The New American Blues at Colicchio and Sons
Sitting in Colicchio and Sons' lofty dining room, a friend and I gaped and poked at her dish. It was a plate of squid-ink risotto, sticky-sweet chocolate sauce, tomato sauce, and a single tentacle, trisected, stuffed with black kale and put back together to resemble a horn. It seemed more like an experiment than an appetizer—flavors clashing, marquee cephalopod languishing on the plate tough and unloved. "I don't think Colicchio's honoring the protein," said my friend.
It's easy to poke fun, but, as Spider-Man could tell you, with great power comes great responsibility. Tom Colicchio is one of the most esteemed chefs in the city, with a history of game-changing restaurants like Craft. His pronouncements on TV are well known, such as his insistence that one must "eat tastefully," ironically conveyed via a Diet Coke commercial. Colicchio and Sons is not a bad restaurant—most dishes are fine, and if you choose well, you might have a top-notch meal. But that's not quite enough to carry an eatery like this one. The food is upscale New American, with plates that are more complicated and composed than those Colicchio became known for at Craft. But the food lacks focus and, somehow, verve.
Colicchio and Sons occupies the large Meatpacking District space where CraftSteak once sizzled its beef. As before, the room is bisected by a floor-to-ceiling glass wine tower, dividing the room into two distinct spaces: the Tap Room up front with a separate à la carte menu, casual seating, and wood-burning oven, and the formal dining room in the back. For a large restaurant, it's surprisingly comfortable and convivial. Though the ceiling soars as high as SD26's, the noise level stays at a pleasant bubble. Service is competent, if anxious—we seemed to have a dozen different waiters, all checking in with the regularity of kids waiting for Santa.
When I first ate at Colicchio and Sons, the dining room menu was à la carte, and if you ordered judiciously, you could have a two-course meal for, say, $45. Sure, that's on the expensive side, but it's in line with what you would expect for such a restaurant, and eaters had leeway. Then Colicchio switched the dining room into a prix fixe format: three courses for $78. Not only did that actually raise the prices—originally, the tab for the same amount of food would have been about $60—it also took away the flexibility and made the restaurant seem out of touch with the penny-pinching zeitgeist. Now the restaurant has reverted back to à la carte in the dining room—a good move, one Colicchio says was motivated by the fact that customers balked at the $78 tab.
But what to drink? The cocktails seem oddly dated. I've come to terms with the fact that most places want us to part with over $12 for a drink, but at least standards have gone up with the prices. A glass of quotidian Plymouth gin, lime juice, and mint, however, shouldn't cost $13. The beer list, though, is long and excellent, including many on draft, like Cooper's Sparkling Ale, a refreshing Australian brew from Adelaide at $7 a pint or $3.50 a half-pint. The half portions are a friendly, beer-geeky touch.
On my first visit, my friend and I were feeling optimistic, and hungry. The menu seemed full of good things to eat. But the appetizers turned our moods glum. She got that demented squid dish, and I ordered something called sea-urchin/crab fondue. It turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with fondue—nothing to dip, no discernible cheese or hot oil, which might have been just as well. Instead, the bowl contains a shallow pool of a creamy, bisque-like substance, colored sherbet orange from the urchin, laced with crab. Tasty, but why give it a misleading name?
On another night, though, we gambled successfully with our starters, munching on a vibrant, unfussy salad of tart, silken sardines, blood orange and grapefruit segments, and bitter greens, as well as on an incredibly pleasurable dish of barely cooked butter-poached oysters with a tangle of julienned celery root and a dollop of American caviar. But at these prices, you shouldn't have to roll the dice.
The kitchen has a competent way with meat, arranging it into composed plates that will be familiar to anyone who's eaten at the city's higher-end New American–greenmarkety restaurants: a meat, a reduction sauce, a butter-laden starch, nice vegetables.
Seared venison, rosy in the middle, benefits from a tumble of stewed huckleberries—a classic sweet-sour accompaniment for game. The ultra-rich parsnip gratin sharing the plate puts it firmly in winter-fattening territory. Duck breast barely avoids overcooking, served on a mass of cabbage and chanterelles. But where's the promised kumquat chutney? We detected only the barest whiff of citrus. To eat the veal breast, you've got to peel off the thick layer of fat and silver skin, an annoyance that's almost forgiven when you spoon up the tender stewed tripe and meaty trumpet mushrooms that come alongside. But the slab of crispy skin that garnishes the chicken pot au feu was not charming enough to make up for a totally pedestrian dish, flecked with black slices of truffle that somehow tasted of nothing at all.
No doubt Colicchio and Sons will stay afloat, buoyed by the chef and the sleekness of the establishment. And now that it's gone back to à la carte pricing, I have much more hope that it will evolve into the excellent place it should be. Interviewed on the phone for the Voice's food blog, Fork in the Road, the chef told me that he's scarcely had a day off since Colicchio and Sons opened, and acknowledged some cooking inconsistencies, especially in the early days. And in fact, we did see him dressed in his whites and stepping out of the kitchen one night. Colicchio named the restaurant "and Sons" not because his offspring actually work there (they're still little boys), but to signal how personal the project is to him. You have to admire his good-faith desire to be behind the stove—he must not need the money. But some of the dishes are more like what you'd see on Top Chef than at a three-star restaurant.
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