After watching you for the past four months on “Top Chef” — as you doled out equal measures of mentoring advice and unflinching critical judgment — I felt that I should address my critique of a recent lunch at Craftbar Atlanta to you directly.
I mostly enjoyed a dinner at Craftbar several months ago and was excited to try it for lunch. As I’m sure you know, the lunch options in Atlanta aren’t great if you’re in the market for a full meal.
I really love the feel of the place — the sweet smell of the wood-burning oven, the gorgeously outfitted open kitchen, the dark wood, the midcentury modern furniture. It’s really unique in this town.
The service seemed fine despite one major gaffe. From my table I had a perfect view of a waiter reaching his hand into a dish of grated cheese to garnish a plate of pasta. Please use spoons.
The food? More misses than hits, I’m afraid to say. Some problems were in execution and others in conception. Let’s go through them, and please bear with my unaesthetic iPhone pictures. My commentary will be not nearly as harsh as Toby Young’s would have been.
We started with these sweetbreads ($14), which came crispily, saltily, Southern fried. They kind of reminded me of chicken livers, though I think chicken livers would have had the assertiveness to stand up to the supersweet, not-terribly-bacony treacle on the bottom of the plate. The bits of parsley, frisée and candied kumquat added up to an unfocused jumble. The seeds came from a bad pomegranate and should not have been used.
There was no balance to the flavors, no gravitas, no base note. It was a colorful pile of stuff and no more.
These grilled oysters ($12 for 5) came on a bed of rock salt in a super-hot cast-iron pan. Nice presentation, even if the five oysters were all different sizes. Alas, they weren’t grilled but warmed just enough to let the butter melt over the top. They were perfectly floppy and lukewarm. I think if you’re going to apply any heat to oysters you should cook them just until the edges curl. They should pop a little in your mouth.
To prove I’m nicer than Toby Young, I’ll take partial blame for even ordering this dish of cavatelli ($18). I always make the same mistake in restaurants, which is getting seduced by the light, healthy sound of a vegetarian dish but not expecting it to come swimming in cream. The crumbles of valbreso (a wonderful kind of French feta that has little salt) brightened this weird, drippy morass, but I couldn’t take more than two bites.The manager, a really sweet young woman, brought a menu, advised me on a new choice, and left the pasta for us to pick at as I waited.
My friend got this double-cut lamb chop ($24) — basically a cross-section of a lamb’s midriff — served with braised shoulder. He described the yellow stuff on top as some kind of lemon-garlic jam. It was a big, sloppy plate of food that he mostly enjoyed. (I tried a few of the beans, which were lamby and nicely seasoned.)
One thing, though, which was interesting. He said the chef should cook it to whatever temperature he recommended: it arrived black and blue.
My replacement dish was the spicy fish stew ($16) pictured at the top of this post. I found it a tasty enough melange of swordfish, scallop bits, Tuscan kale, potatoes and peppers. The buttered, grilled toast alongside was pretty delectable. But I have to say the very sweet broth — which tasted strongly of smoked paprika, not spice — didn’t have a lot fishy soul. I wanted either a little of that weird, ocean-bottom funk that comes from crustacean innards or the graceful high notes of simmered flatfish bones.
Here’s the main thing, Tom. This meal, with a glass of wine and two coffees but no dessert, cost more than $100 with tip. I rarely spend that kind of money on lunch, but when I do, I expect it to be more carefully thought out. I know the local chefs have some autonomy, but your name and reputation graces the door. This meal should in some way express your culinary sensibility, right?
What does Craftbar want to be at lunch? A respite from the stress and traffic outside? A special dining experience? A place to entertain clients? I’m not sure I get it.
Anyhow, if this blog does come to your attention, I’d be really curious to hear what you’d have to say.