Labor of Lunch

“My ex-husband was always a pain about his food,” said an English friend over lunch at Craft. “He once actually asked a waiter if he could have the roast beef on the menu without the roast beef.”

He would not have been considered a pain at Craft, a new restaurant in the Flatiron district. Here, instead of listing the ingredients in each elaborate dish, painstakingly matched to showcase the talents of the chef, the menu just provides the bare bones. Meat, fish and vegetables are grouped under cooking styles, such as “roasted,” “braised” or “sautéed.” You put your meal together yourself. When you come with a group, as I recently did for lunch, it’s easy because you can simply order for the table. The side dishes are served family-style in shining copper pots and casseroles, allowing people to mix and match as they please. It may be a little more challenging when it’s just two of you trying to decide on a few vegetables.

As a friend and I tried to create an imaginative dinner for ourselves one evening, I wondered what the chef would do with customers who ordered, say, gnocchi and red cabbage to go with sweetbreads.

“If I were him, I’d refuse to cook for them, of course,” said my friend, who had been eyeing the sweetbreads himself (listed under “roasted”). “I’d come out of the kitchen with my knife and stare at them. You have to be fearless in this restaurant. It places the responsibility for your dinner squarely on your shoulders.”

That night, Craft’s chef and owner, Tom Colicchio, who is also the chef and owner of Gramercy Tavern, was standing by the front desk. He looks a bit like Marlon Brando (the smile, not the girth) and always sports fashionable stubble–achieved, I’m told, by shaving before you go to bed instead of in the morning. But I doubt he’d give anyone here the evil eye if they ordered gnocchi with sweetbreads. For the ingredients here are so good, each dish can stand alone. “The older I get, the simpler my tastes become,” Mr. Colicchio says in the preface to his excellent cookbook, Think Like a Chef , adding that he prefers clean, uncluttered food. If you use the very best ingredients and cook them impeccably, they will speak for themselves. To do this, he put Marco Canora, his former sous chef from Gramercy Tavern, in the kitchen.

The philosophy was apparent from the moment a busboy set down a tidbit from the kitchen to tide us over as we tried to figure out the menu. “I brought roasted fennel purée with orange zest, garlic and chervil,” he said, like a solemn schoolboy handing the teacher his homework.

“Very thoughtful of you,” murmured my friend, spreading a blob of the pale, ivory-green purée on a crouton and taking a bite. His face lit up. “This is amazing.”

We were sitting at a large wood table that was as unfussy as the food that was to come: no fancy Limoges plates or linen cloths, just place mats and plain white china. The tables are, oddly, equipped with a hidden drawer (empty but for a metal coaster the sommelier retrieves to put under your wine). It would make a good drop spot for a spy.

Craft is in a late-19th-century building that was formerly home to a printing company, but the walls and neoclassic columns have been stripped down to the brick. The kitchen entrance is covered with a structure made from squares of rust-colored leather cobbled together like the side of a tent. The dining room is large and airy, with a two-story glass-fronted wine rack flanked by a walkway with a metal railing, like the ones in public libraries. Overhead bulbs with tungsten filaments cast a soft glow over the room, which is decorated with three gray-blue paintings that look like horizons covering the back wall.

If you really wanted to pare down, you could begin with “mixed lettuces,” which sounds like something out of a children’s book. My companion ordered foie gras terrine instead. It spread like butter on croutons and came with a small, perfect herb salad. Raw tuna was lined up in six flawless rectangles, like a Donald Judd sculpture, on a long white plate. Instead of soy sauce and wasabi, the fish was sprinkled with salt and olive oil–not just any olive oil, but the best oil anyone could find, not to mention the best salt, fleur de sel. It was accompanied by both a small dish of horseradish (which was all flavor and no sting) and a bowl of an intense lemon-rind confit that wasn’t the least bit bitter. You could eat these relishes all by themselves. The octopus had no textural resemblance to a Rubbermaid bath mat. These marinated chunks were quite tender, given nice flavor from flecks of preserved lemon. Everything I tried was stellar, from the glistening oxtail terrine served with ramekins of salsa verde and marinated diced red peppers to the plump marinated sardines, the plates of charcuterie and the faultless braised white asparagus.

You can’t guess what will arrive at your table from reading the menu, which changes daily according to what’s freshest. And the wine list–put together by sommelier Matthew MacCartney, a former chef–is no less intimidating (though equally impressive). The wines, many of which are little-known, are listed by grape. If you don’t know your stuff, it could be diabolical. Luckily, the sommelier is more than helpful.

The ingredients at Craft come, of course, from small family farms and local fishermen. This greenmarket approach has never made better sense than now. My English friend described how the butcher in her village was doing unprecedented business now that people had lost confidence in supermarket meat. The butcher only bought from farms where each cow was tagged with the name not only of its parents, but also the person who slaughtered it. And this is basically what Mr. Colicchio’s food is about. The organic roast chicken is one of the best I’ve tasted, juicy with a crisp, salted skin, cut into four pieces and served in a copper casserole. Sweetbreads and skate were pristine, burnished to a golden crisp. Both a thick wedge of cod and a filet of dorade were also perfectly browned, served with a dish of lemon sauce. The sautéed hedgehog mushrooms were sensational, their frilly petals almost caramelized, like the cubes of Jerusalem artichokes we ordered.

Desserts by Karen DeMasco, who previously worked at Chanterelle, Della Femina and Alison on Dominick, are equal to the rest of the meal–and you choose your own sauces. The lemon steamed pudding was an airy, delicate sponge, and the gingerbread dark and moist (great with apple cider sauce). A vivid blood-orange sorbet was served on slices of blood orange, and a smooth, creamy panna cotta was flavored with passion fruit. At the end of dinner, peanut brittle, candied orange and warm sugared almonds arrived from the kitchen.

The food is expensive. Like dishes in a steak house, the separately priced items add up. And up. If you don’t want to put together your menu by yourself, there is a five-course tasting dinner for $68 or a three-course lunch for $32. Craft is the sort of restaurant where you’re probably happiest if you’re a regular–”Waiter, bring me that skate dish and that wine from South Africa!” After a meal here, I don’t care if I never have another frothed sauce or mind-boggling combination like white chocolate with shrimp again. I could eat at Craft every day and never get bored.

Craft

* * *

43 East 19th Street (between Park Avenue South and Broadway)

780-0880

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Excellent, with unusual wines at fair prices

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, lunch, $20 to $26; dinner, $20 to $30, excluding vegetables, which range from $6 to $12

Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 2 p.m.

Dinner: Monday to Friday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor Labor of Lunch