Last Friday night, Jason and I were invited out to dinner with two good friends, G and K. We were up in the air about where we’d like to go but decided upon Craftbar since G and K are big Top Chef fans. Craftbar is one of the many restaurants under the “craft restaurant family” started by head judge of Top Chef and more prestigiously, James Beard award recipient, Tom Colicchio.

We had a reservation at 8:15 PM, arrived not a minute later or earlier, and were seated promptly. The general feel of the space is typical of the Union Square area restaurants. I would summarize it as modern and sleek with dim lighting, high ceilings, spacious tables, etc… The tablecloth is paper over cloth, the menu is printed on a single sheet of paper, and the servers wear casual clothes emphasized through the ubiquitous appearance of jeans. I guess the point is to differentiate Craftbar from the Craft family’s more upscale ventures like Craft and Craftsteak at which I’m sure I would not find a single piece of denim, worn or otherwise.

The menu is divided into multiple sections and while the offerings are extensive and mostly all sound delicious, I find the concept a bit confusing.  Raw oysters, salumis, gazpacho, chilled pea soup, paté, pastas… I suppose Mr. Colicchio is simply offering what he knows people like to eat rather than focusing on any single type of cuisine. I can’t fault him for that but restaurants that focus more on one regional cuisine are my preference.

We decided to share a bunch of first courses instead of ordering individual appetizers. Our selection included chickpea fries with black olive aioli, pecorino-stuffed risotto balls, bruschetta with field mushrooms, roasted tomato, and mozzarella, and calamari with arugula and lemon confit.

The texture of the chickpea fries were completely different than what I had anticipated. They were perfect rectangular blocks and did not have a crisp at all. The inside of the “fry” had the consistency of mashed potatoes. The flavor was fine if not a bit bland but the name fry is a bit misleading. The black olive aioli was a nice condiment but would have benefited from a bit more olive flavor.

The risotto balls were perfectly crunchy in comparison to the fries and the pecorino was very pleasantly subtle. The balls were served atop a light tomato sauce and the acidity was a welcome addition to the otherwise rich dish. This appetizer was well accepted amongst our group and definitely the star of the first course bunch.  

Surprisingly, nameko mushrooms made an appearance in the bruschetta topping. I enjoy nameko mushrooms a lot and was glad to see it used in a non-Japanese dish but whilst they are a delicious fungus and cute to boot, the small round caps were reluctant to stay on the bread. Despite the messiness, the bruschetta was delicious and very fresh.

The calamari which was either poached or lightly sautéed paired very well with the bitter arugula. The lemon confit in the description on the menu tasted very similar to just freshly squeezed lemon juice which I actually appreciate very much. The lightness of the dish called for a simple dressing like that.

K ordered the Bucatini with Pancetta and Fried Egg as a main course though she was debating between that and the wonderful sounding sandwiches they offered.  I don’t blame her for debating – the Coppa with Buffalo Mozzarella was calling out to me as well. I only tried a tiny bit of her pasta which I can report was a pleasant al dente. That’s really the most important thing to me when it comes to pasta 🙂

G opted for the Veal Ricotta Meatballs with pasta that was deservingly popular. I saw it being brought out of the kitchen many times throughout our meal. The ricotta imparted a very light texture to the meatballs and you could definitely taste it in every bite. This was an impressive dish. I would have never thought to mix ricotta with the meat when making meatballs but this will definitely be experimented with the next time I go to my favorite local gourmet Italian shop and pick up their fresh ricotta.

Jason ordered the Hanger Steak with Heirloom Tomatoes and Bread Salad. The steak was served rare as per Jason’s request and thiny sliced over the salad. I am not particularly fond of restaurants that serve steaks pre-sliced because I feel like that is a way for them to get out of truly representing how much meat they give per plate. When it’s thiny sliced and fanned out, 2 ounces of steak can look like quite a bit. The heirloom tomatoes were delicious and have definitely convinced Jason and I that next summer we must take advantage of the bounty at our local farmer’s market. The dish as a whole though was quite everyday and not much to rave about.

I chose the Spicy Fish Stew with Red Pepper Aioli which came out like a bouillabaise. I was not really expecting that because the image that stew conjures in my mind is one of hearty chunks of meat in a thick broth. This “fish stew” contained small dices of salmon and white fish, tiny cockles, thiny sliced bits of calamari, and baby shrimp the size of which I’ve never seen, and not in a good way. These shrimp were no larger than the eraser on the back of a #2 pencil. Though the bouillabaise lacked in scale and portion, the flavor did make up for it a bit. It was was not spicy as the name had led me to believe which was also a disappointment. It’s the first word in the dish for heaven’s sake! To be fair, the broth did permeate with sweet red pepper flavor and what little fish was present, was fresh and flavorful. However, I can’t excuse the tiny portion for $20 in a “casual restaurant.”

For dessert, we chose to share the Crispy Chocolate Cake with coffee gelato and the Almond Semifreddo. I did manage to snap some pictures at the end for your viewing enjoyment. Please excuse the dark lighting.

The Crispy Chocolate Cake is the main focus of the first picture and the Almond Semifreddo is in the background. I could not manage to take a picture of it prior to K understandably taking a big forkful. My espresso macchiato on the right was enjoyably strong with a wonderful froth on top. Too many places I’ve been to serve me espresso macchiato’s with what looks like the sorry excuse for froth Starbucks serves.

Of the two desserts, I enjoyed the Almond Semifreddo the most as it reminded me of the wonderful almond cookie ice cream served at Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

I wanted so much to like the first Tom Colicchio restaurant I had ever been to simply because I have heard such good things about Top Chef. I don’t think I’ll be returning to this one any time soon though. There is nothing overtly wrong with Craftbar. The service was pleasant though there were a couple of times our waiter seemed to be absent. We finished every single dish we ordered so I can’t say that the food was bad. It’s just that everything seemed so banal, which didn’t do anything at all to justify the price tag. Overall, with all the other choices in NYC, I’m ready to move on to another restaurant. The question of whether it will be another Tom Colicchio restaurant is left to be seen. If it is though, it will most likely be his sandwich bar ‘wichcraft. I think I still hear the faint sound of the Coppa and Buffalo Mozzarella sandwich calling me…