You may be unfamiliar enough with Tom Colicchio to associate him only with Bravo's TV hit "Top Chef." Season after season, the show brings together contestants to vie for the prize of becoming the one the judges — Colicchio and fellow hottie Padma Lakshmi, plus a host of guest chefs — deem the best chef of the lot.
On the show, Colicchio is imposing yet polite, impeccably dressed (in or out of his chef's coat) and able to lay down the criticism with earnest plausibility.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Colicchio possesses all those qualities, but happens to be a chef. A very good one. His cooking career took off in 1994 when he partnered with restaurateur Danny Meyer to create what some believe to be the greatest of American restaurants — Gramercy Tavern in New York. The mix of talent was right, the timing was right, and pretty much everyone associated with the restaurant was catapulted into the limelight.
Colicchio eventually left to open his own place, a small, tidy spot carved out of an old linen factory in the Flat Iron District called Craft, serving simple dishes prepared with classic technique.
For a chef with the amount of celebrity status he carries, he's grown his empire slowly in comparison to others, starting in New York with expansions into casual eateries such as Craftbar and Craftsteak (as well as the sammie shop 'Wichcraft), and has moved his concepts into only five other cities: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Foxwoods in Connecticut, Dallas and now, Atlanta.
His celebrity chefdom draws in Atlantans by the droves, but don't expect to see him wandering through the dining room checking on tables in his famous blue chef's coat. Do expect to see throngs of diners clamoring for a table. If one judges the current economy by what's going on at Craft, our recession looks a lot more like the Roaring '20s than the Great Depression.
Craft New York is a different scene: Cut into an old building loaded with seasoned New York charm, the dining room is busy, but hardly overbearing. And it offers what has become classic New York for the American dining scene that boomed in the late '80s and early '90s, when restaurateurs were hungry enough to go looking for space in districts that had once seemed untouchable.
The menu is mapped into sections of meat, pasta, fish, salad and side dishes, and each is prepared with simple finesse. Colicchio is among a generation of American chefs who have defined our standards for great American cooking, and its cornerstones lie in classic technique with simple preparation and a penchant for proper sourcing when it comes to ingredients.
While Craft Atlanta's sleek Buckhead look and address share little with its sister in New York, the menu, executed deftly by chef de cuisine Kevin Maxey, is exactly the same, save for the absence of a prix fixe menu.
Touted as part of the Mansion on Peachtree, Colicchio pulled a fast one by having the restaurant built in its own freestanding, two-story building (that shares a valet with the hotel). It gives the experience its own character, disassociated from the rest of the hotel.
Inside, Peter Bentel has designed a space that is all about what's right about Atlanta: maple-colored woods and wrought iron, with a dining room adorned with rows of raw light, the orange hue of exposed filaments a signature part of the experience that can be seen from Peachtree Road.
Downstairs is Craftbar, the first outside New York, and consequently the first of its kind to share space with Craft, which is reached only after climbing an impressive flight of stairs. The bar, as well as a behind-the-scenes kitchen, are shared by both, which makes getting to and from the bathroom a bit of an ordeal, since it's likely you'll run into a mob of waiters fighting for the same space in the same corridor.
Food here is rich with character and rife with flavor. It combines the best of French and Italian techniques distilled into American grit and know-how. First courses shine: sweetbreads, aptly breaded and roasted, then laced with the flavor of caramelized kumquat; or rillettes of rabbit — a chunk, pulled meat pate rich with luminous fat spread on the kitchen's crisp, floury lavache.
Rarely do main courses satisfy me as much as they do at Craft. Beef short ribs are braised to caramelized glory, and root vegetables of baby carrots, turnips and cipollini glisten in the meat's succulent juices. Diver scallops bigger than half dollars stand gloriously up against the umami wrapped inside a mushroom jus; both are able to withstand the force of the other's flavor.
But it is in the area of the menu called simply "side dishes" where much of the fun lies: sweet potatoes, simply roasted, as well as beautiful, tiny Haukeri turnips and Jerusalem artichokes. Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms sautéed with a mix of trompette royale and baby shiitake. Beautiful, buttery braised escarole. These are the types of dishes we should be eating all the time, at home or out to dinner — the distilled flavor of a vegetable coaxed from the delicate arts of roasting, braising and sautéing. Little could be simpler.
The wine list here is among my favorites in the city. A seemingly innocent bottle of Lirac, lesser known than its famous cousin across the Rhone River, Chateauneuf du Pape, is a special treat to find in a wine cellar. But as was the case in New York, almost all the bottles offered are overpriced.
By dessert — and you must have dessert — it may become apparent that the one thing amiss at Craft is the flow of how dishes get from the kitchen to the table. On more than one visit the lull between courses stretched into a screeching halt, dragging the evening into oblivion. The wait staff is obviously as well-trained as the kitchen. The two need to introduce themselves to each other and strike up a better rapport.
As for dessert, I have three words: roasted Bosc pears. Pastry chef Pamela Moxley does with fruits, pastry and cream what Maxey, who was chef at Craft in Dallas, does so well in the kitchen: spin flavor from ingredients and technique to create quiet, intelligent desserts that snap with flavor. Mix and match those roasted pears with a bit of brown sugar ice cream, then order a coconut flan lightened with a bit of shortbread laced with lime and cornmeal.
Food: Classic American
Service: Very well-trained staff, but the kitchen and wait staff are not on the same schedule
Price range: $$$-$$$$
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club
Hours of operation: Dinner Sundays through Thursdays, 5:30-10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30-11 p.m.
Best dishes: Roasted sweetbreads with kumquat, quail with roasted pineapple, rabbit rillettes with Lucque olives, beef short ribs with winter root vegetables, diver scallops with mushroom jus, roasted, braised and sauteed vegetables
Vegetarian selections: Salads and many vegetable side dishes
Children: For lunch or early evening
Parking: Complimentary valet adjoined with the Mansion on Peachtree
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: High
Address, telephone: 3376 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, 404-995-7580
Web site: www.craftrestaurant.com
KEY TO RATINGS
Outstanding: Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
Excellent: One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Very good: Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
Good: A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit or miss.
Fair: The food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.
PRICING CODE: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. (The price code represents a meal for one that includes appetizer, entree and dessert without including tax, tip and cocktails.)
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