Last night, I met a few buddies over at Craftbar for some drinks, a nibble of food, and a touch of stuffiness. Craftbar and Craft, the big brother that looms upstairs, are Atlanta’s versions of Chef Tom Colicchio’s New York flagship. I went with high expectations; based on our brief flirtation, I am anxious to see how this potential love affair develops. Despite a hiccup (or two), there is enough promise here to warrant at least a couple of return trips.
These new eateries are located in a free-standing building that sits adjacent to the hotel/residential building known as the Mansion on Peachtree. The restaurant itself rests on the corner of Peachtree and Stratford, just south of Lenox Mall. When you turn off of Stratford into the parking circle, you may feel as if you are on a ship lost at sea. The valet staff seems to flutter about so you aren’t exactly sure where to pull up. A total nonfactor, but it still warrants a mention so as to prepare first timers. You should not feel lost for long; the valets (and hotel staff for that matter) are highly attentive; more on that later.
After utilizing the complimentary, albeit required, valet parking, we sauntered over to the restaurant. Though it lacks the near two-story ceilings of its NYC counterpart, the space is extremely reminiscent of the aforementioned. No surprise there, Colicchio employed the same architecture firm he always utilizes. The décor is simple and spacious: wood tables sit amongst soft brown walls accompanied by deeper accents. Tear drop lights, if that is indeed what you call them, hang in clustered rows and provide soft lighting.
Between the two floors, the restaurant(s) seats roughly 250-275 patrons. That includes a quasi private dining room and the bar. Just beyond the bar is that dining room. It is partially obfuscated by the wine vault that is encased in glass and steel. The thematic ambiance of Craftbar stretches upstairs. Though a number of metals are incorporated into the layout, the majority of the restaurant has a natural feel to it.
After taking in the space, I almost immediately felt the hauteur of the clientele. It just seemed out of place. Maybe it was me [well … us – as both Vinayak and Bryan concurred], but the crowd here, especially at the bar, just seemed to think they were dining at Masa … $500/head anyone? The feeling was augmented by the staff, as it took a few moments before they acknowledged us and even longer before they dispersed with the attitude and warmed up to our small group. This being our first visit, I’m willing to consider that this was nothing more than an anomaly. However, the business casual dress code just did not translate into a business casual atmosphere.
Though I won’t go into the full details of our drink order, it was far more off-putting than I expected. We elected to stick it out through a round of drinks and a couple of apps. In retrospect, we were all glad that we did so.
The alcoholic selections offered are universally top shelf; don’t show up if your favorite is a bottle of Ven-dangy (a.k.a. Vendange). Bryan was heartbroken due to the absence of Bud Light. The wine list is pretty deep. I’ve seen larger selections before; but, this one is still pretty extensive. I quit at page nine but not without taking my time to assess the potential of the list. The focus is clearly on smaller vineyards and their higher end varietals. I look forward to exploring it further.
To give a bit of perspective: Craft hit the scene in 2k2 with a bang. The menu helped garner Colicchio a great deal of attention. The buzz culminated with a James Beard Award (internal) for best new restaurant. Craft and Craftbar here in Atlanta appear ready to carry on that tradition. What separates any good Chef from a top quality cook is the ability to do things outside the kitchen. Colicchio, part restaurateur and part celebrity, does this very well. To run the show here, Colicchio brought in Kevin Maxey to run the joint. Maxey made the move here after filling a similar role at Craft in Dallas. Though some were hoping to see a local chef installed at the helm, Maxey has earned his right to be here. After his start working under Colicchio in NYC, he earned several awards while in Dallas. I’m still a bit confused by all the media misinformation. Many have identified Maxey as the chef de cuisine; however, I have seen someone by the name of Adam Evans identified as the chef de cuisine on a number of their menu revisions. Further spelunking needed before I know what’s what.
In looking over the menu, watching a number of plates come out of the kitchen, and tasting the two apps we ordered; it is apparent that Maxey is working with the philosophy of Colicchio: fresh, high grade ingredients are used to produce bold dishes. Upstairs, the menu offers the diner a multitude of options, but does not overwhelm. All of the usual suspects are here, but nothing outrageous or envelope pushing. Something about that is very comforting to me. I love eating and tasting new ingredients. However, it is equally as appealing to see someone toss those aside, take simpler ingredients, and push out new creations. The price point upstairs puts your meal somewhere in the $45-$75 range for a single app and one entrée.
Downstairs, the menu has been trimmed. Many of the same proteins are utilized here that are used at Craft, but the dishes are significantly lower in price. The majority of appetizers come in between $9 and $12; meanwhile, the main courses are roughly double that. Since we were only in for a pit stop, we elected to try the grilled oysters and the bourbon-glazed pork belly.
The oysters came out very nice. They were cooked in herb butter with breadcrumbs. Overall, they were tasty and the added flavors added a subtle touch. Personally, I wish they would have used fewer breadcrumbs, but it is still something I would have again. I stupidly forgot to ask what type of oyster was used. I am by no means infallible in my ability to discern the type of oyster simply by taste and texture, far from it in fact; but if pressed, I would say they used Pemaquid.
The pork belly was outstanding. The bourbon-glaze was applied perfectly. Meanwhile, the accompanying yogurt, radishes, and pickled vegetables added the ideal balance that amplified both the sweetness of the glaze and the saltiness of the pork belly.
All said and done, the douchebaggery of the crowd and the intermittent offenses by the staff did not overshadow the quality of the food. That said, it was a sampling in every sense of the word. I have heard and read a number of opinions which share my apprehension for the environment. The food has usually received good scores; yet, there are exceptions. As things sit now, I think this duet has every potential to be a 3-star fixture. I await the opportunity to really dive into the menu so as to give a better idea of what to expect.