Ingredients are everything when it comes to food, especially in restaurants. This may sound strange coming from someone born and raised in Los Angeles, where it’s more about the social scene and image of a restaurant than anything else. But I've been away a long time in Europe, and I have come to appreciate what’s on the plate, both at home and out. That’s why I was particularly impressed with a dinner last night at Craft in Century City.
I have always been a great fan of Craft in New York. I like the menu, wherein the diner chooses whether their first and main courses will be grilled, braised, sautéed, or roasted, and then accompaniments are ordered a la carte. It’s sort of a build-your-own meal experience. It even reminds me of eating Chinese food in Hong Kong, where everyone shares various dishes and you combine flavors.
Anyway, last night I went to the new Craft in L.A., with wine merchant Bob Golbahar of Twenty Twenty Wine Merchants, who brought four bottles of top California wines along to try as well. We walked into the new restaurant, which has been opened about 10 weeks, and I was speechless. The decor is so New York chic mixed with Milan modern.
It’s well-lit, clean and airy with lots of metal, glass and dark wood. Wine bottles are prominently displayed in open cellars along the walls. The only tacky decoration in the place was the table next to mine, surrounded by guys in Hawaiian shirts! Most of the diners were cool and stylish. I am sure the room was full of agents from CAA, which apparently has an office next door.
Craft has a very good wine list with everything you can imagine, from hard-to-find California Pinot Noirs and Grenaches to stylish Bordeauxs and Châteauneufs. And you can find a serious bottle for between $60 and $90, so you don’t need to bring your own, like we did. And beverage director David Lusby is very knowledgeable, and unabashedly admits that he has a European wine palate. When sourcing wines for his list, he's looking for finesse and freshness rather than thick and bold New World flavors.
"It has to go with food,” he said, after we met and compared thoughts on wine. “The wine is a condiment to the food.”
I was not convinced the 2004 Lewis Chardonnay Russian River Valley Barcaglia Lane that Bob brought would go very well with the food. It was a big, ultrawoody Chard that lacked a bit of acidity and focus. This was a wine to drink on its own. It was sort of blousy and attractive, with lots of pineapple, honey and milk character, but it teased you with greatness more than delivered the goods. So typically L.A. 90 points, non-blind.
The starters of marinated sardine fillets with espelette peppers, grilled Peruvian octopus and chorizo, and fried eggs, lobsters and mushrooms were all hearty and flavorful. In fact, my mouth is watering as I write this--great ingredients as well as preparation. The Lewis Chardonnay was lost in the shuffle here. It just couldn’t stand up to the dishes.
Luckily, Bob brought along some serious California reds, including 2002 St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Sympa Reserve, 2002 Buccella Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, and the 2002 Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley. The Sympa was fun. I liked the jammy and juicy character of this red. It worked well with the black chicken, smoked bacon and veggies cooked in an iron pot in the oven. The soft and succulent bird was almost as decadent as the wine. 90 points, non-blind–the wine, not the chicken!
I also enjoyed the other course of Alaskan sable, oven-roasted and served with a bacon sabayon. Craft might be overdoing it with the bacon. (Thank God we aren’t kosher!) The big chunk of sea bass-like fish was firm and flavorful, with a meaty undertone. It held up just fine with the Buccella Cab, which showed loads of plum and mineral character on the nose and palate with flashy, round tannins. 93 points, non-blind.
Finally, we got to the Joseph Phelps Insignia, Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year in 2005. It was tight and racy with lots of currant, mineral and lightly toasted oak on the nose and palate. It was full-bodied and very long. Give it another four or five years of bottle age. 96 points, non-blind.
We had an aged New York strip steak to finish off the reds, as well as a bottle of 2001 Pavie-Macquin to remember the freshness and raciness of Europe. The steak was of superb quality, with loads of buttery, meaty flavors. It was almost gamy. Unfortunately, it came out cold from the kitchen on a copper platter. The mushrooms were excellent as always, as well as the fresh and bitter sautéed bok choy. In fact, Craft always has a great selection of mushrooms available, whether in L.A. or N.Y.C.
The 2001 Pavie-Macquin was my favorite wine of the night to drink, even though it was not my highest-scoring wine. I loved the plum, mineral and wet earth aromas and the balanced medium to full body, with silky tannins and a fresh acidity. It would have gone with everything we ate. 92 points, non-blind.
Craft is a restaurant I will be going to a lot when I am in Los Angeles. It's expensive, with first courses pushing $20 each and mains $50. Side dishes are $10 to $15. But it¹s worth it. Despite so many restaurants in the city and so many people, it¹s hard to find places that focus so well on ingredients as well as image. Most popular restaurants in the City of Angels worry only about the latter.