How do you like your steak? Corn-fed or grass-fed? Grilled or roasted? Aged 28, 42 or 56 days? Wagyu? Grade 6 or grade 11?
When I made my first visit to celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s mega-restaurant in the meatpacking district, there were two dozen categories of steak on the menu. The options have since been reduced to 16, but making a choice here is still like sitting for an exam. And with prices peaking at $30 an ounce for Platinum Wagyu from Miyazaki, Japan, there’s no room for mistakes.
Last spring, when Craftsteak first opened, I arrived with high hopes, since I’m a fan of Craft, the wonderful restaurant that Mr. Colicchio opened five years ago in the Flatiron district. Craft emphasizes great ingredients gleaned from small family farms and local fishermen—a welcome break from fancy froths and sauces. Craft begat Craftbar, a string of ’Wichcrafts, another Craft and Craftsteak, which opened its first branch in Las Vegas and then arrived in the meatpacking district, a neighborhood as glitzy as Vegas.
The restaurant, on the corner of 10th Avenue and 15th Street, is huge, with soaring ceilings and immense windows looking onto a small park and a nearby car wash. There is a lounge at the entrance with a vast slate bar, a raw bar, tables set with red candles, and a spectacular glass wall of stacked wine bottles. The main dining room—which can get pretty noisy—has well-spaced tables, dark brown leather chairs and comfortable, round blond-leather banquettes. Its back wall is dominated by a painting of the High Line and the projected Philip Johnson building over the Hudson River.
The room feels like a downtown version of the Four Seasons, so it’s hardly surprising that Craftsteak recently opened for lunch. “The ultimate power lunch in the ultimate non-power-lunch neighborhood,” commented a friend. All it needs is the beaded curtains.
My first meal at Craftsteak was disappointing. A seafood tasting seemed like meager pickings for $56 (it’s now $66); fried zucchini blossoms were leathery. But morels in a cream sauce and a salad of fava beans sprinkled with hazelnuts were up to Craft level. As for the steak—a “grass-fed Hawaiian Black Angus sirloin” ($39)—it had good flavor, but it wasn’t juicy. And despite a terrific chocolate soufflé, when the bill came in at just under $300 for two with cocktails and a $55 bottle of wine, I decided that Craftsteak wasn’t worth the money and didn’t go back.
I wasn’t alone in my lack of enthusiasm. In August, Mr. Colicchio told The New York Times that the tepid reception New York’s Craftsteak had received “was a wake-up call.” He announced that he was leaving Gramercy Tavern, where he’d been a partner for the past 12 years, to focus more on his chain of Craft restaurants. So I decided it was time to give Craftsteak another chance.
The menu changes daily. You can begin with a first-rate Caesar salad made with young romaine lettuces in a pungent dressing, strewn with silver-white anchovies and shreds of Parmesan. Two tartares are astonishingly good: tuna cut in thick chunks alternating with pieces of avocado, and an unctuous salmon-belly tartare paired with a thin, crisp, olive-oil-rubbed baguette. Buttery foie gras is served with candied pecans and a chunk of black bread cut the same small size; tender baby artichokes poached in white wine are lined up on a narrow white platter decorated with paper-thin rosettes of carrots. But the winners one evening were the flinty Coromandel oysters from New Zealand in their deep, sparkling shells.
And now we come to the steak. A corn-fed roasted T-bone ($49) is the best, but it’s not very juicy. The grass-fed filet mignon is tasteless. The 56-day aged strip steak ($52, just under a dollar a day!) is fine but nothing special. A 10-ounce Wagyu grade-6 flatiron ($49) is good enough, and a grass-fed New York strip is ordinary. None of these steaks stand out the way you expect great, aged, marbled meat to do.
Several of the sides, moreover—which add anywhere from $9 to $25 apiece to the bill—are a letdown. This is astonishing given the standards set at Craft (where I had much better hen-of-the-woods mushrooms). They include watery spinach, flat-tasting stewed collards and bland baby eggplant. The potatoes, on the other hand—a Yukon gold purée and nice waxy, Wagyu confit potatoes with onion—are very good.
The desserts, by Catherine Schimenti, include a pleasant panna cotta with slivered fruit, a dull peach tart and a doughy cake laced with black plums. The Brillat-Savarin, on the other hand, is perfect.
As we walked home one night after dinner for four, I asked if there was one outstanding dish that everyone remembered from the meal. It was the Coromandel oysters. Another night, it was the Brillat-Savarin. The steak was forgotten, but not the bill—it was burning a hole in my pocket.
Bon Anniversaire, La Baker
To celebrate its 20th anniversary in New York, Chez Josephine, the theater-district bistro owned by Josephine Baker’s son, the charismatic Jean-Claude, is serving dishes from the menu that the Folies Bergère dancer created for her Paris restaurant in 1926 with her then lover, Georges Simenon, and her African-American chef, Freddy. A complete meal costs $19.26 and includes her chicken Maryland with corn fritters and spaghetti à l’Italienne with red peppers (414 West 42nd Street, 212-594-1925).