school; a spare, vaguely Mission-style design; a no-reservations policy; and a core menu of snacky, Italian-accented appetizers, salads, soups, cured meats, and sandwiches, for a fraction of what you’d pay next door — not exactly cheap, but worth it. Call it cut-rate Colicchio.
You can spend as little or as much as you want — particularly if you stick to tasty snacks like deep-fried morsels of sausage stuffed in sage leaves, or a trio of risotto balls, an elegant version of something you’d find in a Brooklyn focacceria or a Mulberry Street deli. Here, they’re suffused with fontina and pecorino and swathed with tomato sauce. If your idea of bar food is fried mozzarella sticks, the anchovy-tinged mozzarella in carrozza will be a revelation. Bruschetta comes in four guises, all impressive, the messy marriage of poached eggs and melted tomatoes especially so (and it’s not cut into little pieces, like the garlicky salt cod or chunky chicken liver, so you don’t have to share). Jewish penicillin has got nothing on Canora’s extra-strength chicken soup with chicken meatballs. We love the smooth mortadella dotted with silky squares of fat, and the other house-cured meats, but with all this wine — sixteen by the glass — where’s the cheese?
The Parmigiano and provolone at craftbar are restricted to meticulously pressed, streamlined sandwiches, served on an airy open-crumb bread that’s been squeezed and toasted to a maximum crunch. A bit of Craft sneaks in via the combination of smoky duck ham, salty Taleggio, and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, the arcane fungus that Colicchio has nearly made a household name. The two terrific cold sandwiches, a veal tonnata and a mortadella, are triple-decker takes on tramezzini, the crustless Venetian tea sandwiches.
These wine-friendly tidbits are supplemented by three daily specials — a pasta, a fish, and a meat — that are hearty, rustic, and, in general, as unadorned as the room. Saturday’s veal-ricotta meatballs are just that: four feathery-light orbs in a tiny pool of lightly creamy tomato sauce, without a strand of spaghetti in sight. You could plan your week around the specials, returning night after night without succumbing to menu fatigue. Our favorites, in calendar order: Sunday’s masterly, multilayered spinach lasagne Bolognese. Tuesday’s braised pork belly, a tender hunk of succulent meat layered with fat, served over salty French lentils. Wednesday’s brontosaurian slab of braised lamb ribs, embellished with dabs of preserved lemon. And on Friday, craftbar hits a trifecta: savory sausage with beans, earthy duck pappardelle, and an exquisite fillet of fried flounder, as full of ocean flavor as if it were just pulled from the sea and quickly fried in salt pork by some gourmet Yankee sea captain.
Pastry chef Karen DeMasco puts together complete dessert plates instead of inviting diners to match a tart with an ice cream and a fruit, as she does next door at Craft. Her combinations are flawless — especially hot, greaseless apple fritters with caramel ice cream, a good substitute for a weekend in Vermont; and a slice of dark, creamy chocolate tart (think pot de crème with a crust) with candied-pistachio ice cream.
It’s no surprise that the endearingly minuscule Etats-Unis is another haunt of Colicchio’s; the New American Upper East Side kitchen shares his obsession with fresh, seasonal ingredients, and the chef-owners share his aversion to culinary pomp and circumstance (not to mention dining irritants like smoking and cell phones). Two years ago, almost unbeknownst to the dining public, Etats-Unis, too small for a bar of its own, built one across the street. Considering it’s only got 24 seats — seven of them bar stools — The Bar @ Etats-Unis’s low profile is certainly a blessing. But we’d be remiss if we neglected to spread the word about what might be the Upper East Side’s best gourmet bargain. In a wasteland of mediocre pasta and Chinese takeout, the Bar is a beacon of low-key luxury, serving an all-day menu of well-appointed salads and elevated comfort food, ranging from $10 to $15 (versus the $32 you’d pay for rack of lamb across the street). Most dishes begin in the Etats-Unis kitchen, where vegetables are grilled and short ribs are braised into stews before being shuttled across the street and behind the bar, where a dexterous cook fashions meals with a convection oven, a hot plate, and amazing agility.
Despite his limited circumstances, the chef doesn’t stint on flavor. You’re asked how spicy you’d like your first-rate, made-to-order guacamole, and that’s how it comes. The classic Caesar is properly pungent with anchovy and Parmigiano. Beef stew is potent stuff, perfect with a full-bodied red wine from a list interspersed with lesser-known Spanish and German selections. There’s always a terrine — sometimes duck, sometimes fennel and pheasant — accessorized with cornichons and mustard. As at craftbar, there’s a fish of the day, a pasta, and a soup; recently, a bowl of peppery parsnip-leek purée and house-baked bread made a satisfying prelude to the fragrant date pudding with rum-caramel sauce and freshly whipped cream. One quiet afternoon — lunch is still very much a secret — we struck up a conversation with the manager, who, unprompted, proceeded to praise Tom Colicchio and the bar at Gramercy Tavern. He hadn’t been to craftbar yet, but he was planning to. Great minds, after all, eat alike.
craftbar 47 E. 19th St. (212-780-0880) Daily, noon-1am. Appetizers, $4-$8; entrées, $15-$18. All major credit cards.
The Bar @ Etats-Unis 247 E. 81st St. (212-396-9928) Monday through Saturday, noon-midnight; Sunday, 5pm-midnight. Dishes, $10-$15. All major credit cards.