Tom Colicchio had a great idea when he opened Craftbar as a cheaper alternative to Craft. It was right next-door to his main restaurant, in a former storefront, with an open kitchen and a menu limited to just three main courses. Nothing cost over $20. The only thing I didn’t like about the place was the no-reservations policy. Craftbar was so popular that if you went at a normal dinner hour, you ended up waiting in line just to get in line: first outside in the street, and again once you managed to get through the front door.
But like a producer who takes a gamble and moves a show from a small theater to a big house on Broadway, Colicchio has reopened Craftbar in a larger space. It’s now in the former premises of Morrell’s wine bar-on Broadway, no less, at 19th Street. The restaurant seats 120; the menu is four times as long as the previous one; and the prices are no bargain, unless you consider it a steal to spend $98.63 (tip included) on lunch for two (a shared first course, two pasta dishes, one dessert, no wine). The good news is that the new Craftbar takes reservations.
The designers, Peter and Susan Bentel, who did such beautiful work with the other two restaurants, haven’t changed the décor of Morrell’s wine bar much, which is too bad: It’s cavernous and noisy, all hard surfaces. (Off the main room, there are a couple of quieter side tributaries.)
At the front, above the bar, a catwalk leads around stacks of wine bottles. The dining room’s white walls, two stories high, are hung with red panels; the tables are set with brown paper cloths over white linen and votive candles in red holders. The room is abysmally lit with overhead pinpoints of light. (I sat there thinking, “If everyone else looks this close to death underneath these lights, imagine what I must look like!”)
The other problem is the seating. The walls are lined with dark gray plastic banquettes, separated to form rectangular booths set with long tables. The arrangement is weird: In a foursome, two people in the middle sit side by side facing out, while the two at either end stare at each other from afar. It looks like a truncated version of The Last Supper. It was impossible for the people at the ends of our table to hear each other. Since there wasn’t room to draw up a chair in the middle, we were moved to a center table, where at least we could all lean in.
It’s too bad, because much of the food at Craftbar is very good. Executive chef Akhtar Nawab worked for three years at Gramercy Tavern and has spent four at Craft and Craftbar. His interesting seasonal menu-which he describes as contemporary new American-changes constantly and hints at the delights of the Union Square Greenmarket a few blocks south. On it now you will find, among other things, ramps, young garlic, fresh chamomile, strawberries and rhubarb, all from local sources.
One of his best salads is made with dandelion greens tossed in a vinaigrette made creamy from the yolk of soft-boiled egg and laced with white marinated anchovies and croutons. It was a little clumsy, but delicious-a take on the French bistro salade frisée. The charred grilled octopus with crushed potatoes was also superb, given a bracing jolt of spice with chorizo and piquillo peppers. A coarse terrine of pigeon and quail arrived with pickled lychees and purslane, which has a mild sweet-sour taste. “I love this dish,” said one of my friends. “It’s elegant and rough at the same time.”
A special of salmon belly, sliced and marinated like gravlax, was also very good, served with chives, crème fraîche and caper berries. But the cured hamachi was overcome by pickled ramps that were too strong for the fish. Fresh chamomile, shaped into a zeppelin and perched on top, didn’t seem to belong in the dish either. I felt the same displacement with the fondue, which was made with young pecorino cheese. The cheese was lovely, served with toasted country bread, but it was topped with hazelnuts dipped in honey and pepperoncino. The pairing of sweetness with the hot pepper’s spice was jarring; we finished the cheese and left the nuts. Cavatelli with artichokes, roasted tomatoes and fresh cranberry beans was dull, and the portion was way too big. I much preferred the lemony orzotto, topped with large prawns, the heads still on.
Mr. Nawab tries some daring combinations of ingredients in his main-course fish dishes, a feat he often pulls off. It was a shame that the baked wild king salmon was dry. (Since wild salmon has less fat than its farm-raised equivalent, it’s easily overcooked.) It came with braised radicchio, rhubarb, summer truffles and fresh peas. Poached halibut was also overcooked, but stinging nettles, zucchini and niçoise olives made a beautiful garnish. On another night, however, the black sea bass was done perfectly, served with lamb’s quarters, heart of palm and soft coco blanc beans.
Gooseberries cut the richness of a roast confit of Barbary duck served with delicate little crêpes. Roast veal loin and braised cheek were also stellar, with chanterelles, asparagus and young roasted garlic, the latter delicious but strong enough to require an exorcism afterwards.
Pastry chef Anya Regelin was formerly the sous chef at Craft. Her carrot cake is divine, with carrot caramel and crème fraîche cream. I also liked the rhubarb financier and the brown sugar cake with roasted pineapple compote. The brioche bread pudding, while heavy, was redeemed by a compote of small local strawberries in lavender. Taste these and you will never eat one of those golf-ball-sized California strawberries again.
The old space once occupied by Craftbar now functions as a 40-seat private dining room for Craft. In its new, expanded location, Craftbar is still a place to go for good food, and it’s still, of course, cheaper than Craft. But it’s no longer the bargain it once was. That’s what happens when the show gets moved to Broadway: They raise the ticket prices.