Restaurant Reviews

Scantily Clad

Craft is brevity. Look at the menu. It's little more than a series of columns with headings such as "meat" and "pasta, grains & beans" and subheads such as "raw" and "gratin." And it's terse. Foie gras, for instance, is slipped--unadorned--under the "meat" and "roasted" headings. There is no prose or a surplus of "fresh" descriptors. Skip a space and slam into the price. Stiff and stinging. Brevity doesn't come cheap.

Craft makes a fetish of this brevity, stating in its propaganda that the restaurant celebrates "'single' ingredients, expertly and simply prepared...Simple does not mean simplistic," we are reminded.

Servers at Craft are anything but simplistic. No, they have scaled the heights of professionalism, and they carefully distill their acquired skills and discoveries at your table, deftly unraveling the details bound up in those single-word menu entries. One server unfurls the foie gras heading into two separate strands: a chilled terrine with fresh peaches, port wine syrup and a little brioche for spreading; and roasted foie gras in gooseberry gastrique with tiny crouton-like cubes tumbled across its surface.

The roasted version is served in a dual-handled metal roasting implement. The lobe occupies the center. Berries and a few bright green herbs are strewn across the surface. It's delicate and texturally perfect with a slightly leathery veneer embracing the velvety cream within. It's strange describing an organ in such terms, especially liver, which is essentially the grease trap of the circulatory system. Plus, it spits bile. But this is what brevity demands. The slight sting of the gooseberry cuts and eases the weight of the richness, scrubbing the palate for the next forkful. It's even hot. It could use a little salt is all.

This foie gras is brief, for sure. There is none of the cumbersome culinary doilies often used to remark this fowl gland; the heavy fruit and port reductions, the mounds of greens, the thick brioche or potato postings. It's just there in a pot, stark naked, hiding behind a few berries.

Brevity continues: Beet salad is chunks of marinated beet--red and gold--and nothing more. The only additions are a few strips of fennel resting on one end like castoffs. The other end holds parchment-thin slices of beet, their edges curling upward like blossoms.

It takes tremendous skill and hubris to leave food the hell alone, the kind possessed by New York chef and Craft founder Tom Colicchio. Colicchio skipped the world's culinary seminaries and allegedly taught himself to cook by scouring the illustrated French manuals of Jacques Pépin: La Technique and La Méthode. From there his kitchen life went storybook: Gotham Bar & Grill, Mondrian, accolades from The New York Times and Food & Wine magazine and the launching of Gramercy Tavern followed by a James Beard Best Chef New York Award in 2000 after a nerve-racking three nominations. In March 2001 he opened Craft, just down the street from Gramercy Tavern.

The thread to Dallas was preceded by the opening of Craftsteak in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and a James Beard Best New Restaurant Award. Clearly there's a method to this brevity madness.

Yet over the years leading up to the Dallas incarnation, these methods have eased from the orthodoxy of brevity. Says Craft Dallas chef Kevin Maxey, who came to Dallas from New York (working with Colicchio) via Louisville, Kentucky, where he cooked at the North End Café: "The original, it was even more straightforward. All of the greens and fish were all garnished with olive oil, salt, pepper and herbs. Now some of the dishes have a few more components to them."

This is most explicit in the appetizers such as the fishes. Sure, the arctic char is just thin slices simply curing in sugar, salt and herbs dolled up with a little crème fraîche and lemon zest. But the house cherrywood-smoked white tuna is more elaborate. Five oval slices of fish are served over sweet corn interspersed with droplets of spicy fruit vinaigrette. The fish is cool and salty with a layer of smoke that hovers with the perfect level of intensity. The fish unravels in the mouth with the delicacy of a gaseous puff. It's served with chervil.

Menu prose isn't entirely absent at Craft. It just isn't on the menu. Instead, it has been downloaded into the service staff. Ours delivered this duck breast speech: "This is roasted with a thin layer of fat and sliced, and it's typically served medium rare. It's served with assorted figs, bordelaise sauce and orange zest." Complete, functional and effective, just as the breast is in the flesh. It's firm, rosy, chewy, rich. Everything is throttled back. Except the duck.

Maxey drives home the point that Craft is a series of family-style rituals. Everything is served à la carte. Plates are not composed as much as they are denuded. "There shouldn't be any garnishes on the proteins that could be a dish on their own," he insists. For example, Craft wouldn't garnish a piece of fish with roasted mushrooms because roasted mushrooms could thrive in a dish on their own. Side dishes are games of mix and match.

Like Swiss chard. It's served on a long white platter, deep green wilted leaves and stems pushed up into a berm across the center. The leaves are blanched and chilled before they're heated in olive oil in which garlic has been sautéed. The leaves are cooked until the leaf edges are crispy. It's simple and nourishingly tasty.

Among the most profound of these non-compositions is the Kobe skirt steak. We've tasted lots of pricey, prodigiously marbled Kobe cuts butchered from the decadently pampered Wagyu cattle. Most of them haven't impressed sufficiently enough to justify the high price. This meat is different. Though the skirt steak is an "inferior" cut on account of toughness (it's essentially the diaphragm muscle), it can unravel some surprisingly lush flavors, and when subjected to kitchen skill, even its inherent flaws can be neutralized--not that Kobe beef's predisposition to intense marbling didn't play a role here.

It's simply produced: an 8-ounce steak that's roasted, sliced and served in bordelaise. The slices are deep ruby and tender and rich juices flow with the intensity of a toddler's drool; it's some of the best red meat we've ever had.

Swiss chard aside, the Craft concept is hardly better expressed than it is in the salmon, a simple fish section roasted and seasoned and plopped on a white plate with pickled celery and Champagne grapes as garnishments. These are ingenious implements for harnessing the fats and potent richness of salmon while at the same time leveling an undercurrent of sweetness to tame the tamers. Lesser houses would just simply squeeze lemons and be done with it, which means that sometimes even brevity isn't simple.

This same philosophy is applied to the roasted halibut, and why not? It's a milder fish, but surely the apple cider reduction with Granny Smith apple bits doesn't strike with the heft of pickled celery. Anyway, a few streaks of yellow beet puree throw a little sweetness into the shadows to counteract any overbearing course corrections of the cider.

Like the halibut or the beets or the Swiss chard, Craft décor is an exercise in elegant minimalism. Seats are leather, but the leather is expressed as a mesh. Tables are thick walnut from which a slotted platform can be pulled for wine service. Semi-circular banquette spaces are separated from one another by lighted tubes that rise up like bamboo stalks. Thin irregular stalks, tightly assembled in rows, hang down from the ceiling and terminate in glowing filament bulbs like some meticulously tended crop.

Our meal began with a complimentary aperitif of salt cod balls in fine herb sauce and ended with a berry gratin in a biscotti crust. Everything in between was briefly expressed, but left impressions that won't soon recede. Unlike other recent Gotham transplants, Craft is a keeper. 2440 Victory Park Lane, 214-397-4111. Open 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$$