Lifestyle

Craft is a scene, but the food is the star

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Craft, the first L.A. restaurant from New York's Tom Colicchio, swaggered into town in July -- on Friday the 13th to be precise -- and as it happens, on the same day that Osteria Mozza from local legend Nancy Silverton and New York heavyweight Mario Batali flung open its doors. The New York invasion, which will continue this winter when Laurent Tourondel opens his new restaurant in the old Le Dome space on Sunset, has officially begun.

Not that we haven't seen the occasional Big Apple chef before. Thomas Keller came west in 1991 to head up the kitchen at Checkers Hotel downtown after his first Manhattan restaurant went under. Pino Luongo put a Coco Pazzo spinoff in Hotel Mondrian in 1996, which was followed in due course by Jeffrey Chodorow's Asia de Cuba. But those were just skirmishes. Now the high-powered, professional restaurant operations are moving in and maybe thinking they're going to show our more laid-back restaurateurs how it's done.

California cuisine (and Italian and Mediterranean cooking) has dominated L.A. for so long that we've almost forgotten there's some equally compelling cooking on the other coast. The fact that chefs of Colicchio's and Batali's and Tourondel's caliber have set their sights on L.A. means they're finally taking the Los Angeles dining scene seriously.

Batali, who started out in the West Village, scouted out an unlikely location at Highland and Melrose, and restaurant-goers are coming in droves nonetheless. Colicchio, on the other hand, opted for the very center of the entertainment industry's power base: Century City. And not just any address there, but a free-standing, built-to-order structure steps away from CAA's glossy new headquarters.

Craft has quickly become the new power lunch spot. Small wonder because it's within shouting distance of not only CAA, but also a host of other talent agencies and law offices. It certainly has all the amenities -- sleek cabanas in which junior agents and talent can sprawl and do business at the same time, luxuriously roomy booths far enough away from the next table that only a word or two can possibly be overheard, plus an open layout that lets everybody see and be seen.

A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows curtained in filmy white smudges the cityscape and leafy trees beyond the glass. The world doesn't exactly retreat -- it's still out there, but muted. All the better to concentrate on the art of the deal and the art of the plate.

Menu's the real starAT lunch one day I luck into one of those roomy booths, probably because it's the Jewish holidays and the place isn't as packed as usual. A "curtain" of fine chain-mail mesh separates each booth, so it takes a while to realize that to our left is a famous baseball player with his lawyers. To our right, another guy wearing a black baseball cap turned backward stares down a laptop computer screen with the creative types at his table. Everyone's taking a meeting except us. We're also among the few women in the room.

Soon we're so engrossed in deciphering the menu, we forget all about them. It's a big one, deconstructed in the sense that you order your first courses, your main courses and your sides separately, with each category divided into smaller subcategories. Your eyes dance over the menu, finding one thing and then another that sounds appealing and then circling back. How to put it all together? Descriptions are minimal, but the sheer amount of choice is overwhelming.

"Oof," my friend Antonia says, setting down her menu. "You order. This is too much work." Two others at the table file the same protest. It's up to me, I guess. Actually, it's a relief for one person to order. Less time lost negotiating which sides we're going to get, and which first courses. Not that my friends have stopped commenting. Lardo, what's lardo? Cured fat, I tell them. Fat? And who's going to order pork belly in L.A.? Foodies, I answer. Me.

The pork belly appetizer is fabulous, baby block-sized cubes of unsmoked bacon cooked -- and served -- in a cast-iron casserole. They're crisp as crackling on the outside, unctuous and soft inside, all pig, wonderful pig. Madras curry adds a filigree of spice to the juices without shouting its presence. Bluefin tuna crudo is both sashimi and tartare, garnished with a thread of fresh horseradish sauce and shaved breakfast radish. The tartare is light as snow cone shavings, made from the highest grade of tuna, a beautiful rendition of a now classic dish. Foie gras terrine is a marvelous silky round of duck liver presented with sliced heirloom plums freckled with hibiscus syrup.

