On a dark winter night, the sight at 19th and Park is irresistibly arresting. Behind tall storefront windows, a warm dining room amber in color and lively in ambiance contrasts with the freezing weather outside. As if screaming an invitation to walk in.
On one side of the room, a 2 story wine cellar cradles each bottle on individual metal mesh hammocks behind glass doors.
On the other, a curved wall of leather panels resembles the scales of a copper fish. Above solid wood tables and chairs, filament bulbs hang in formation from the high ceilings. On the very end of the room, 3 large blue canvasses allude to white fireworks on the ocean horizon. All together, they create a welcoming atmosphere combining modern industrial design with homey elements. Light rock plays on the background as about 80 diners pack tightly in the dining room.
Tom Colicchio opened Craft in 2002 capitalizing on the success of his previous restaurant; Gramercy Tavern. The new venture quickly earned praise from the press and Colicchio went from chef to celebrity restaurateur. Nowadays, Craft’s franchise sprawls over 6 states and includes a few variations on the original brand; craftbar, craftsteak and ‘whichcraft. As Colicchio’s stove time ebbs away, his public persona flows–you may not see him in the kitchen but won’t miss him as the head judge on Bravo’s Top Chef.
Craft’s cuisine can be described as fine dining family style. The restaurant’s American fare is presented at the table on serving plates and bowls for diners to help themselves. Portions vary in size but sharing is strongly recommended. At first glance, the menu is somewhat confusing and even discouraging. There are too many choices and the logic on the categorization is hard to grasp. Dishes are only described by their main ingredient, listed under the cooking method. Like “Roasted: Dourade”. Once explained by the somewhat snobby wait staff, things become clearer–one first course, one main and one side per person are suggested. A tasting menu is also available.
Despite the long menu (usually a personal red flag), everything I tried was of great quality and very well prepared. Most dishes have bold flavors and intense aromatics.
Two types of bread are served on a wood basket, with butter.
An amuse bouche follows suit. Butternut squash soup with walnut. Spicy and tasty.
From the raw bar, Kumamoto oysters on a half shelf, served with mignonette.
Among the first courses, fresh Hamachi sashimi; served with pink peppercorn and a nice pear purée cooked with duck fat, shallots and vinegar.
But the best dish to start is the Octopus. Found under the “Cured/Marinated” category on the menu, it has a pleasantly meaty texture and smoky flavor. Roasted and served with harissa cream, roasted peppers and carrot purée; topped with picked jalapeños and shallots. Definitely worth ordering.
Under “Charcuterie”, the Foie gras terrine is creamy and well prepared. Served with pumpkin marmalade, aged sherry vinegar and toasted pumpkin seeds.
For main course, the star of the menu is the Roasted Bluefoot Chicken; the homegrown version of France’s renowned Poulet de Bresse. While the original birds remain protected by the French government and illegal for export, a small Canadian poultry breeder managed to recreate it in America. Think of Blue Foot as the Bellota or Kobe beef of chickens. Each bird is raised naturally and pampered with a diet of whole grains and fresh milk. The result is a firm, moist flesh that challenges the otherwise bland chicken flavor (and a price that is in average 10 times higher than its less aristocratic counterpart). At Craft, the $64 bird is presented at the table still sporting its steel blue feet before it’s taken back to be carved. The succulent meat has a unique, almost gamy flavor. For someone that only orders chicken as a last resort (that would be me), this is a can’t miss opportunity.
Also very good is the Braised Beef Short Rib. The beautifully marbled cut melts in your mouth. It’s served in a small cast iron casserole with fresh thyme sprigs.
From the ocean, try the Dayboat Monkfish. A flattering presentation for what could very well be one of the ugliest sea creatures (google it if you can stomach). Craft’s speck-wrapped preparation enhances the fish’s flavor while keeping it moist and tender. Served with parsnip purée, red wine fish sauce and black trumped mushrooms.
Side dishes are also very appetizing. A highlight is the Hen of the woods, roasted and served with minced chives. The curiously looking wild mushroom resembles a coral reef and grows on the base of oak trees to up to 30lbs in weight.
Also worth ordering are the Roasted Turnips. They make a great accompaniment for the more fatty meats on the menu.
Additional sides include Pumpkin risotto with crème fraîche, a myriad of potato preparations, mushrooms and other roasted vegetables.
The dessert menu is equally confusing. You can pick from “classic combinations” or “make your own” selecting from different pastries, fruit, ice cream and sorbets. One of the most curious options is the Fennel Sorbet. Its fresh, bright flavor is a nice surprise.
Also good are the Pumpkin Fritters with Maple Cream & Cranberry Sorbet. Tossed with sugar and cinnamon, they are another fine example of upscale doughnuts; fragrant and fluffy.
Craft’s cuisine features an extensive selection of hearty dishes that celebrate their main ingredients in rustic presentations. The type of restaurant you will enjoy more going with a few friends, so you can try different things. With an eclectic menu in which everything I tried was flavorful and well prepared, I never thought I’d say this but, if you only order one thing, order the chicken.
Craft is at 43 E. 19th St.