Thursday, August 30, 2007

Squee! Celebrity Edition!

Another story to record for posterity....

My meeting was at eleven this morning and, as luck would have it, the building is around the corner from my hotel. This being LA, that sounds much closer and convenient than it actually is, as I have never seen a city that discourages pedestrians more than the City of Angels. As I strolled through a courtyard, I passed a valet station and wondered about its usefulness, given the business setting. I got my answer when I saw a sign with the unmistakable logo for Craft and mentally squeed. I knew that one had recently opened in LA, but certainly didn't know it was right the hell around the corner from my hotel. w00t!

I first dined at Craft in Manhattan with Drew and Gwin a few years ago and still remember what we ate and the wine we enjoyed. Drew and I split the Côte de Boeuf and it was, without question, the best and most memorable meat dish I have ever had. I have since been to Craft Steak in Vegas a few times, also with Drew and others, and it was equally outstanding. Just perfectly executed meals, using the finest ingredients, seasoned subtly but memorably, and side dishes that should be ordered as entrees. I have also eaten at 'wich craft, which is their gourmet sandwich chain, and their $10 sandwiches are worth every penny. Suffice to say, I am a fan.

I was just starting to get into dining as a hobby when I discovered Craft and certainly didn't know anything about the owner and executive chef. His name is Tom Colicchio and he is now also a judge on Top Chef. I confess that although I dodged reality television for years, I am addicted to Top Chef. I love watching people cook and the show isn't really calculated for drama. What really enhances the show is Tom Colicchio, as he is clever, knowledgeable without being smug, and is a chef's chef. He loves food, loves the whole experience of creating and preparing a meal, and knows how to enjoy and appreciate a dining experience. Plus? He is absolutely adorable - strong smile, twinkling eyes and a confident and comfortable presence. Less than three.

So, after what turned out to be a clusterfuck of a meeting (I hate most lawyers), I rounded up the sister and we hit Craft. Kelly had never even heard of it, let alone Tom, and obviously doesn't watch the show, but she knows I know how to order a meal. After kind of gasping at the pricey lunch menu, she acquiesced and let me do my thing. We got a prime seat for people watching and took in the lunch crowd of agents and attorneys arriving for their power lunches, secretly hoping for an Ari Gold sighting. We also admired the outdoor lounge area, which, while in the equivalent of an office park, was strangely inviting and intimate. Large, canopied squares with chaise lounges and benches that looked perfect for a night out with friends.

We started with an heirloom tomato salad with basil and my holy hell, it was unlike anything I had ever had. I am really not much of a tomato person, although I do loves me fresh Caprese salad. These tomatoes shined all on their own, although, as always, they were complimented with fresh basil and just the right amount of salt and seasonings. I have never considered myself a tomato person and often consider it unused garnish, but these tomatoes? They reminded you why tomatoes are scientifically considered a fruit - succulent and juicy, sure, but the flavor of each variety literally burst in my mouth. Perfect beginning.

I followed the tried and true rule to always order the braised short ribs, of course, and upon recommendation of the server, ordered the scallops. I don't think I can say enough about both of these dishes. The braised ribs fell apart by the forkful and were garnished with thyme and rosemary, which just coaxed out more flavor. They were simmered with aromatic root vegetables which were tasty, but completely second fiddle to the star attraction. As for the scallops? Perfection from any perspective. Flawlessly cooked - this point cannot be reiterated enough - such that they were fork tender without even the slightest hint of overcooking. Lightly caramelized, they sat atop a simple but flavorful lemon buerre blanc that, again, perfectly enhanced but did not overpower the fish. As I said to Kelly, somehow, without overseasoning or overdressing the scallops, the chef had managed to bring out the best flavors of a scallop while also eliminating the all-too-often (faint) taste of the ocean. I don't think I will order scallops again for a long time, as it would be damn near impossible to match what we had today. I also was dazzled by the plate presentation, as both dishes were served in small cast iron dutch ovens, which was both aesthetically pleasing and kept the food warm.

Getting long and wordy again, and the best part is yet to come. Sides were equally flawless, which made us both marvel about the level of talent in the kitchen. Summer squash and asparagus tasted as though they were harvested that morning and, again, prepared perfectly. Most surprising, on the suggestion of the server (and for my fungus-loving sister), I ordered the assorted mushrooms! I think I require a higher quality fungus and we were surely served them today. I couldn't believe the flavor and texture of the shittakes, while Kelly loved the...hell, I think they were called bear forest. In any event, while I remain suspicious of mushrooms generally, they were the best I think I will ever taste.

Despite having a great deal of food packed for home, I had to see what the kitchen could do with desserts. We opted for the cream cheese semi-fredo with fresh basil scented strawberries and strawberry sorbet and a slice of decadent goat cheese (Clara). The semi fredo was easily the best I have ever had, with the fresh cream cheese (with tiny bits of sweetness) balancing the tartness of the strawberries and the taste and aroma of the basil providing a savory counterpoint. As I had ventured far enough with the fungus, I left the mold to Kelly, who lingered over every bite of the Clara cheese.

Around this time, one of the hosts came over and we quickly bonded about food, NYC restaurants and my love and admiration for Tom. He said something to the effect of "well, if you're lucky, you might see him, as he just got back and is working today." My eyes widened and I told him that, next to the holy diety that is Clooney, I would probably lose my shit if I met Tom. About two minutes later, Tom walked past our table and into the kitchen. I confess that I gasped, my jaw dropped and I felt my face get red. It was a moment of pure squee that I had to repress to maintain some semblance of foodie cool and cred. Our server came over and, with my eyes still wide, I gushed a little about seeing Tom. She and I then bonded over the fact that she used to work with Brian at Oceannaire in San Diego and I told her that I had met him when he worked at Oceannaire in Seattle. We shared a love of Top Chef, then told me she would see if Tom would come by the table.

Yes. Yes, he did. Having a few minutes to prepare, I composed myself and resolved not to be a completely gushing fan. When he came out, the very first thing I thought to myself was that he was much, much better looking in person, which is a bold statement. The camera does add a few pounds, although he looks great on television, and he has a really solid build. His eyes are what stunned me - piercing blue and yes, twinkling. We introduced ourselves and he just sat there and chatted with us for about ten minutes. The first thing I said to him was that I really admired his ability to attract and retain the talent that he has in his kitchens, as every dish I have ever ordered at his restaurants has been absolutely, perfectly cooked. He talked about the superiority of the level of produce in Los Angeles and how they buy most of their fruits and vegetables from the Santa Monica farmer's market. Mindful of his confidentiality responsibilities to Top Chef, we spoke primarily about his blog for TC and how he really reads each and every one of the comments. He was just as I had perceived him from television, only much better in person. Completely genuine.

He couldn't have been more darling and more gracious. He exudes an almost palpable confidence that is nowhere near arrogance and is the farthest thing from a "celebrity chef" as a celebrity chef could be. While I am still hoping for a Clooney meet one day, this was damn near the next best thing.

If you read this far, you are entitled to the money shot. I hate it of me, but goddamn, he is adorable.


Talix said...

Au contraire! That is a great picture of you.

cornutt said...

I see a shiny "fivehead" (seriously, what is the point of having bangs if I routinely push them aside), the gigantic face, the absence of any makeup and the awkward pose.

But I thank you for the compliment nevertheless. I think he looks adorable.