View more photos in Anne Fishbein's “Craftbar: Maximum-à-la-Carte” slideshow.
One of the most pleasant meals I’ve eaten this year was a spring lunch at Craftbar, the small-plates bistro tucked into the front bar area of the restaurant Craft in Century City. Most small-plates joints, including such good ones locally as AOC or Lou, follow a kind of pattern, a loose, tapas-inspired matrix designed more to compliment the wine than to provide a specific aesthetic apart from lubricated conversation, but this lunch seemed like a different thing entirely, like the Craft experience distilled into a tasting menu: lovely, translucent slices of pressed pigs head served with pungent bits of fresh marjoram; a salad of shaved fennel and apple; baby leeks, stewed down until they resembled ramps, the emblematic wild onion of the East Coast spring, moistened with a vinaigrette and tossed with toasted Marcona almonds from Spain.
My favorite dish was a strip of lamb belly, the fatty cut that has become newly fashionable in the era of maximum meat, presented in a manner that was vaguely Middle Eastern, arranged with dates, roasted beets that had been cut to resemble the scarlet pickled turnips so common in Lebanese cooking, and a bit of thick yogurt that had been flavored with sumac, the reddish, sour spice you’ve probably seen sprinkled on kebabs. Did the chef lose his nerve at the last minute, substituting the sweet beets for the pungent turnips, the Western yogurt for the caloric lebneh? Perhaps. But the lamb precisely reflected the season, the end of winter slouching into the gentler flavors of spring, and it was delicious — eight dollars very well spent.
Craft itself is a meditation on the theme of dislocation, a modernist pavilion at the foot of the CAA building, anchoring an empty, grassy field that didn’t exist a couple of years ago. The structure is part of a post-apocalyptic urban composition that includes the twin towers that used to house ABC. Wasn’t there a 1970s-style sunken plaza here just a minute ago? Was the Shubert Theater around here, where I saw Peter Cook and Dudley Moore something like two dozen times when I was in high school, or Harry’s bar, or the nightclub where Jerry Buss brought his 19-year-old dates when he was the king of Showtime? Was this where war protesters were corralled when Nixon entertained corrupt financiers at the Century Plaza Hotel, or was that over a bit? I went to high school not 200 yards away from Craft, and spent another few years working in office buildings close enough to wing with a baseball, but this patch of the Westside is wiped clean of its history, and I still lose my bearings every time I walk out of its doors. One thing is certain: At Craft, at the nexus of local agent culture, financial culture and law-firm culture, you will feel naked if you show up for lunch without a tie.
Craft, of course, is a spinoff of the restaurant on Manhattan’s East 19th Street, a dim, post-industrial space dedicated to Tom Colicchio’s brand of culinary minimalism, roast meats and braised birds and carefully cooked vegetables served in burnished copper pots, a method of dining that resembled, when all the salvers and cocottes and marmites and sauteuses and gratins were on the table, something out of either a Jan Steen painting or a rustic Tuesday-night supper in the chambers of Louis Quinze. Craft’s conceit, if you could call it that, was originally infinite customization, an invitation to complete your main course with precisely the sauce, vegetables and side dishes that you fancied. And although the maximum-à-la-carte idea had largely been abandoned by the time the Century City restaurant opened, it was a perfect fit for Hollywood, where no entertainment professional will ever settle for ordering directly off any menu, and where Colicchio, a self-effacing cook’s cook who had opened Craft as a side project while he was still employed as the chef of Gramercy Tavern, had meanwhile become famous as the star and grounded center of Top Chef, an exemplar of chefly virtue, the figurehead for an international brand.
In the context of Los Angeles, Craft’s cuisine is all buffed corners and shiny surfaces, as polished as a handmade surfboard: craft for the sake of craft. That there was no center to the cooking, that each meal may as well have been cooked in Las Vegas or Atlanta, was irrelevant.
In New York, the spinoff Craftbar was at first a crowded, narrow room a few doors down from the original restaurant, a place to stop by for a glass of wine, an interesting sandwich, or a plate of handcrafted charcuterie. In Century City, Craftbar is more of a conceptual space than an actual restaurant, some low tables in the bar area plus some cabanas on the veranda; a vastly lower price point and a no-reservations seating policy. Sometimes you want to feast on a $120 piece of prime beef. Sometimes, you’d rather have a tart salad of dandelion greens in a dressing of pureed anchovies and capers, a jarful of chicken-liver mousse glazed with a sour jelly of verjus, a bowl of fresh favas with little shards of pecorino cheese, or a small plate of cavatelli with roasted tomatoes and housemade ricotta.
At Craftbar, wine is served in four-ounce portions at $7 a shot, which means that you can afford to have both a Riesling with the cured albacore and a Zinfandel with the lamb sliders, and the $7 cocktails, although they won’t give the bartenders at Varnish fits of envy, include a very nice Century Sling, which tastes a bit like an updated Pisco Sour. Just as at the circus, you’ll find caramel corn, chocolate chip cookies and doughnut holes for dessert.
A note: chef Matthew Accarrino and pastry chef Catherine Schimenti left the restaurant just a few days before presstime; Anthony Zappola and Sharon Swindle from Craft Dallas are the new chefs. At a meal this weekend, a bit of the polish was off, and the new pastry chef (Zappola has yet to arrive) seems to favor things like caramel corn, chocolate cookies and doughnut holes instead of elaborately plated desserts. It is always hard to know how much of a syndicated restaurant comes from its on-site chef and how much from its capo di tutti capi. But as long as they serve the lamb belly every once in awhile, everything should work out fine.
Craftbar: Inside Craft, 10100 Constellation Blvd., Century City, (310) 279-4180. Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs., 6-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Valet parking and validated self-parking. Small plates $6-$8. Recommended dishes: baby dandelion greens with capers; lamb belly with candy-stripe beets, dates and yogurt; cavatelli with housemade ricotta; caramel corn.