You could call it snobbery. Or, perhaps, call it prejudice. Whatever you want to call it, since really getting into food I have developed a strong aversion to chain restaurants. When there are so many high quality locally owned and operated eateries at my disposal, it seems like a waste of my dining dollars to go somewhere that I could find in any city in the country.
However unreasonable it may be, my animosity for chain restaurants steers me away from not just the Chili’s or Ruth’s Chris of the world, but also the Emeril’s and the Crafts. Yes, I know that Tom Colicchio is a highly respected chef and all around badass. But, because I know that he isn’t REALLY involved with the day to day decisions at his location here, his pedigree means a lot less to me. Because of this, despite the fact that I’ve looked forward to eating at his Atlanta location since it opened, when the game time decision of “where should I eat tonight” would come up, I would subconsciously bump Craft down my list because it isn’t really “local”.
Well, last season of Top Chef finally changed that. To keep things interesting, my girlfriend and I created a fantasy Top Chef game of sorts, which I will post about in detail when the next season is about to start. Essentially, after the first episode we picked teams and set up a point system. At the end of the season the team with the most points won the game. And what fun would it be if there wasn’t some gambling involved? The stakes: The loser had to treat the winner to a meal at Craft.
My better half’s team included Mike I., Bryan Voltaggio, and Atlanta’s own Eli Kirshstein and Kevin Gillespie. I had such winners as Eve, Ash, and Mrs. Dead Weight herself, Robin. So yeah…I lost.
Though I had high expectations for our meal here, my excitement was tempered by some of the mixed reviews I’d read. Most notable of these was John Kessler’s “Open Letter to Tom Colicchio”, which I read mere months before my visit. Regardless, I hoped for good things.
Thankfully, I can report that Tom’s decision to leave Craft Atlanta in the hands of Chef de Cuisine Kevin Maxey was a good one. I had a hell of a good meal here.
The first thing I noticed while looking over the menu was the lack of detail given about each dish. Rather than a description of the preparation, sauces, and garnishes for each item, all you get is something simple like “Quail” or “Beef Short Rib” I’m not a big fan of this style of menu presentation, not just because it makes it more difficult for me to write about, but also because I didn’t really know what I was ordering. There are a lot of different ways to prepare “Farm Chicken” and I like knowing what I’m going to get before I order it. Fortunately, our server was helpful and more than happy to answer any questions we had.
While informing us of the steak special that evening, which was a Prime bone-in ribeye that I was extremely tempted by but ultimately didn’t order, the waiter mentioned that it was going to be served with a bone marrow side. I jumped all over that. The bone marrow is actually an appetizer from the Craftbar menu, but our server ordered it from downstairs for us anyway. Gold star for him.
I had tried my hand at making bone marrow at home only a few weeks prior to this, and I was excited to compare the two. Not surprisingly, Maxey’s bone marrow was far superior to my own.
When I placed this order, my date immediately decided that I would have that all to myself, as the idea of eating fatty bone marrow wasn’t too appealing to her. After her first bite, I was lucky to get even half of it before she scraped the last of the marrow from the bone.
While the taste of bone marrow by itself is quite savory and satisfying, the seasoning on Craftbar’s version really elevated the dish. It was perfectly salted, which is a key element in bringing out the natural flavor of bone marrow, but the candied pineapple topping and balsamic glaze drizzled across the top complemented the robust beefiness of the marrow wonderfully. When spread onto the toasted brioche accompaniment, this was superb, but the marrow was definitely good enough to eat straight off of the spoon.
The next appetizer to arrive was the Rabbit Rillettes. This was another one of my selections that my date had no intention of eating. When she asked what a rillettes was and I replied that it was a pâté-like spread of rabbit meat that had been cooked and cured in its own fat and served at room temperature, she wasn’t exactly enthused.
Once again, she relented when I begged her to try it, and once again, was floored at how good this was. The rabbit was savory, creamy, and for lack of a better word, addictive. I could have easily eaten an entire order of this by myself and been left wanting more. Though the bone marrow was fantastic, if you have to get just one appetizer while you are here, this is the way to go.
At this point, I had been gorging myself on an array of animal fats and probably should have gone with a nice, light entrée. And what better way to lighten things up than another confit?
For my main dish I had the Muscovy Duck Breast & Confit Leg, which was the ideal way to round out this meal. The duck breast was cooked perfectly and the confit leg was slammed with flavor. Do you SEE that nice, thick layer of duck fat with the mouth watering crust on it? I know that you guys have heard me rant more than once about my obsession with bacon fat, which may be my current mistress, but duck fat is my first love.
I walked away from this meal both pleasantly surprised and impressed. I came into it with both high and low expectations; I knew that this should be a fantastic meal, but I had too many reservations to confidently assume it would be. But, I am happy to report that Mr. Colicchio’s vision of simple, locally sourced, and perfectly executed dishes that made his flagship location in NYC such a success is alive and well here in Atlanta.
So, if you find yourself steering clear of Craft for the same silly reasons I did, I encourage you to go and give it a try. They didn’t miss a single step the night I ate here, and I know that I left with a new perspective on “chain” restaurants like this one.
But don’t expect to see me at TGI Friday’s anytime soon.
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