Craft is the Forrest Gump of Dallas restaurants.
Not that the sophisticated space on the W Hotel's ground floor is in any way slow or befuddled by events, just undeterred by economic reality over the past few years, moving steadily through the chaos as if with blinders on.
Think of it this way: Since it opened in 2006, the city's once-ballyhooed Victory development—the very one surrounding Craft—rose and, just as quickly, collapsed into recessionary malaise. A neighboring fine dining destination, N9NE Steakhouse, shut its doors in the wake of this downturn. Two of Craft's chefs came and went, and things became so dicey at one point earlier this year, W Hotel decided to split the check with New York chef/television personality Tom Colicchio in order to keep the Dallas branch of his upscale chain in operation, largely because they need a fully staffed, top-draw kitchen.
Duxbury oysters (half-dozen) $18
Duck galantine $17
Alaskan halibut $29
Berkshire pork $32
Collard greens $8
Hen of the woods mushrooms $12
Trompette mushrooms $10
More photos of Craft and its food here in our slideshow.
Yet Craft keeps going, as if none of this had ever happened, as if the market hadn't begun to shy away from $90-plus cuts of meat and see-and-be-seen venues. They still present a full slate of Wagyu beef, from the "let me check with FreeCreditReport.com first" New York strip to the lesser skirt steak. (For the restaurant's $45 per person prix fixe menu, they reserve meat from the cheek, an even less valued cut than skirt.) And they still cook with a remarkable sense of precision. Their halibut filet, for example, is brought to a point notoriously difficult to find with a fish so easily overcooked—firm, flaky, but not at all dry—the flesh springing back after touched with a fork, yet collapsing into cushy flecks on the tongue. Because of this—and their willingness to season sparsely—you begin to notice little nuances of flavor in halibut, such as creamy sweetness and a faint earthy note. Seared until a pat of crust develops, flavor seeps naturally through the meat from a stream of fat under the skin. You end up with a piece of fish so wondrously delicate, it's near impossible to imagine a more succinct presentation.
With celebrated New York chef, restaurateur and host of TV's Top Chef Tom Colicchio as owner, Craft opened here in 2006 to rave reviews. But Texan Kevin Maxey was at the helm in the kitchen, at least until Colicchio sent him to Atlanta where he opened that city's version of Craft. (There are variations of Craft in seven cities.) Then Anthony Zappola stepped up from sous chef—at least until he was transferred to Craft Los Angeles. Now, serving as chef de cuisine is Jeffrey Harris, a former Longview banker who quit the desk job, signed up for culinary school and launched a new career. Despite the manpower changes, Craft still thrives on cooking that is as precise and minimalist as it is expensive—a kitchen constantly in search of simplicity.
It may sound formulaic, but it works.
Harris is rather a deadpan sort, at least when answering media questions. He told me when he took the position in May, the departure of Maxey and Zappola—both of whom he worked under—hardly mattered. "I've been with Craft for a while," he said. "I know the system."
In other words, Harris and the restaurant are at one—blinders on, plunging ahead, treating ingredients with the utmost respect whether things outside are booming or on the verge of collapse. And so guests are treated to oysters on the half-shell—I chose the Duxbury—slipping in a clean, salty wash and tasting of the sea. The chef sends only a wedge of lemon and a beautiful mignonette for dressing, the latter intensely tart with a peppery edge that eases into the shellfish instead of splashing over it. Side dishes of mushrooms include the prized hen of the woods, trompettes and abalones, all tossed in olive oil and roasted just to the point where fibers tighten slightly. Collard greens are barely wilted and then presented with all their drooping, rustic, bitter and tangy glory.
You might complain that this is hardly cooking at all, except you realize deep down the skill in coaxing absolute flavors from a piece of meat, fish or even the lowly collard green—as well as the self-control of chefs anxious to put their own personal stamp on a dish by backing off and letting the ingredients speak.
There is, however, an underlying frustration when you come to pay the bill—the very same nagging "yes, but" feeling that drove the clever (and now forgotten) Lovers Lane restaurant George into oblivion. If you never had the pleasure, the chef at George reveled in taking meat or fish and cooking it to perfection, with little or no adornment. I dined there one night with former Dallas Morning News critic Dotty Griffith and two others and witnessed what happens when guests are confronted with absolutes. Dotty was one of those who preferred to rotate plates rather than just ask for a portion from each of her guests when working on a review. So I listened to a series of "I love this" or "this isn't my favorite" as we passed the entrees around.
In other words, when confronted with absolutes, dinner guests tend to respond in kind. And if you're left with "I could have put a hunk of steak on the grill and tossed five grains of sea salt on it" sensation bouncing around your head and a hefty bill, Craft has probably never been your sort of place—and likely never will be. If, on the other hand, you long for precision in simplicity, the most basic expression of halibut or Wagyu beef, then, well, the only downfall with this model is when a chef pushes something just a little too far, as in the Berkshire pork on one visit: rich, pinkish meat cooked a tad beyond that narrow pinpoint of perfection.
This is why chefs way back when invented sauces: to give a cushion—to lend welcome character to overcooked, chewy meat.
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Fortunately, such mistakes are few at Craft. On occasion, Harris is allowed to tempt fate. Duck galantine, for example, demands the chef trade tedium and patience for an uncertain result. The dish is composed of scraps and forcemeat stuffed in the remnants of a bird and cooked in aspic. Results depend upon the chef's ability to coax complementary flavors from gherkins, onion, egg and other elements that go into a forcemeat—and in this case, the galantine emerges with a gamy, earthy aspect bound around an oddly pleasing mineral flavor. Paired against a classic Montmorency sauce (cherries stewed in alcohol), the dish speaks of wet autumn days.
I think this is what I appreciate about Craft—not the New York-driven finesse with halibut or steak, but the willingness to stage simple collard greens and old-world galantine dishes in the contrived setting of Victory. There's an odd satisfaction in slivers of common dishes served with distinction.
Yes, it's all directed from above. Chefs come and go with no apparent change—Harris cooks like Zappola who cooked like Maxey. The name in Craft's kitchen doesn't seem to matter. By any analysis other than an economic one, the restaurant is just right. And it just keeps plugging along.
Craft 2440 Victory Park Lane, 214-397-4111. Open 7-10 a.m., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7-10 a.m., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-11 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-11 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$$