Review: Craftbar

The idea of tuna in a jar hits a kind of conceptual sweet spot in my mind. Somewhere between fresh and canned, just between highbrow and lowbrow, tuna in a jar makes me happy before I even get to eat it. And then it makes me happier.

At Craftbar, Craft's less-formal downstairs neighbor, Tom Colicchio's more casual sensibilities shine. Familiar ingredients and preparations make for simple, nibbly fun, but are executed with less pretension and more thought than you might see elsewhere. The tuna, lightly cured in oil, sits in its jar atop a mush of delicious, gooey roasted red peppers, and is sprinkled with shards of salty black olives. Heaped onto rustic grilled bread, it’s the perfect snack — a small bite of oily perfection to accompany a glass of rich white or light red wine.

The heart of Craftbar occupies the space between decorous dinner and casual drinks. The restaurant excels at small plates and does well with sandwiches, but loses some steam when it comes to entrées and desserts. Not that those dishes aren’t good, they simply lack the sparkle of their less-hefty counterparts. Or perhaps it’s just that this is a party to which I’d rather not invite the three-course meal. Bring me another glass of wine and some pig-on-a-stick.

Craftbar’s pork belly skewers had my rapt attention, even though I’ve become a tad weary of the faddish meat. The cube shape allows the proportion of crispy exterior to perfectly counter the fatty, creamy bits. Paired with pickled peppers and a swipe of the plate’s lush plain yogurt, each bite trills with balance and gratification.

The space and food have a subtle and appealing masculinity. The room's warm wood tones are accessorized with filament bulbs and the open kitchen's wood fire. Likewise, the best of the menu speaks to principals of straightforward pleasure: baked oysters with breadcrumbs and a hint of bacon, devilled eggs boldly flavored with chives. There’s not a whole lot of room for girly frippery, which is perhaps why I found the cocktails disappointing. Rather than take the manly route and offer classic brown liquor drinks, the specialties include a tepid (too sweet, not sour or minty enough) kumquat mojito, along with a few other uninspired fruity cocktails. The wine list, on the other hand, is full of good finds by the glass as well as bottle.

A few dishes fail to live up to Colicchio's principals of simplicity. The burger had too many competing flavors, particularly the sweetness of tomato jam and balsamic onions, which prevented the beef from shining through. Desserts also overdid sweetness on a couple of occasions, particularly a rhubarb tart that bypassed the fruit's sour pleasure in favor of super-sweet strawberry overtones and sorbet, ramped up with a sugar-crusted dough.

Entrées are expertly composed and a tad forgettable. Cobia, a lovely white firm-fleshed fish, comes over bok choy and shiitakes with chunks of sopressata. I enjoyed the dish but couldn’t exactly understand how the ingredients related to one another. The tomato-based fish stew had balance but lacked any defining flavor to make it memorable. Upstairs at Craft, dishes are generally given one bold element, and that’s missing here.

In a nod to the Southern location, Craftbar does a very good pimento cheese, full of sharp cheddar notes and just enough mayo and pimentos. A note to the kitchen, though: Pimento cheese shouldn't be served ice cold. Frigidness traps the flavors and makes it unspreadable. 

A dining companion made the observation that it seemed as though the eager, friendly and crisp servers were all on their best behavior, hoping for a chance at the big game upstairs. I’ve had great service at Craftbar and also really strange service. One waiter perfected a style of formality mixed with lackadaisical, almost drug-addled calmness. He’d show up at the table and seem to forget why he was there. But there’s no doubt these guys are well-trained and hope to please.

Craftbar succeeds on many fronts. It’s a nice entry point to the Colicchio aesthetic and empire. It’s not cheap, but it’s not anywhere near the financial commitment you’ll make when dining upstairs. Expensive three-course meals are easy to come by, but the sweet spot embodied by tuna in a jar is a rare and welcome pleasure.