Craft, Los Angeles and Red Medicine (May 2011)

Like trying to take the stage after a Christopher Hitchens talk, Craft had a tough act to follow. It’s possible that my expectations were too high. Or maybe this is another example of a food critic–in this case the LA Times’ who awarded Craft 3.5 stars on a four-star scale (for comparison, Scarpetta received 2.5)–undeservedly bestowing praise. The reason is hardly as important as the fact that Craft resides in the temperate clime of mediocrity.

My attitude toward the restaurant soured ever more over the course of dinner, but I’ll admit there were at least a few tasty plates of food, starting with the piquant amuse, an avocado sorbet with spicy crème fraîche.

That bright spot was quickly dimmed, however, when a busser dropped off a box of bread with two offerings, a limp pumpernickel and a passable sourdough, followed up by the first course–cured wild king salmon, salmon roe, pickled ramps and aleppo pepper crème fraîche–nearly twenty minutes later. The salmon was not only plated differently–on one plate the two pieces were undulating on another they were separated–but sloppily as well, centered in one instantiation and off-center in another. While the forthcoming simile contains a fair amount of inside baseball, it really captures how I felt about this dish; it was as poorly put together as a three-hour, in-class exam, which many were subjected to at the end of the winter semester.

The next course, one and a half diver scallops with fried basil, pickled tomato and compressed zucchini proved to be the best all-around dish during dinner. Fried basil provided texture, while flecks of salt atop the scallop coaxed out the mollusk’s natural sweetness, all of which was cut by acidity from the tomatoes.

Another strong–but far from exceptional–dish was the rabbit tortellini with fava beans, cipollini onions and fennel fronds. Both the pasta and the filling retained a nice bite, imparting a needed contrast to the gravy-like sauce.

A dish we decided to supplement the tasting menu with was the roasted quail with thyme and inconsistently reconstituted huckleberries–some were plump while others were still dessicated–and a side order of gnocchi. Colicchio has been known for gnocchi since his Gramercy Tavern days, and they lived up to whatever hype surrounds them. It was the quail, however, that miffed me. The two quails were halved, leaving four pieces to be divided among three people. Would it really have been too much to add one more bird to the pan? At that point, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied and floated the idea of heading to Red Medicine, but before I get to that, let me finish recounting dinner at Craft.

Next out was an overcooked fillet of wagyu flatiron with shishito peppers, charred spring garlic and more thyme. To worsen the dish, we were given dull knives, which ended up mangling the already tough piece of beef.

For the penultimate course, my brother and I had the almond panna cotta alongside blackberries, and my mother was given scoops of blackberry and chocolate sorbet. The drupe-based dessert had a smooth texture, but my mind was made up, and nothing was going to change it, not Michelle, our good-humored server, and not the trip to the kitchen after the meal’s end.

As Michelle marked our table for the soporific finale, a chocolate cream-filled crepe, roasted bananas, candied hazelnuts and hazelnut ice cream, I asked, “is it as boring as it sounds?” When she laughed it off, I pressed on. “Really, on a scale of zero to boring, how would you rate it?” Now, with a more serious answer, she said, “What it lacks in creativity, it makes up for in taste.” If only that were true. Beneath the rather smooth scoop of ice cream sat coarsely ground hazelnuts, which meant each bite of ice cream imparted a kitty litter-like grit.

With Jordan’s desserts already beginning to whet my palate, the mignardises, which consisted of brownies, almond cookies, coconut macaroons and a banana nut muffin to go, were relegated to an afterthought.

Final thoughts on Craft: as can probably be detected in the commentary, my disenchantment monotonically increased with each additional course, which also happened to coincide with the increase in the number of celebrities entering the restaurant. Craft reminds me of Spago–the Chez Panisse of southern California–in that it strives to be the place where people want to be seen. As a result, the kitchen caters to the average palate and wouldn’t dare serve up anything that would challenge–and certainly nothing that would offend–diners (for instance, nowhere on the menu can one find foie or veal).

Not content to let Craft be the last memory of my vacation, we ventured on to Red Medicine–this just might have to become tradition–for dessert, and I’m happy to say they salvaged what otherwise would have been a thoroughly disappointing evening.

My brother ordered one savory item, the pork chaud-froid with crispy chicken skin, lychee, clove, pistachio and crostini, and I went with three desserts: (1) the lemongrass pot de creme (my favorite) with sweet potato ice cream and red bull pate de fui (2) coconut bavarois, basil oil, basil seeds, chicory, coffee ice cream, condensed milk and peanut croquant and (3) caramelized profiteroles, cognac custard, cola jellies (for lack of a better term) black sesame and candy-like mango cylinders. After a short confab with Noah, and empty plates in front of us, home we went happily.

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