TOM COLICCHIO, chef/owner
43 E. 19th St.
Remember that gastronomic affliction called TFS — Tall Food Syndrome? There was a lot of it going around in the 1990s. Nearly every trendy young chef seemed to be a frustrated architect building towers of tuna that resembled the Guggenheim sided with wasabi. Waiters had to practice balance to keep dishes from toppling over on the way from the kitchen.
The craze for tall and otherwise contrived food has definitely sparked a reaction. One of the first chefs to take a stand against culinary contrivance was Tom Colicchio. He was already partner and executive chef at New York’s no-nonsense Gramercy Tavern when he got the inspiration to open a restaurant dedicated to the simplicity of fine ingredients, which, when unobscured by technique, would taste (remarkably) like themselves. Colicchio’s new place, Craft, opened in the Flatiron District (a quick hop across the alley, in fact, from Gramercy Tavern) a couple of years ago, and it quickly became one of the most talked-about restaurants in America. Today, it’s still drawing crowds and conversations.
“I’m not into culinary theatrics,” Colicchio confesses. “The restaurant is about craft, not contrivance.” The ready availability of locally grown raw materials at New York’s greenmarkets is essential to Colicchio’s vision for Craft. In season, about 90 percent of the restaurant’s raw ingredients comes from local farms. “This restaurant is all about the ingredients,” Colicchio explains. It’s also about choice, featuring a menu that allows diners to craft their own meal from among several dozen choices, ordered a la carte.
Novices have found Craft’s minimalist menu confusing, but the concept is actually very simple: Ingredients are listed along with their appropriate cooking techniques, and you decide what you want to eat, and how you want it done. For example, you might choose to start with roasted sweetbreads, then decide to go on to braised monkfish and match it with sautéed Swiss chard. All dishes are served family style. “People are used to this concept at a steakhouse,” says Colicchio, “but it took some getting used to at Craft.” As on steakhouse menus, there are no wordy descriptions, but you can rest assured that executive chef Marco Canora, who previously worked under Colicchio at the Gramercy, makes sure each dish sings in its own unique key. For the indecisive, there’s also a chef’s tasting menu.
The restaurant is at once visually stunning and warmly inviting. A 60-foot glass wine cellar lines one wall, while the opposite side of the space is covered in quilted leather. Edison-style light bulbs hang from the high-ceilinged space. Simple cherry-wood tables are oversized to accommodate the dishes, served in generous bowls or platters.
As if Colicchio weren’t already busy enough, he recently created a new steakhouse sibling to Craft in Las Vegas called Craftsteak. And next door to the original Craft, he’s opened an Italian-style trattoria called Craftbar, as well as a take-out sandwich shop called Wichcraft. Amazingly, he finds time to write cookbooks as well. First was the technique-building Think Like a Chef, and his new opus The Craft of Cooking: Notes and Recipes from a Restaurant Kitchen, featuring recipes from Craft, will be out in October.
Is Tall Food Syndrome history? “I’m not so sure we’re over it,” Colicchio says. “Some chefs still practice it and some diners still like it. But it’s not something I’m comfortable doing.”
terrabianca campaccio riserva toscana 1997 ($64)
chef tom colicchio recommends this rich, earthy supertuscan, blended from cabernet and sangiovese.
in spite of consumer demand for easy-to-grasp varietal wines, most winemakers i know confess that blends are really where it’s at. and as the following bottles prove, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
devil’s lair fifth leg white-vin blanc margaret river australia 2002 ($12)
sauvignon blanc, semillon, and chardonnay jazz up this racy white.
beringer alluvium blanc knights valley 2001 ($16)
creamy texture and lovely vanilla oak flavors predominate in this classic sauvignon blanc-semillon blend.
warwick estate three cape ladies estate simonsberg stellenbosch south africa 2000 ($22)
cabernet structure, merlot charm, and a boost of fruit give this claret-style red balance and appeal.
palmina bianca santa barbara 2002 ($28)
a thrilling friuli-style white with pure, linear expression of fruit; in short supply but worth a search.
clos du val ariadne napa valley 2001 ($32)
an expressive american answer to white bordeaux, with spice complexity and vanilla-tinged oak.
tablas creek esprit de beaucastel blanc paso robles 2001 ($35)
four aromatic rhone varietals — grafted from the vines at the famed chateau de beaucastel — deliver lush, creamy texture.
origin napa heritage sites napa valley 2001 ($35)
generous and supple-textured, this merlot-cabernet sauvignon includes a smidgen of cabernet franc for subtle notes of herbs and spice.
neibaum-coppola rc reserve napa valley 2000 ($56)
“hey, dad, can i borrow the winery?” film- and winemaker roman coppola, son of francis ford coppola, created this elegant and velvety syrah-based blend.
bodegas catena zapata nicolás catena zapata mendoza argentina 1999 ($70)
argentina’s most important wine producer puts his name on this stylish cabernet sauvignon-malbec blend, with intense berry fruit and great verve.