February 1, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Shifting Gears: Colicchio & Sons

Roasted venison is a standout with black trumpet mushrooms and quince. Photo: Steven Richter
Roasted venison is a standout with black trumpet mushrooms and quince. Photo: Steven Richter

        Here’s a preview of a new reality show for Bravo’s Top Chef warrior, Tom Colicchio. Chopped, chewed up and simmering in just three weeks: Colicchio & Sons. Reality: his Craftsteak, in a powerful sweeping warehouse on Tenth Avenue was wasting away. Inspired by need, let’s suppose, the satisfaction of actually cooking again at his Tom-on-Tuesday’s at Craft, and the proximity to the exhilarating Highline makeover, he called in the original architects, Bental and Bental, to warm the place up. For a new Tap Room up front he devised a discount menu; for the dining room, a reimagining of the bravura market-driven plates he used to do at Gramercy Tavern. And boldly, maybe rashly, stationed himself to tend the big wood-burning oven. A star chef actually cooking! I can’t wait to check that out. “Est. 2010,” reads a plaque at the door.  I smile at that touch of whimsy and optimism, since son Dante is just 15 and newborn Luka will not be munching, much less poaching, for quite some time. 

It may not be cozy but I love the sweep of the room. Photo: Steven Richter.

         It’s only the fourth night after the speedy three week facelift. Beyond a see-through wall of firewood enclosing the Tap room and new carpeting to tame the noise, the $400,000 the chef estimates he spent, I can’t really see the architectural Botox. “More color, smaller tables, a new configuration,” I’m told. The drama of black steel beams pleased me from the beginning. They still frame the room.  The space vibrates with the spirited yelps of early responders.  It’s noisy but we can lean in to talk and we can read the menu without flashlights.

       Our foursome seems to be having a hard time ordering. “There’s a lot of fruit on this menu,” grumbles our friend, a celebrated cookbook writer.  Maybe it’s the cacao nibs in the octopus salad that is putting me off. Or $19 for butter-poached oysters with caviar and celery root “tagliatelle.”  One of my companions confides that she likes everything but sea urchin. Shall I forego my first choice, sea urchin and crab fondue?  I debate passion vs. politesse. And surprise: Miss Manners wins.

Not exactly a generosity of hamachi but it’s ethereal. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our theatrically friendly waiter is green as a pea sprout, fresh, intrusive, eager, scattered.  This doesn’t count as a negative so early. He’ll relax or be gone by the next time we come. An overeager runner has set the house’s warm Parker House-style rolls in their black iron baking pan on the table too soon. Smeared with a sticky film of butter they sit there cooling as we dissect the menu. I’m not sure I would like this fluff even hot. Something rustic and crusty would be better to mop up the plates. And Colicchio’s sauces and purées are definitely worth mopping. Seated now with minimal expectation I’m not really surprised to find Colicchio absent for the evening. “He’s been here every night so far,” a manager insists. But all of us, the professionals and our pampered mates, are loving almost everything we’re tasting tonight. 

Under this thatch of green apple batons are slices of rich raw tuna. Photo: Steven Richter

        I would never have thought to pair thick slices of raw tuna with a camouflaging thatch of raw green apple, but the sharp citric tang of the fruit balances the fatty fish nesting in a complex apple-turnip-horseradish gelée. Olive oil poached hamachi is ethereal, tossed with slivers of artichoke heart and pungent verjus, a pressing of unripe grapes. Whether you found Craft brilliant or confounding or both, you might recall Colicchio’s mastery of sweetbreads. They are voluptuous perfection here too, beside onion soubise with honey onions, shitake, crisp pickled Jerusalem artichoke, and a “bacon sherry vinegar.”

       The winter salad described as “raw root vegetables” is disappointing, mostly arugula and greens, a few leaves of Brussel sprouts and more fruit, not enough showcase of the root vegetables I expected.

I should have ordered more of sensuous gnocchi with marrow. Photo: Steven Richter

        Penny-pinching or calorie counting, I’m not sure what pitiful motivation inspires me to order an appetizer size gnocchi for my main course. A wee portion arrives in the hollow of a large plate. I want to eat every morsel – the luscious gnocchi nubbins, the chestnuts, bone marrow blobs, the pumpkin bits, Brussel sprout leaves, and black truffle. But of course, I have to share.

        We will all make a smaller footprint with these politically correct measured portions, though most do seem a bit meager given prices from $12 to $36 -- $22 for a Barbie doll ration of gnocchi. Roasted venison, rare as requested, is a standout, surrounded with parsnips, black trumpet mushrooms and quince - both diced and in a purée. Only the overcooking of dorade in a country ham broth (with its flag of crisped country ham on top) sabotages its ambitious design as a vehicle for pig’s trotters, sweet and sour shallots, pickled mustard seeds, tomato and mustard greens.

The bar and a see-through wall of fire wood frame the Tap Room. Photo: Steven Richter

        At the next table, our waiter is cutting remarkably generous slices of cheese from the rolling cart (wiping his knife in between on a napkin cleverly hidden in a cart drawer).  But we have sweets in mind, something from the lineup of $12 desserts. The chocolate espresso tart with bittersweet chocolate parfait and blood orange sorbet is wonderfully grownup, with sharply tangy citrus and a powdery bitter chocolate little tuffet – an eensie taste for each of us.  Shards of pecan-studded chocolate-covered toffee silences the Barbie talk.

Tom and a team of cooks handle the wood-burning oven. Photo: Steven Richter

       Almost a week later, I’m back with friends – no reservation – to try the Tap Room menu. (Items $12 to $28). There he is – yes, it’s true -- slinging a pizza into the oven, working alongside the team. “You came on the only night I’ve missed since we opened,” says Colicchio.  “I’m here. It’s my menu and I’ll be here.”

The pizzette is spare and almost bare but delicious. Photo: Steven Richter

        Cozy enough on a banquette behind the wall of firewood, we’re happy sharing the white pizzette scantily topped with onion, fontina, rosemary and potato, and devouring an order of rich baked ricotta with roasted root vegetables and truffle honey. The Road Food Warrior and I love a squid salad with chick peas and radicchio and the roasted clams with pork shoulder and Fresno chile. It’s a challenge to separate the meat from the fat of the lamb breast with lentils but it’s worth trying (or just gobbling and repenting tomorrow). And there’s some element missing in the spare offering of rigatoni baked with duck and black kale. 

Clams in a pork shoulder broth with Fresno chiles. Photo: Steven Richter.

       By the time the less-than thrilling porchetta with a few ovals of dried out chorizo comes my way, I’m pigged out. Enough pig. Enough fat. I was happier in the dining room. The upside down banana-pecan cake with rum caramel and malted milk ice cream does not cheer me up – I’d like it lusher, nuttier, more old fashioned American, bigger of course. To hell with smallish tastes on a plate. Though I do love the sour apple granita with the house’s gift of beignets. And now that the early discount for previews has expired, our judgement will be more demanding. Take these notes as first impressions. I’ll be back to taste more.

85 Tenth Avenue at 15th  Street. 212 400 6699. Lunch Monday through Friday 12pm to 5:30pm Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 pm. Friday and Saturday to 11 pm. Sunday from 5 to 10 pm. Street. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 4 pm.