Prime Suspect

Photo: Marcus Nilsson

When Craft opened for business five years ago, the chef and co-owner, Tom Colicchio, introduced the restaurant world to his own austere version of haute cuisine. There was no room here for frothy, elaborate sauces, complicated fusion recipes, or haughty French chefs telling you what to do. As the name makes clear, Craft was (and is) about the sanctity of fine ingredients (mushrooms culled lovingly from the forests of Oregon, scallops gently hauled from the waters of Maine), and the process of cooking them well. Colicchio’s genius was to invest simplicity itself with snob appeal, and his insight has since been widely replicated, most notably by Colicchio himself. The original Craft produced Craftbar. Soon after, a hybrid steakhouse called Craftsteak opened in Las Vegas, followed in due course by a Colicchio-hosted reality-TV series, Top Chef. Now a second branch of Craftsteak has appeared, in New York, among the monolithic Vegas-like establishments that have been sprouting, like circus big tops, on the fringes of the meatpacking district.

The odd, boomerang trajectory of Craftsteak (it’s one of the few celebrity chef’s restaurants to originate in Las Vegas and come to New York, not the other way around) is emblematic, of course, of our brand-happy, supersize era. Yet for anyone who’s familiar with the mannered, hyperprecious mood that prevails in the original Craft, dinner at Craftsteak can be strange, even a little startling. Everything about the new production echoes the old one, only in a bigger, brassier, somewhat less original way. In theatrical terms, it’s like watching the glitzy, overheated traveling production of a first-run Broadway show. The new room is roughly four times larger than the one at Craft, and the ceiling about one and a half times as high. The bar is made of rough-hewn slate, and it’s as long as a city sidewalk and about as wide. The woodsy tables are the same at both, only there are many more of them at Craftsteak, and several are ringed with leather banquettes designed to facilitate the consumption of many large and profitable steak dinners.

You could call Craftsteak a steakhouse, but that would be an understatement. The menu is printed daily, and it’s as big as a bath mat. Colicchio has also grafted a raw bar onto his Craft concept, kept variations of popular dishes (excellent braised short ribs, tiresome varieties of artisanal mushrooms), and thrown in several obsessively delineated categories of steak (corn-fed beef aged four different ways, Hawaiian grass-fed, several pricey gradations of Wagyu) along with a couple of random soups (try the lobster bisque). Before you even think about steak, you can enjoy sweetbreads as large as a lady’s fist for $18 (they’re too big), a roasted lobster tail for $24 (it’s too expensive), and an entire lobe of duck foie gras for $160 (I didn’t dare). There are also ten excellent varieties of salad (order the fava beans with crushed hazelnuts), and a battery of inventive tartares, like salmon belly with lemony crème fraîche and caviar ($30, and almost worth it) or hand-chopped Wagyu (worth it).

My dining companions and I sifted through all this grub with good cheer, which was eventually replaced, as the signature Craft ironclad pots clattered incessantly down on our table, with a certain amount of weariness. Perhaps it was the crushing size of the joint, or the boggling number of dishes, or the fact that, with one or two exceptions, we’d seen variations of most of this food before. There was nothing wrong with my neighbor’s tender, meaty squab, however, or the bone-in Kurobuta pork loin—which, as every Greenmarketeer knows, is named for the fabled black hogs of Japan. The lobster I sampled was dull (it’s served in the shell, swimming in an opulent lobster broth), and not worth its $55 price tag. The chicken (free-range, of course) is a more modest, satisfying dish, and you can supplement it with a numbing selection of vegetable sides (30, by my count), including caramelized Thumbelina carrots, crunchy fried artichokes, and the inevitable platter of springtime ramps.

All of this is conceived as a kind of sideshow to the steak, which, in Colicchio’s hands, turns into a study in the obsessive nature of today’s high foodie culture. There are twenty varieties to choose from, each described on the menu (and also priced) in the kind of minute detail normally reserved for effete wines. The first cut I tried was the “Ridgefield Farm Corn-Fed Premium Hereford” New York strip, aged 49 days, for $60. I’ll admit it had a pronounced, almost Cabernet-flavored gaminess to it, but it lacked the charred, sizzling quality of real steak. The “Hawaiian Grass-Fed Angus Beef” was more interesting (“delicious herbaceous notes” was our waiter’s comment), particularly the strip, which cost $39, compared with $49 for a hunk of the bland corn-fed filet mignon. If you’re feeling flush, however, order the Wagyu, which comes in multiple gradations of fatty richness (the “grades” being listed on the menu). A mere $240 buys a Grade 6 porterhouse, but if you want a more rarefied, condensed taste of this kind of decadence, drop $98 on the Grade 8 New York strip, which arrives in a petite fourteen-ounce package but tastes like some ethereal, beefy form of butter.

The standard, non-Wagyu, non-grass-fed beef at Craft Steak seemed pretty ordinary to the assembled panel of beef eaters at my table, and so did the more steak-centric side dishes, like soggy, street-fair-quality onion rings flecked with mustard seed, and greasy, overbattered zucchini blossoms. Get the cipollini to go with your beef, or the fresh spinach, or, best of all, the farro, which is larded, in accordance with current gastronomic fashion, with lots of pork. The desserts are similarly constructed for maximum richness and include a do-it-yourself ice-cream sundae (you can bombard it with chocolate sauce, dried cherries, or chunks of brownie) and excellent freshly baked sugar doughnuts, which come with a thick blueberry sauce. The highbrow chocolate soufflé is pretty good, too, and so is the rhubarb napoleon, a delicately layered construction reminiscent of Karen DeMasco’s desserts at Craft. Is it on a par with those great DeMasco creations? Of course not. In the theatrical world of restaurants, the rerun is rarely as good as the original.

Address: 85 Tenth Ave., at 15th St.; 212-400-6699
Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $3 to $30. Entrées, $26 to $240. Sides, $9 to $22.
Ideal Meal: King-salmon-belly tartare, Wagyu New York strip ($98), farro, fried artichokes, doughnuts, or rhubarb napoleon.
Note: The Wagyu flatiron is only eight ounces, but at $49, it makes a better meal than the $42 corn-fed New York strip.
Scratchpad: This is essentially a one-star steakhouse, but the quality of the Craft franchise brings the whole production up a notch.

Prime Suspect