I recently saw the movie Twilight and although I enjoyed it well enough, I walked out wondering if I hadn't read the books if I would have been able to make the leaps of plot line that were done. It was like a Cliff's Notes version of the book. Tonight, I went to Craft Atlanta and had a similar experience. I kept wondering if I was missing something that I would somehow have been able to reference if I had been to the original in New York. Craft is Tom Colicchio's family of restaurants, the original Craft was awarded three stars by The New York Times naming Craft “a vision of food heaven”. I adore Top Chef and Tom Colicchio and so when my dad suggested I take Fran there for dinner, I was keen. I feel like my food sensibilities jive with Colicchio's vision of simple foods prepared extraordinarily. He doesn't try to use fancy tricks, spins or angles, he simply brings out what is good in the ingredients, spices them well and lets them shine. At least that is what I have gleamed from him in the 4 seasons of Top Chef and rudimentary glimpse into his background. And so, I was looking forward to seeing his vision at work, even if he himself had no part in the preparation of the food that would be put on my table.
I haven't had the opportunity to try many restaurants in their first week after opening (which you should note, is not the best time to visit a new restaurant since they haven't gotten things right) and so we snapped up a 6:30 table for two since my dad would be away and thus not able to take his girlfriend, Fran out for her birthday. Right off the bat, I enjoyed the ambiance with attentive, but not overbearing staff. I enjoyed the restaurant design and was pleased with the two person booth we were seated at that gave enabled us to look out across the dining floor and witness all the action. The leather booth was comfortable, the colors and textures nice and the only thing that seemed out of place were two odd pillows which I would only later assume were to rest your head on when you were bored to sleep by the food.
The menu itself was straight forward, broken down by course and then preparation and then ingredient. It sounds more complicated than it is. For example, under First Course there is sauteed then underneath that ingredients prepared using that method. Similarly, there is Salad and then a list of types of greens that were the salad highlight. The dishes are served family style and so each appetizer is perfect size to share, but more than one person would want for themselves of one item, so collaboration is essential with your dinner companions. For our main courses we had the Colorado Lamb Shoulder and Loin and the Braised Beef Short Ribs, as our meat component (as it is a la carte) and roasted brussel sprouts and Jerusalem artichokes as our sides.
We had a Burgundy Chardonney with our appetizer that fit the dry, not to sweet bill that Fran was looking for. It also paired well with our first courses. When they arrived, they indeed came family style in larger serving dishes. The confounding thing was: in a restaurant where they are going to charge you $11 for a simple pile of arugula and Parmesan cheese, why did they provide you with serving utensils that insisted on having to use your hands to get it to your plate? Single serving utensil ( a fork to serve salad) aside, the arugula salad was unimaginative and under-dressed. I like my salads barely dressed, but I would like at least a minor indication that there is at least a light drizzle of good olive oil and some salt. The shrimp were delicious and seasoned, salted and buttered to perfection.
For dinner we tried a good Cab, which we again enjoyed by the half glass, i.e. a 3 oz pour. With a mostly satisfying first course behind us, we were looking to be impressed by our main courses. All things being equal, at this point in the evening we were simply enjoying a decent meal at what could have been any run of the mill overpriced faux-foodie restaurant. Again served family style, the portions were perfect. Our main waiter (since we had more than four) earned many bonus points for not trying to oversell on side dishes indicating pre-order that 1 first course, 1 main course and 1 side dish would be sufficient to satisfy. Fran and I shared our dishes, portioning out half of each item to our plates, this time utilizing our dinner forks to serve the food since once again the serving utensils confounding (a small fork to serve brussel sprouts?). I took my first few bites of each slowly, waiting for the flavors to dance along my palate and delight my taste buds, but all I got was a very, very faint whisper of flavor. The flavor, I felt, was there but it was just falling flat. There was no pop to the dish, there was nothing brightening the dish. I did a quick scan of the table and turned to Fran. "Salt" I said, "This seriously needs salt." If you are going to let ingredients stand for themselves, you need to make them pop. These dishes had no indication that a pinch of salt had even been in the same kitchen. The brussel sprouts not only needed salt, they needed a squeeze of lemon. Time and time again, I am reminded why people hate brussel sprouts: because they keep being served tasteless, squishy mini-cabbages like these.
