Do-It-Yourself Dinner

It figures that after nearly a decade of affluence, excess and hot-toweled pampering, a New York restaurant could come along

It figures that after nearly a decade of affluence, excess and hot-toweled pampering, a New York restaurant could come along and make a big splash simply by offering people the opportunity to fend for themselves.

That’s much of the appeal of Craft, an oddly conceived new restaurant in the Flatiron district launched by Gramercy Tavern chef Tom Colicchio.

Craft, we are told, is built upon tenets of simplicity and selection. Diners are provided with hypersized menus that resemble spreadsheets and list dozens of meat, poultry, fish and vegetable options; the only adjectives on the page are “raw,” “cured/marinated,” “roasted,” “sautéed” or “braised”; meals arrive with ingredients plated one by one, near-naked, on plain white plates or in shiny copper pots.

In essence, Craft puts the responsibility for a high-priced meal not on the fancy chef, but on you , the fancy customer. Naturally, this makes the restaurant something of a haven for control freaks. Are you one of those people constantly pulling the waiter aside and ordering off the menu? Then step to the plate: Craft is your kind of joint.

“It seems like a natural New Yorker fantasy,” said gossip columnist Jill Kopelman. “[New Yorkers] tend to be controlling–what they want, when they want it. Everything [at Craft] is so specific.”

But Craft is also about growing up and fending for oneself. This is the perfect restaurant for New Yorkers who have indulged a little too much over the past few years, people who have soaked themselves in oyster sabayon and tripped over oxtail vinaigrette and curried tomato polenta. It’s a restaurant with clear psychological benefits for people with attendants and stylists and handlers and in-house personal trainers.

After all, if you’ve had those perks, there’s little doubt you’re feeling a tad guilty about it now, in the post-affluent, post-downsizing haze of the New Economy. And so here comes Craft, a nice restaurant that forces you to grab hold of yourself and make some choices, and stop letting others take care of you. And in doing so, it makes you feel good. It makes you feel mature.

“[People] feel very satisfied when they feel that they’ve tackled the menu,” said Craft’s service manager, Victor Salazar.

That’s a little scary, of course–that people can feel better about themselves merely because they have chosen properly from a menu offering rabbit ballotine, foie gras terrine, prosciutto, dried sausages, duck ham, chicken, porterhouse for two, loin chops of lamb, sirloin, squab, sweetbreads, guinea hen, more foie gras and veal shank (recent “meat” selections at Craft). Or successfully picked from yellowfin tuna, Wild White King Salmon, Arctic char, octopus, sardines, lobster, cod, diver scallops, Wild King salmon, skate, halibut, monkfish and black sea bass (recent “fish” selections).

But hey, welcome to New York. After foie-gras foam, truffle fondue and beef-cheek ravioli, it shouldn’t be so surprising that this city falls for a restaurant that on a recent night offered 16 different vegetables, six mushrooms and six kinds of potatoes .

Of course, free will can also be daunting. There are those who freeze up when offered such control over their meals, never mind their lives; if your dining motto has been, as McDonald’s famously put it, to have others “do it all for you,” Craft’s menu might roll over you like a 10-foot swell.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” grumbled fashion publicist Melissa Gellman after a recent dinner there with friends, where their “simple” meal came to $100 per person. “It’s aptly named Craft, because you could build an entire housing complex by the time you eat. Adobe (ADBE) would taste good by that point.”

Craft has attempted to adjust for these perplexed customers. Since opening in March, the restaurant’s menu has been scaled back somewhat, from a staggering 74 items to a still-impressive 50. “Seventy-four’s confusing. Fifty’s not,” said Mr. Colicchio, citing some strange culinary math.

Nevertheless, Craft can still be hell on waiters. If you’ve ever worked tables yourself, you know there’s nothing worse than a table full of blank-faced customers, clueless types who need a sherpa to gently guide them from drinks to apps to entrées to desserts. Because of its exhaustive menu and block-by-block Legoland philosophy, Craft is full of such diners. The restaurant’s current turnover rate is a tortoise-like one-and-a-half times per table. (By comparison, Babbo flips a table three times a night.)

One recent night at Craft, we asked our waiter whether it takes people excruciatingly longer to order there than at other restaurants. “It definitely does a little,” he said. “I try to help them narrow it down ….” He was being polite. A lot of Craft’s early customers have indeed been directionless. To wit: After too many tables of inexperienced diners ordered avalanches of food they couldn’t possibly eat, Craft is now instructing its staff to keep people from over-ordering. Is there another restaurant in New York that does that?

Even experienced city diners can feel swamped by Craft.

“There’s this period where you’re thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ especially by the time you get to the dessert menu,” said Mitchell Davis, a cookbook author and director of publications at the James Beard Foundation. He referred to Craft’s 48 sweet selections. “It’s a bad restaurant for Libras. I mean, who can decide?”

In fact, instead of being a heavenly gift, Mr. Davis thinks Craft is something of a comeuppance for control-freak diners. After all, people who go into restaurants and fussily make changes to the menu don’t do it because they want something else, he said. “It’s because of power.” Craft calls the picky eater’s bluff. “When they get so many choices, they don’t want to eat anything.”

If you do want to eat, however, you first must tackle your fear of screwing up. New York diners forever worry about the ordering mistake, the culinary faux pas (truffle vinaigrette with braised shortribs ?) that triggers a humiliating roar of laughter from the waiter and the rest of the table. With all of its menu options, the potential for screwing up at Craft seems far higher.

But Mr. Colicchio, gruffly handsome in his buttery leather jacket and starched shirt, insisted that such goofs are impossible. “You can’t make a mistake,” said Mr. Colicchio. “Proteins work with all vegetables. It’s only when you start working with vegetable-vegetable that you can start to mess things up. So whatever you decide to take a bite of, whether it’s spinach and some truffle jus and turbot, how bad can it be ?”

Clearly, many of Craft’s early customers have thrilled to this D.I.Y. approach. Craft’s devotees are like newfound yoga enthusiasts who enjoy contorting themselves into crow poses in front of stiff-limbed friends. “There’s a feeling of creating something that’s so exciting. By the second time, we had it down,” said psychologist Susan Burden. “I’m staggered that people find this complicated.”

Mr. Colicchio, too, sounded somewhat surprised at the suggestion that Craft was stirring up trouble. “It’s funny. I’m not trying to do anything that groundbreaking,” he said. “People say, ‘Ah, I see what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to–’And I’m like, ‘I’m not trying to do anything! Make good food, that’s it!'”

Still, Craft does represent a severe challenge not just to the culture of the star chef, but also to culinary submission–the idea that by entering a restaurant, one tacitly surrenders to a chef and his or her talents. At Craft, Mr. Colicchio’s talents are only part of the show; the diner has an equal responsibility in the success of a meal.

“What’s funny is the name: Craft,” said Mr. Davis. “‘Craft’ presumes there’s a craftsman there making beautiful things. If you want to work your own lathe and make your own ugly chair, then don’t call it ‘Craft.'”

Whether Craft perseveres or becomes another bump on the New York restaurant road remains to be seen. So far, things are looking very good; the place is bustling. But there is something very now about this restaurant–this notion that, after too much carefree extravagance, improvidence and heavy cream sauces, we want to take care of our spoiled little selves again.

“We maybe need to have a shrink on staff full-time,” joked Mr. Colicchio. “It’s definitely bringing up some issues .”

Do-It-Yourself Dinner