In June of last year, I ate at the original Craft during a trip to New York City. To say it was the best meal of my year doesn't really do the experience justice. Everything was exceptional, from the imposing old windows overlooking 19th Street, to the pleasingly understated masculine décor, to the expansive wine list that still had room for quirks, to the simple, perfect food.
I'm not planning to do a compare and contrast essay here, although it is tempting (the hen of the woods mushrooms in New York – a juicy hedge of crispy and soft flavor; the hen of the woods mushrooms in Atlanta – a desiccated scattering of yummy, oily bits). Many have questioned whether upscale restaurants can work as chain operations. Chefs who leave primary kitchens in the hands of staff members and set out to create empires do so with a fair amount of skepticism following them, and rightly so. Quality is often diluted, and the focus becomes celebrity and the money that follows it. Just ask anyone who dined at the recently deposed Atlanta Emeril's, and you'll hear just how bad the translation can taste.
But after my meal in New York, I had high hopes for Atlanta's outpost of Craft. If chef/restaurateur Tom Colicchio could bring even a part of New York's feel, precision in cooking, and quality wine list to Atlanta, then I figured we were in for something pretty damn good.
Colicchio hasn't disappointed. Craft Atlanta breathes beauty into its spanking-new building in front of the Mansion on Peachtree hotel with the same warm masculinity that's so pleasing in New York. Stepping in through the huge double doors, the space is instantly soothing. Up the staircase in the dining room (the first floor is home to Craftbar), caramel wood accents and rows of the restaurant's signature glowing-filament light bulbs create the feel of a modern Japanese lodge, if there is such a thing.
To handle the kitchen, Colicchio brought in chef Kevin Maxey, who oversaw Craft in Dallas. The menu is a la carte and broken up into type of ingredient and cooking technique. Colicchio's and Maxey's signature style comes from seeking out the best ingredients, and cooking them simply with one, sometimes two, contrasting flavors. When the kitchen and the minds behind it hit the sweet spot, the results can be breathtaking.
Sweetbreads are roasted, creating just the right amount of crust with the perfect amount of crunch, and accompanied by sticky, sweet and sour kumquats – the freshness of the fruit bursting alongside the rich meat.
A scattering of sea trout on a plate with hard-boiled eggs (displaying the most outrageous orange yolks imaginable) played with texture and composition. It looks like a gorgeous train wreck, but there's an unexpected logic to its scattershot presentation: Fish, coriander, rich egg and crunchy croutons were all expertly proportioned. A torchon of Wagyu beef tongue exhibits silky, buttery meat dazzling with texture and flavor, complemented by a few pickled vegetables.
Colicchio has been justifiably praised for his preference for roasting. From the sweetbreads to a beguiling duck breast and confit leg roasted with apricots, to dusky, sweet Jerusalem artichokes, the method brings out the best in the ingredients, folding their flavors back in on themselves for maximum intensity.
When the alchemy of freshness combined with perfect seasoning combined with one counter-flavor works (as it usually does), food this simple is magical. But, especially for the adept home cook, a couple of things on the menu can seem like no big deal, and expensive to boot. The $21 price tag on that Wagyu beef appetizer seems totally justified – who among us could make that at home? On the other hand, a side of Brussels sprouts, as delicious as they are simply roasted in butter, seems expensive at $8. Anyone worth her sea salt can cook a Brussels sprout this way.
The other trouble with simplicity is there's nowhere to hide when food isn't cooked perfectly, and very little to distract if something is missing. The one huge disappointment I encountered was monkfish wrapped in bacon. The flavor was off, the fish was mushy, and the pop of the bacon when I bit into it was disconcerting. Another night, a waiter sold us on the skate wing by lovingly describing the mustard oil used to offset the fish. When the skate arrived with no hint of mustard oil, naked on the plate apart from a scattering of diced squash, it was hard to get over.
Desserts showcase the skill Colicchio's built his reputation on. Order the straightforward-sounding pine nut tart and get an astoundingly meticulous rendering of buttery crust, not-too-sweet and yet sugary filling, nutty undertones, and candied cranberries for counterpoint. Baking this expert cannot be faked. Spiced pear cake offers warm, musky flavors with sticky pears in every bite, and a lovingly composed cardamom ice milk for the perfect combination of palate cleanser and complement.
The wine list is broad and well-planned, but not playful or unexpected. There's no difficulty in finding a glorious bottle of wine, whatever your tastes, but I'd love to see some weirdness in the corners of the cellar – a hint of personality that distinguishes the truly great lists in town.
Craft certainly isn't for everybody. It can be prohibitively expensive, and yet it isn't really a special occasion restaurant. If you're looking for architectural or precious cooking, you won't find it here. I joked with a friend (when she asked if it would be appropriate to wear jeans) that Craft aims to be the most expensive casual restaurant in town. That's not exactly the case. Service is both doting and crisp, and while the dining room manages to be approachable and unstuffy, there's a definite fine dining aura about the place.
There's also a solid foundation of technique, balance and beauty. Colicchio and his team bring the core elements of that exceptional Craft experience to Atlanta – an equation that, when it adds up, is elegant enough to build an empire on. Simplicity plus flavor equals greatness.