I imagined in my head what the judges table would have been like if Tom had been served these dishes and I guarantee he would have said they needed salt and that they weren't anything special. While the braised short ribs were so tender I could cut them with a fork, you'd be hard pressed in a fine dining establishment to find ones that weren't. Again, salt needed. The $42 Colorado lamb was more disappointing. At least the short ribs were modestly flavorful, the lamb, which should be evoking "wow"s at that price, instead produced a more quizzical, "huh?". Our entire experience could have been salvaged if sea salt, hell, any salt was on the table. None of the waiters came back around during our meal, so we were unable to ask for any salt and furthermore, both of us felt that if the chef intended it the way he served it, than that is what he will be judged on and I am not going to insult the chef. But really, I mean (in the vein of Top Chef)... did you taste your food before you served it?
As I mentioned, our perch along the back wall, allowed us an excellent view of the dinner go-er's who all seemed to be playing out their own Cliff's Notes version of life. From the Southern Bell girl with her awkward fiancee and his parents and brother making stiff, contrived small talk to the business man who was dominating his table of four and the surrounded vicinity completely with a voice that was like a cheese grater across your ear drums, Fran and I couldn't help but fall into a heap of laughter because of how contrived it all seemed. The entire experience had so much potential and their is nothing worse than wasted potential. With a service staff that is on point from wine suggestions to leading your personally to the WC, impeccable interior design and execution and a reputation that will have foodies fist fighting for reservations, you wish there were more than just a single bright spot.
And at least there was a bright spot. Dessert. Every birthday girl wants to end her birthday with an amazing well-deserved indulgence. I was feeling trepidation about dessert since everything else had been so average, I wondered if it would be even worth the calories. Seriously. I let Fran decide on something and ordered a very safe small scoop of malt ice cream (again with the single ingredient menu options). Fran ordered a Hazelnut Cake with a honey anglaise and cardamon ice milk. With barely a half a bit, Fran was swooning and oohing and aahing over how delicious her dessert was and my scoop of ice cream, was bright, crisp and had excellent flavor.
I really wanted to like this restaurant. I wanted to be impressed. I am probably more forgiving than most would be if they paid nearly $250 (with only $30 worth of wine) for a sub par meal, that would have been probably done better at home. That is not the point of going out though, is it. Dining out is about being impressed, tasting things you couldn't possibly achieve without serious culinary mastery (or at least feel that way). I won't come down on Craft Atlanta for failing to impress me, especially in their first week.
I completely agree that it is not "fair" to give a restaurant one chance at greatness and then vow not to return. I am not vowing not to return, that would be a bit harsh. I am sure if someone else wanted to go there (specifically) and wanted to pay, I would happily go along. It really comes down to the heavy price tag, that is a huge barrier and considering I no longer live in Atlanta, even bigger. And also in life, we sometimes only have one opportunity. I do find it ironic that this is the restaurant about which we are discussing the "one shot"/ one chance judgment since Tom Colicchio and the rest of the judges on Top Chef are making decisions based sometimes not even on one entire meal, but one entire bite and their decisions make or break or at the very least change the career of those they make the judgment about. Yes, they are highly trained, that is the context, etc. But fundamentally, I do believe that we all, whether opening a restaurant or anything else in life, should strive to operate as if we only get one chance and then if we do fail in any way, be open to feedback in order to do better in case we get another opportunity.
I am not married to my opinion of the restaurant. If someone wanted to try and change my mind, then great. But I am also not going to withhold my public opinion on the restaurant just because it was in its infancy. In fact, I think putting out there early reviews is a great way for a restaurant to get outside perspective on the things that they need to change and adjust during that infancy. If everyone gave it rave reviews, what would there incentive be to learn, adapt and become better?
As I stated, I genuinely wanted and do want the restaurant to be good. Why would I want someone whom I admired to fail? Why would I want anyone to fail. As a "non-professional" food reviewer, I have the highest hope that every meal I'll enjoy will be amazing and worthy of praise.
Craft did not fail. They are just not there yet. Maybe they will be at some point. I am interested to see if they do get there. If someone wants to change my mind, I am all for it!