To the public at large, Colicchio is the familiar head judge of the reality television show "Top Chef." But New York restaurant-goers have long known him as one of the city's best chefs. After working at a string of distinguished restaurants, in 1994, he opened Gramercy Tavern with Danny Meyer as his partner, and seven years later, opened Craft, one block south, so he could supervise both kitchens. Craft was followed by Craftbar, and the more casual 'Wichcraft and Craftsteak. The New Jersey-born chef is also the author of two cookbooks and now has restaurants in Dallas and Las Vegas.

For Craft Los Angeles, Colicchio tapped Matthew Accarrino as his chef de cuisine. The 30-year-old had the same position at RM, Rick Moonen's New York restaurant, and can also claim sous chef at Per Se, Thomas Keller's acclaimed Manhattan restaurant, on his résumé, so he's no stranger to the pressures of an A-list crowd. But opening a restaurant on the other side of the country is an exercise in frustration without an infrastructure already in place to support it. It was tough going in the early weeks with servers in a daze, delays in the kitchen and food that was sometimes unremarkable. Because it's such a big restaurant and Colicchio can't be here all the time, it's taken a while to work out the kinks.

Three months later, it's a very different story at the almost 200-seat restaurant. Service is crisp and professional. The kitchen is on track, and the food outshines the scene. And once you figure out how to order, the restaurant isn't as breathtakingly expensive as it seemed at first.

Over four or five meals at Craft, I've learned how to order. On my last visit, in fact, for the first time a waiter pointed out that the food is family-style and you probably don't need a main course for each person. Here, family-style means that serving plates and copper or cast-iron casseroles are set down in the middle of the table. To accommodate that, the handcrafted wood tables are wider than usual.

Portions are pitched to real trenchermen, so unless you're bulking up to run the marathon, everybody at table doesn't need an appetizer, a main course, two sides and a dessert. Well, maybe a dessert (but we'll get to that later). You could make a lovely meal with a couple of appetizers. Make one of them the roasted quail, two beautifully cooked birds, rosy inside, served in their juices with a handful of luscious wild huckleberries; this could stand in as a main course. The Sonoma baby lamb "for two" easily feeds three or four. You get the shank, the loin, some rosy little chops, and even the kidney (when the kitchen can get them) in a reduction of the juices. The 20-ounce aged New York strip on the bone is shareable too, but you may end up fighting over the delectable bits close to the bone. The beef is superb, but what I really love is the Bordelaise sauce at the bottom of the pan, almost a glaze.

Knowing all this makes it easier to order, but even so, I realized the next day after that last visit that we'd forgotten to order the red leg partridge we meant to have as an entree. Oh, well, we had too much food anyway.

The appetizers offer a wealth of choices -- raw, cured, marinated, roasted. There's even a category called "farm egg." And though dishes such as Peruvian octopus with "rice" beans is a constant, the menu changes substantially every day. I love Colicchio's take on frisée salad, with shredded smoked turkey and a six-minute turkey egg dipped in breadcrumbs and flash-fried, so it still has a molten yolk. The heritage-pork terrine, a mosaic of gelatinous and meaty bits sliced very thin, is terrific too.

Clarity in cookingTHIS is modern American cooking -- unfussy, direct, strong. Colicchio's food is not intellectual -- and that's a compliment. It's lustful, mature cooking from a chef who doesn't have to show off. No question he's an East Coast chef and not a surfer dude: Just taste how much butter he uses. It's also evident in the generous portions. He cooks for people who like to eat.

Order guinea hen, and it arrives as moist, beautifully roasted roulade, with some shredded or "pulled" hen, almost a confit, along with trevisano (Treviso radicchio) cooked in vinegar, which does beautiful things for the radicchio's bitterness. Pan-roasted turbot is cooked whole and then fileted and served with thick slices of mushroom and the juices. Colicchio knows how to build flavor into a dish.

I don't know any other chef who uses beans as effectively. I love the gratin of heirloom beans of different shapes and sizes cooked with ribbons of leek. He might pair black-eyed peas with crumbs of pumpernickel, the robust flavor of the bread playing off the earthy funk of the peas. He cooks fresh corn kernels with the corn cob to add more flavor. It's Craft's version of creamed corn, but without a drop of cream. Potato gratin is impeccable, a precise 6-inch swirl of sliced potatoes in a copper pan. It's rich, but not overly rich, not oozing cream or butter. It's about the potato. But if you do crave that butter, he does a potato purée with plenty of it, and snipped chives on top.

