Before the Bravo network ever dreamed up "Top Chef," Tom Colicchio, the show's head judge, already had a remarkable career. He was chef and partner at New York's Gramercy Tavern in the mid-'90s, then in 2001 opened his own restaurant, Craft, a block away, holding down both kitchens for a while. Craft was followed by Craftsteak, Craftbar and the cleverly named sandwich spot 'Wichcraft. Soon he was opening versions in Atlanta, Dallas and Vegas and more.
Then came "Top Chef" in 2006, making Colicchio one of the most recognizable chefs in the country. A year later he opened Craft Los Angeles. At this point, he could easily rest on his laurels, relax and let his name bring in the crowds. And yet despite being one of a collection spun off from the original, Craft Los Angeles continues to be a serious restaurant with seriously good food.
When Craft opened in 2007 next to the offices of some of the biggest players in the entertainment industry at ICM and CAA, it didn't take Madame Solange and a crystal ball to predict that the glossy, high-end restaurant would become a power-lunch spot. It had the right look — sumptuous, with generously spaced tables, and a menu showcasing great American cooking and top-notch local products.
But as anybody who has frequented L.A.'s power restaurants can tell you — Spago and the Grill on the Alley being the exceptions — the quality of the food is often the least important element in the equation. Craft didn't have to be great, just good enough. But the restaurant is much more than that. Colicchio doesn't fool around.
Sure, Craft is formulaic. But so is truly regional cuisine anywhere in the world for that matter, in that pretty much the same ingredients are used to make pretty much the same dishes season after season. The surprise for me is that the L.A. Craft has such a sense of authenticity. The menu offers a master class in contemporary American cuisine. You won't find recipes with 17 ingredients or unnecessary frills. Each dish relies on simplicity and elegance, superb ingredients and expert execution to make its point.
Now the initial buzz has died down, and the key staff at Craft Los Angeles has changed. Opening chef Matt Accarrino has been replaced by Anthony Zappola, who moved over from Craft in Dallas, as did pastry chef Shannon Swindle. I've been hearing good things about the new team recently, so it seemed the ideal time to check in and see how things are going.
The service is as crisp and professional as ever. Waiters know their food and are observant and truly helpful. A new sommelier, John Dal Canton, also from the Dallas Craft, has added some exciting, well-priced choices to the already excellent wine list. And French sommelier Emmanuel Faure, a veteran of three-star Marc Veyrat in France, is a welcome, high-energy presence in the dining room.
And the food? I'd go back on my own money (rather than the paper's) in a heartbeat.
The menu is printed every day, sometimes with big changes, sometimes with relatively few. The names of the farmers who supply the restaurant run in a column on the left, a nice touch. I'd forgotten, though, how challenging the menu format is to decipher. Dishes are listed by main ingredient (veal sweetbreads, pork loin and belly, skirt steak, diver sea scallops) and technique (raw, braised, roasted, sautéed) without adjectives or description, which means consulting your server for any details. Vegetables and sides need to be ordered separately.
I can't recall a server ever pointing out the size of the portions, which, unless you're a world-class trencherman, are best meant for sharing. Everything is served family-style, often delivered in gleaming copper serving pans. Fortunately, the handsome wood tables are wide enough to accommodate everything, just one of many details that make the restaurant so comfortable. Tip: You probably won't need an appetizer and a main course for each person at the table.
As a starter, Hawaiian blue prawns, roasted with head and tails on, are delicious set on a pine nut butter that tastes unexpectedly earthy and rich against the sweet shrimp. Braised octopus is thinly sliced and scattered with diced potato in a lilting mint vinaigrette. It's a lovely light dish in which the subtle taste of the octopus shines.
Frisée salad is a wonderful surprise — the delicate, feathery greens topped with fine slices of cured Arctic char, a few piquant sliced cornichons and pickled onions, and showered with chives and dill. Beautifully cooked sweetbreads with a distinctly custardy texture are paired with ribbons of crunchy sweet and sour cabbage for another fine starter. Summer truffle and ricotta cavatelli are fabulous, the shaved truffle tossed in butter with the gnocchi-like pasta.
When it comes to main courses, Craft is strongest on meat, which is of the highest quality and expertly cooked. Think lamb is ho-hum? Try the Ellensburg roasted lamb sirloin, a deep, rosy pink and almost velvety in texture and served sliced off the bone (bone included, though) in its own juices. It's a superb cut of meat treated with great respect. A sampler of roasted and braised Niman Ranch pork with fat cranberry beans and pickled peppers features the pork loin, sumptuous pork belly and delightful pork cracklings. Every bite is different.
Veal with sherry sauce is stunning, cut off the bone, strewn with dried fruits. The sherry works the way Marsala does, but because it's less sweet, the result is more elegant. What a brilliant combination of flavors. The 35-day dry-aged sirloin for two at $105 isn't as pricy as it seems because it could easily feed three. The steak arrives in a copper oval dish with two marrow bones set on end sprouting long skinny spoons to dig out the marrow. This is real prime, close to 2 inches thick and marbled with fat that floods the palate with flavor.
Sides are standouts too. I happily could have had the applewood bacon and abalone risotto as a main course. Few chefs can turn out a risotto this perfectly cooked. And yet the components are entirely original — big, tender cubes of abalone and half-inch cuts of bacon.
I was a goner once I tasted the sweet corn cooked in butter with corn milk, the best corn dish of the season. Order baby shiitake and you get a cute little cast-iron casserole piled with seared mushroom caps just over an inch in diameter, the full flavor beautiful with any of the meats. For potatoes, you can't beat the luscious, deep-dish gratin served from a small, round copper pot.
There are some missteps, mostly due to overreaching for effect. Bulky duck tortellini needs a more supple dough, but even so, braised peanuts and Concord grape gastrique do not a happy marriage make. Not only is black sole rolled up like a cigar on top of carrot purée unattractive, the fish has an odd metallic taste. We leave half of it. And though barramundi in coriander vinaigrette with greenish fresh chickpeas strewn over is pretty, it's too bland to hold much interest.
Swindle, the new pastry chef, doesn't miss a beat. Pre-dessert might be a thimble of plum sorbet or a glass of coconut horchata. An individual blackberry pie has a fragile short crust filled with luscious dark berries and served with an utterly enchanting wild fennel ice cream that strikes a perfect balance between sweet and herbal. Though strawberry shortcake skimps on the Harry's berries, the shortcake is marvelous. O'Henry peach cobbler arrives in the oval cast-iron casserole with a biscuit topping and a small dish of gorgeous vanilla ice cream, a great example of an all-American dessert. And I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of silky dark custard tart with a gorgeous, sliced-plum compote.
Craft gets all the details right, from an amuse of diced Jidori chicken with pecans and pickled peppers, to the mignardises of tiny lemon-glazed marshmallows or miniature peanut butter cookies, and the parting gift of ginger and thyme biscotti, house-made granola or a muffin.
Casual bistros, trattorias, taverns, canteens, pop-up restaurants and food trucks make up more and more of L.A.'s exciting dining scene. But we're seriously short on grown-up big-city restaurants run with passion and professionalism. Craft is one to treasure.
CRAFT LOS ANGELES
RATING: Three-and-a-half stars
LOCATION: 10100 Constellation Blvd., Century City; (310) 279-4180; http://www.craftrestaurant.com.
PRICE: First courses, $10 to $24; main courses, $29 to $54; side dishes, $9 to $16; desserts, $6 to $12. Corkage fee, $25.
DETAILS: Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and 6 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Valet parking, $8.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.