It was, ultimately, the vegetables that won me over at Craft.
A meal in late summer included cream peas finessed with a Southern sensibility: They were thoroughly cooked but retained their textural honor, and shreds of ham nudged forward their sweet, sunny earthiness.
More recently, collards braised to silkiness and bolstered with hunks of smoked turkey bonded sublimely with an array of rich, wintry proteins. As did a smooth sweet potato purée alive with the scents and flavors of fresh ginger and spices. Ditto the crisp-soft brussels sprouts, roasted with simple respect. And baby carrots, presented in a trio of vivid oranges and whites and reds.
The menu at Craft, the Dallas outpost of the New York-based restaurant that opened mid-2006 in the W Dallas Victory Hotel, is one of the few in town that truly, gloriously revolves with the seasons. Theoretically, you could hole up in the hotel’s hermetic atmosphere and still intuit the time of year from the variety and taste of the restaurant’s food.
So why did Craft need to win me over in the first place? The staggeringly steep prices.
The original Craft concept, conceived by celebrated toque and Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio, was an intense exercise in culinary mix-and-match: Customers picked out their meals’ proteins (grouped by cooking method), sauces and sides. Long before the Dallas branch ever opened, the process had been simplified: All dishes are served family-style, and main courses, now paired automatically with sauces, come a la carte. In other words, you pay extra for most of your starches and vegetables, just like at a steakhouse.
And as with chophouses, this experience can set you back mightily. Servers encourage guests to order one appetizer, one main course and one side per person. So if you’re eyeing the gorgeously rustic venison saddle in huckleberry sauce ($48) and want, oh, sautéed baby broccoli ($12) to accompany it, you’re essentially looking at a $60 entree. Not every item is that expensive, nor is venison the costliest.
As for the wine list: Need I even mention how difficult it is to find an exciting red for under $70?
Perhaps I dwell on the prices at Craft because the hominess of the food is so universally enticing: It’s the kind of wholesome American cooking you could eat once a week rather than as an occasional splurge.
Even the tonier appetizers have an unassuming edge. Guinea hen galantine, a meat-wrapped pâté, is served with endive marmalade that lends both familiar sweetness and exotic bitterness to the composition. King crab and Texas grapefruit gratin takes two well-known ingredients and naps them in an opulent sauce that still lets their integrity shine through. Sauterne gelée flanks foie gras terrine, but so does a quince purée comfortingly reminiscent of applesauce.
Back to raving about vegetables: Chef de cuisine Kevin Maxey (who runs the kitchen) and his staff should teach courses on how to prepare model salads. A simple creation of fluffy baby lettuces dressed in sherry vinaigrette epitomizes intelligent restraint. Beet salad presents the root four ways: roasted red and yellow varieties with gently pickled Chioggias and a couple of house-made beet chips. Scattered leaves of tarragon provide graceful, licorice-scented accent.
As for the robust meats to which the collards and other current vegetal offerings marry so well, a lamb dish that rotates on and off the menu stands way out. Roasted lamb rack and shoulder, supple as pot roast, are nestled in an attractive cocotte alongside merguez, a dense and spicy North African lamb sausage. The two presentations play off each other like a comedy duo: the likable straight man shoulder to the sly, mischievous sausage.
Equally worth cooing over are heritage pork (both sliced tenderloin and a sexy, melting square of pork belly); California squab (think dark meat chicken) with kabocha squash; and muscovy duck in a chunky sauce of dried cherries.
I’ve had slightly less luck with seafood dishes at Craft. Both bacon-wrapped monkfish in a subtle curry sauce and skate wing with gribiche (a piquant egg sauce) were salty – not egregiously so, but enough to throw the dishes off-balance. Cold but precisely cooked Gulf shrimp were advertised as being served with rémoulade, which turned out to be a sour bed of coleslaw rather than the expected mayonnaise-based Creole sauce.
Then again, there are lovely surprises like utopia fish, a whimsical name for a flaky, pink-fleshed swimmer also known as monchong. The impeccably seasoned utopia fish is served in a harmonious ragout of fresh autumn beans.
Craft’s main courses make for excellent leftovers, which I mention because most servings are generous, and because room must be saved for dessert. Pastry chef Shannon Swindle is one of the finest in Dallas. His stout gingerbread, with its gutsy ginger whomp and its citrus-passion fruit compote, makes an ideal bookend to a meal of autumnal flavors. He’s one of the few dessert masters around who demonstrates equal elegance with chocolate (behold his upscale devil’s food cake) and with fruit, even in the colder months (the Manzana banana aromatically roasted with vanilla bean induces contented sighs around the table). I’ll look forward to quarterly sojourns back to Craft solely for the pleasure of Mr. Swindle’s sweets.
If you’ve read this far in the review and are curious about the restaurant but still dubious about the price point, try Craft for brunch. The food is much more straightforward but still communicates the essence of the restaurant’s philosophy. Recently, I had a $12 country ham and cheddar quiche so light and custardy it was startling. The kitchen makes its own pork sausage, nicely spiced and slightly funky. Short rib and shishito pepper hash (with eggs, also $12) deliciously muddles the line between diner staple and epicurean excess.
Eating brunch at Craft can also give you insight into some of the restaurant’s non-food-related strengths and weaknesses. The room is almost as beautiful during the day as it is in the evening: Low booths, concrete columns and cowhide paneling (whose texture you can actually distinguish better in daylight) draw on highlights of the industrial-chic craze that spread through the land early this decade.
And, wow, the lighting: The filaments in hanging rows of Epstein light bulbs burn at such a low wattage that each is individually distinguishable, like glow-in-the-dark angel-hair pasta. Check out the tubes of fluorescent lighting between the booths. With their chunky bases, they resemble designer light sabers.
Unfortunately, service issues arise at both dinner and brunch. This crew is knowledgeable, professional and accommodating – but there seems to be a timing disconnect between the service staff and the kitchen. Dishes, particularly appetizers and desserts, frequently take too long to arrive at the table. The old gnawing on the tablecloth cliché comes to mind, though Craft is too hip to use tablecloths.
I will say, though, the one time a group of us arrived at Craft early with after-dinner plans, we informed our server and he paced our meal beautifully; we even had plenty of time for dessert. That bodes well for folks who want a memorable meal before attending an event at American Airlines Center.
Which may answer a question for visitors and locals alike: What’s the best dining experience in Victory Park? To my mind, Craft set the standard when it arrived first, and no restaurant in the area has yet surpassed it.
Food – ****Service – ***Atmosphere – ****