Tom Colicchio's Craft: Past Its Prime?

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After nearly three hours of awards and clapping, the cavernous Avery Fisher Hall was growing in excitement as the final James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef was starting. This was the moment we were waiting for: the names of the five finalists were unveiled on the big screen.Being a Washingtonian and having recently had a great dinner at Minibar, I had my personal favorite: Jose Andrés. Lisa Callaghan, flanked by Wolfgang Puck, opened the envelope and declared Tom Colicchio the winner for Craft. Ah, my disappointment, but also my excitement. I had never eaten at Craft, and had a trip to New York scheduled for June. Time to try it.

Five of us—including my daughter and a few high-ranking U.S. government and New York City officials—arrived early on a weekday. I convinced everyone to do the tasting menu with appropriate substitutions for being kosher and all. After all, we would get the chef's best effort.

Maybe insufficient attention has been devoted to Craft. It probably needs to be re-imagined and rejuvenated.

One dish was phenomenal: the zucchini agnolotti bottarga and fried squash blossom. Unlike most squash blossoms, this one came attached to a petite summer squash. The combination of gently fried blossom with ricotta and squash was delicious. And the small rectangular agnolotti were really wonderful: al dente and bulging with zucchini that tasted as if it had been picked that morning.

The other thing the chef did perfectly was sautéed vegetables. The small mound of sautéed zucchini that accompanied the agnolotti was neither raw nor limp. Accompanying the other main dishes, the chanterelles, wild spinach, and morels were all perfectly sautéed.

Unfortunately, in each case there was one thing that marred the perfection: SALT. The zucchini was too salty. It was as if the chef was accustomed to a salt shaker with tiny holes, and the one he kept grabbing was punctured with giant holes. Dish after dish was oversalted.

As if to compensate, the other dishes suffered from the opposite problem: blandness. Raw Spanish mackerel, duck with wild spinach and cherries, wagyu ribeye with fava beans, fiddlehead ferns, and morels were all impossibly subtle to the point of blandness—save the greens, which were always oversalted.

We had two dessert courses—now this is a restaurant after my own heart. One was a crème fraiche panna cotta with celery soda and lemon sorbet, the other a cocoa crepe with cherries. The celery soda vaguely reminded me of my grandparents and the Dr. Brown's we had on Passover meals. But it was very unusual: refreshing, treading a fine line, neither sweet nor tart. The panna cotta was delicious—firm and rich. But the cocoa crepe, well, it was good but really no better than the ones I used to make for my daughters' breakfast.

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ZagatBuzz/flickr

As the dinner wound down, my friend commented on how 1990s Craft was. The exposed brick décor. The background music that were classics a decade ago. And the food would have been wonderful 15 years ago, when Craft opened. Today it seemed good but tired. Colicchio has been engaged in so many things recently—from judging Top Chef to opening Colicchio and Sons—that maybe insufficient attention has been devoted to Craft. It probably needs to be re-imagined and rejuvenated.

After dining at Craft and Minibar in quick succession I was at a total loss to explain the James Beard Foundation's selection. Maybe the excessive New York focus of the Awards? Maybe Colicchio's fame with Top Chef? Maybe the need to pay Colicchio back for some past award not won? Who knows. But I know that at this moment there really is no comparison between Minibar and Craft.

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Ezekiel J. Emanuel

Ezekiel Emanuel is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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