First look: Craft, Tom Colicchio’s Atlanta debut

Here is what William Grimes, former dining critic of the New York Times, wrote on June 27, 2001, not long after the opening of Craft:

“Craft invites diners to take a trip. The destination is a simpler, cleaner, more honest America, a place where the corn is bright yellow, the bread exhales clouds of yeasty sweetness and the fish swim in water as pure as Evian.”

What is it about Americans that we are always engaged in utopic yearning? Grimes’ words seem almost trivial until you mention the year 2001 and unavoidably think of the nation’s apocalyptic loss of innocence in the attack on the World Trade Center.

And yet, even now, in the midst of the worst economic times since the Great Depression, we are looking more zealously than ever for purity and transcendence at the dining table. We have become Proust, munching on a madeleine whose first taste prompts him to write: “And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.”

I can’t lay claim to either Grimes’ or Proust’s experience after my first meal at the new Craft Atlanta (3376 Peachtree Road, 404-995-7580). Undoubtedly, this will cause some to gasp. We’re talking a major pedigree and, dammit, I wanted to transcend the vicissitudes of life and become a precious essence.

The restaurant’s owner, Tom Colicchio, is well-known to fans of “Top Chef,” for which he is a judge. He made his initial reputation as co-owner and executive chef of New York’s Grammercy Park before opening Craft. (I have eaten at the former but never at the New York Craft.) It was followed by Craftsteak and Craftbar. There are duplicates of his restaurants in other cities, more than 10 altogether if you include outposts of his sandwich spot, Witchcraft. That is a lot of restaurants to open since 2001.

Colicchio is also famous for his no-nonsense approach. Indeed, use of the word “craft” is meant to suggest a down-to-earth attitude toward cooking where the chef’s function, his craft, is to highlight inherent flavors of ingredients – local and organic insofar as is possible, of course. This compares to the attitude that fine dining should stress artistry in a more formal and complicated sense. The danger of the latter is that cleverness of technique and presentation can ignore the sensuous properties, including the emotionally evocative ones, of straightforward cooking. Frankly, I don’t really buy the distinction. The reverse-elitism of the down-to-earth is an old game and an unconvincing one when ensconced in the luxury of a place like the Mansion on Peachtree, with prices inaccessible to the truly down-to-earth. As Grimes put it, Craft has a pared-down aesthetic that provides a baroque dining experience.

But I liked Craft. I didn’t love it. Well, I did love the decor. The downstairs is actually Craftbar, with its own less expensive menu. The upstairs dining room, Craft proper, is accessible by a dramatic, broad staircase that, like the rest of the restaurant, looks like a riff on the arts and crafts movement. It’s all about symmetry and wood and golden light.

The chef here is Kevin Mackey, who has been with Colicchio’s restaurants about eight years. His menu changes daily, depending on availability of ingredients. It is completely a la carte and dishes are served family style in the center of the table. You should definitely order with sharing in mind. Portions are oversized, seriously, so remember that if the prices stun you.

The standout dish of our dinner was a starter of thin slices of a torchon of Wagyu tongue. The melt-in-your mouth tongue was served with mild, crispy and slightly sweet slices of pickled jalapeño peppers, along with a few tiny basil leaves. (Wagyu, more recognizable in its usual geographical branding as Kobe beef, was also available as a skirt steak the night of our visit.)

We also ordered cured Tazmanian sea trout served in a coriander vinaigrette with a few halved, boiled chicken and quail eggs, along with some feather-light croutons. The farm-fresh eggs and the fish were a riff on velvety textures, highlighted by the whispery crunch of the croutons.

The least impressive dish to my palate was an entree special of chunks of monkfish wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, served with some roasted cipollini onions. I simply did not care for the combination of the bacon and the fish, nor its flavor nor its textures. Indeed, the monkfish was a bit mealy.

As you probably know, Colicchio is not big on grilling meats. He insists on roasting them, a choice that was quite controversial when he opened the first Craftsteak in New York. His steaks do not have that slightly bitter, slightly sweet char from grilling at extremely hot temperatures, but most people agree that Colicchio and his staff have perfected their roasting method. Still, instead of a steak, I ordered a roasted “rack of pork,” which really was superb in its simplicity and straightforward taste. But ordering the dish for sharing was a bit of a misstep since, like the monkfish, it featured the flavor of bacon – this time as an oniony “marmalade” along with strips of crispy pork belly.

As side dishes, we both ended up ordering roasted root vegetables – Haukeri turnips for me and Jerusalem artichokes for Wayne. Sweet and earthy, both vegetables were big servings and we should have picked at least one other vegetable like the braised escarole or winter greens. Craft New York is famous for its mushrooms, too. There was a choice of five different ones the evening of our visit and friends tell me the Hen of the Woods are particularly good.

We ended up taking a good bit of this food home, so we weren’t up for much dessert. You can “craft” your own dessert here, combining (or not combining) fresh fruits, ice creams and sorbets. There’s also a nice selection of cheeses and more complex desserts like apple crisp, (inevitable) Valrhona chocolate cake, glazed chocolate donuts and, for us, brown-sugar crème fraiche cake with red grapefruit slices and brown-sugar ice cream. This was a really remarkable combination of flavors, thanks in large part to the bittersweet grapefruit.

You can expect special touches at the restaurant, like an amuse bouche of celery root puree and, weirdly, a cellophane bag of granola to carry home. Your leftovers will be waiting for you at the front desk. Your car will be parked at the door by the time you leave. Service, generally, is perfect. Matthew, our server, used to be general manager at Floataway Cafe.

I remind readers that this is a first look. I did not find the experience of dining here as utopic as many have described the New York restaurant. But I do look forward to returning to visit Craftbar, which is scheduled to be open for lunch as well as dinner by the time you read this.