The occasional dish falters -- Hawaiian blue prawns with verbena that are overcooked, ditto for a heritage pork chop. And the family service can get more complicated than you'd think. How are you supposed to serve, or share, a dish of cavatelli pasta with shrimp and English peas doused in cream and butter -- and very liquid -- when the serving implement is a fork? Or, for that matter, a number of other dishes that come with forks when spoons might be more appropriate. Also, not everybody is into passing the plates and taking tastes of this and that. Those who do not like to share -- and you know who you are -- may find dining at Craft less than fun.

But for those of us who like to try everything, Craft is a pleasure.

The waiters who have lasted this long know everything about the food, how it's cooked, what's in every dish. The service is unpretentious and attentive, without going over the top with it. Dining is relaxed, and really pleasant, despite the fact that Craft is built more for business than for indulgent pleasure-seeking.

Sommelier David Lusby has a nice welcoming style. He was recruited from Frasca in Boulder, Colo., where he worked with Bobby Stuckey, former French Laundry sommelier. He told us he wrote the wine list in his head as he was driving west, and one of the wines he wanted most to put on the list is a Chardonnay from Slovenia, which is really interesting, minerally and rich, yet dry, and goes with all the food we ordered. The list has a good deal of depth for a young restaurant, and it ranges beyond the usual suspects. Everything about the wine service is intelligent, from the choice of glasses to the way the wines are decanted and poured -- without making a show of it.

The dessert course is very serious too, offering classic combinations, pastry, parfaits, fruit, ice cream, sorbet and gelato. And those are just the categories! Pastry chef Catherine Schimenti, whose résumé includes stints at Balthazar, Gramercy Tavern, Per Se and Craftsteak, is awfully busy back there. Her plum tarte Tatin is a beauty, a round of perfect, flaky pastry crowned with halved roasted plums from the farmers market. It looks like some extravagant châpeau. She also cooks glazed doughnuts to order. Each cloaked in a lemon-thyme glaze and topped with a doughnut hole, the tender doughnuts come with a dollop of three different sauces -- chocolate pudding, spiced pear or huckleberry jam, and an amazing coffee custard. An individual angel food cake is covered with crumbs and accompanied by a roasted peaches and blackberries and a dreamy sweet corn ice cream. She's someone to watch.

The fact that Colicchio has landed here with such a serious restaurant means L.A. is finally coming of age as a restaurant scene. Until now, Las Vegas has lured the top chefs from around the country. Wouldn't it be sweet if Los Angeles siphoned off some of that talent and turned out to be the next place for chefs from everywhere to strut their stuff?

That may well be happening, and soon, if Craft is any indication of what's to come.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

Craft

Rating: ***

Location: 10100 Constellation Blvd., Century City; (310) 279- 4180; www.craftrestaurant.com.

Ambience: Sophisticated business restaurant with plenty of table real estate and roomy booths by rows of hanging Edison lightbulbs. Terrace tables overlook a small, leafy park and sleek cabanas.

Service: Well-orchestrated and professional; good teamwork.

Price: Dinner first courses, $13 to 25; main courses, $26 to $96 (the latter, a Japanese Wagyu sirloin); lunch first courses, $10 to $23; sandwiches, $12 to $15; main courses, $25 to $35; three-course prix fixe lunch menu, $38.

Best dishes: Pork belly with Madras curry; quail and huckleberry; foie gras terrine; duck egg with confit duck gizzard and duck cracklings; baby Sonoma lamb for two; aged New York strip; heirloom bean and leeks; black-eyed peas and pumpernickel; plum tarte tatin; glazed doughnuts.

Wine list: Wide-ranging and interesting. Corkage fee, $35 (waived on Sundays).

Best table: A roomy booth.

Details: Dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Lunch is 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Full bar. Valet parking, $8; free parking in self-park garage with validation.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience; price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

virbila@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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