Searching For Consistency at Craft Dallas
The word "craft" denotes a skill or trade. It can also refer to the quality of workmanship of the product that trade produces. All in all, it makes a decent name for a restaurant helmed by a perfectionist chef.
Tom Colicchio, who's built his career serving simple but refined recipes executed with precision — and by occasionally hitting TV viewers with a one-two punch of charm and ire — opened Craft Dallas in the bottom of the W hotel in 2006. It was billed as an extension of the Craft name, the logical next stop for a brand started in New York that has spread to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlanta. (The Atlanta location has since closed.)
Colicchio's website says he chose Dallas because of its "amazing food culture." He imported Kevin Maxey from the Atlanta location and promised the best seasonal ingredients prepared simply and with finesse. The ensuing reviews indicate that he's accomplished his goal, keeping consistent with his food mantra over the years.
But the leadership in his kitchen has been anything but consistent. Craft is on its fourth head chef in five years. After Maxey departed, and a brief stint with Tony Zappola ended, Jeff Harris was promoted up the line before leaving to open his own concept. Tim Bevins stepped in next, transferring from an executive sous chef position at Craft Atlanta. Management has also seen some turnover, and the arrangement between Colicchio and the hotel was renegotiated.
Despite the rules and characters changing, the setting has been kept intact. Naked light bulbs hang from the ceiling like soldiers ranked and filed, casting a dim luminescence on the tables below. Wooden airfoils follow suit, stacked one on top of the other from floor to ceiling in massive rows that alternate with shade cloth. The wooden sculpture and opaque fabric visually break up the massive windows that form an outer wall, but light still sneaks through. Wine storage repeats the patterns of repetition through the clean, clear glass of the wine room, bottles lined up by the hundreds.
The clean lines make for a sleek feel and a polished dining room that echoes the elegance of the menu. Eat here when you want a refined experience, the space seems to say, but please — leave that necktie at home.
If the evening is slow, the tables meant to sit four (or more) make for cozy two-tops. Relax and melt into the velvet benches, and do your best to ignore the music. Pandora's at work, and the classic rock doesn't complement the venue's polished mood.
Sourdough and wheat soon arrive on a breadboard, with softened, salted butter perfect for spreading. Savor the sourdough first and take in the wine list, which carries some gems by the glass. Unsure which is best? It's better that way. Even a master sommelier would do well to play dumb here. Let the staff coddle you. Each of my servers seemed excited to bring me a number of pours, insistent on finding my perfect match. They always did.
An amuse-bouche shuttled in by a hurried waiter might help you to tune out the music. The delicate ribbon of duck prosciutto with pressed pear was an outstanding little bite, if hard to manage with a fork. A single massive arancine impressed as well. The deep-fried rice ball lacked traditional saffron but packed stringy melted cheese, offset by a jammy fruit puree that coated the plate. Only the smokey escolar with baby croutons left me longing. The lemon-accented fish had a jangly aftertaste that recalled the misplaced music.
Repetition is a theme in the dining room; it's a theme in Bevins' cooking, too. Roasted beets and goat cheese form a chef's old blues standard on which every cook worth his weight lays his own riff. The chef presents the root vegetable four different ways: roasted, pureed, pickled and raw, an almost rhythmic preparation supported by marbles of goat cheese dusted in candied pistachios. The dish is balanced and stylish without seeming overdressed.
Snails often wade in the tiny cups of dished plates made especially for escargot, but here they jackknife into the deep, swimming in a warm bowl of buttery sauce flavored with lemon and studded with chives. Break open the soft poached farm egg with the tines of your fork and let the runny yolk further enrich the creamy bliss. Let toasted batons of brioche soak up the earth and summer while you revel in crunchy fried garlic chips that invoke fancy Funyuns.
Certainly order the chicken that's touted in every mention of the restaurant. The kitchen's craft is evident here, in crispy skin that maintains its snap long after the bird arrives at your table. A fried tarragon garnish leaves a whisper of anise in the air. Parisienne balls of squash and other vegetables mimic the sweet, round summer peas that join them. The accompanying vegetables, lathered in butter, are worth hoarding from your tablemates, but not before you've grabbed as much of that bird as your conscience will allow.
Like those vegetables, most things from the garden stand out, especially the okra, suspended in a smokey tomato puree. No oozy slime here, just a pleasant toothsome texture, driven home by a crispy tempura batter encasing a crunchy okra garnish. The mushrooms (you may have heard about them, too) will strike you, but not every night. Craft is good, yes, but it's not perfect. Not every time. Without precision, that repetition on display in the dining room doesn't always make it to the plate.
A number of dishes fluctuated over my three visits, those mushrooms included. One night they seemed dry and overcooked — ordinary, even. On another visit, when they arrived rich and flavorful, I saw the light and was made a believer. Scallops oscillated too. Once they arrived so small they couldn't take a sear without overcooking. They sat still, in a heavy muddy sauce. But later they showed up larger than life, with a rich caramelization, dancing in a light butter emulsion delicately tinged with mushrooms.
Gnocchi shared the same inconsistency, light if slightly gummy when served as a side, but heavier and closer to gluey when served with a sliced sirloin at lunch. Bevins' gnocchi isn't dense, but it shouldn't stick to your chops the way it did, and the texture detracted from a perfectly seared hunk of beef. The steak sports a thick and savory crust you could strive to produce at home, if you're that kind of cook, but you'll never, ever succeed. Your home stove can't kick out the heat.
An unevenly browned saffron tart marked another hiccup. The tart presented much more beautifully on a subsequent night, and figs previously left alone with Champagne grapes and honey now welcomed candied pistachios and apricots to the party. A nice dessert, but nothing compared to beignets so beautiful they made me recoil with surprise when I first touched them. The fried spheres of dough were so light they should list air among the ingredients. Served with strong black coffee and honey for dipping, you're immediately transported to the French Quarter in New Orleans. Don't forget your beads.
My favorite meal at Craft came on my final visit. It started with a half-dozen briny oysters and continued though well-executed scallops complemented perfectly by a fairly priced Lambert Bridge Chardonnay.
More often than not, Craft deserves the reputation it's earned, but dishes can stall just short of what's expected from $30 seafood plates and $60 steaks (each à la carte). Craftsmanship should not only describe the quality of a product, but also its consistency over time. This is especially true in restaurants. If you visit on a good night, it's money well spent, but if your meal skews toward my first experiences, you might be left feeling a little melancholy when your bill arrives (though that gratis muffin will lift your spirits some).
Consider, then, lunch, when prices plummet but portion sizes decline less noticeably. You'll enjoy that same doting wine service, the same perfectly roasted chicken, but your billfold will emerge from the experience mostly unscathed. This is, after all, the W, which could stand for welcoming but for many refers to the wallet, which depending on its size may define your experience and enjoyment at Craft.
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