THE SIMPLE THINGS

Byline: Alison Oneacre

NEW YORK — When Tom Colicchio, the beloved chef and owner of Gramercy Tavern, was deciding on a name for his new restaurant, he didn’t have to look very far.
“My food has become more and more simple over the last 15 years, to the point where it’s a craft,” says Colicchio, who aptly named his new place Craft (43 East 19th Street). “Cooking is a craft, not an art,” he insists. “Although some people want to elevate it to that.”
Although Colicchio calls himself an artisan, many of those who have worshiped at Gramercy Tavern’s altar over the years prefer to think of him as an artiste. Open only six years, Gramercy Tavern ranks as the second most popular restaurant in Zagat and consistently receives extraordinary marks from critics for food and service.
But Craft won’t exactly be more of the same. At stoves only a block away from his flagship, Colicchio is testing a new concept. “Using the menu here is like going to a steak house,” he explains. “Everything is a la carte.” Divided into the rubrics of fish, meat, vegetables and condiments, the menu allows diners to customize their plates. Diners can order individual portions or family-size servings of Nantucket Bay scallops or beef short ribs, to name a couple of Craft’s offerings.
“This is how people ate 100 years ago,” says Colicchio. “Nouvelle cuisine really plated food. We’ve been through such a wildly creative time in New York, with eight or nine ingredients on a plate. I kept finding myself saying, ‘What else can I take off?”‘
Colicchio believes that diners, used to depending on the expertise of the chef to guide their menu choices, can’t make an unsuitable selection.
“Everything goes with everything. As I wrote in my book, if it grows together, it goes together,” he says, ticking off tomatoes, zucchinis and peppers as a group that complement one another and happen to come out of the ground at the same time.
For Craft’s interior, Colicchio summoned the architecture and design firm of Bentel & Bentel, which created, as he puts it, a “crafty” atmosphere that evokes the feeling of an elegant, but cozy, woodshop. Layering chocolate leather panels along one wall, the design team filled the 110-seat room with chunky blond wooden tables and black leather chairs and left the exposed brick columns that date to the 1880s.
An iron table-topped bar backs into the room’s centerpiece, a two-story, 3,000-bottle wine cabinet, whose contents will be overseen by Matthew MacCartney, the former sommelier of Gramercy Tavern. Craft’s executive chef, Marco Canora, is another Gramercy Tavern alumni.
“I’m taking on a more entrepreneurial role here,” Colicchio admits, citing Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten as inspirations for this kind of transition. “But it’s my recipes and my food,” he says — a food that’s always been willfully devoid of the showmanship of Monsieurs Ducasse and Vongerichten.
“One time at Gramercy Tavern, a diner complained, ‘My salmon tasted like salmon and my chocolate dessert tasted bitter,”‘ says Colicchio, who’s apt to tear up a bill and invite a diner back at the smallest complaint. “I told her, ‘That’s how it’s supposed to taste.’ I still tore up her bill, but didn’t ask her back.”