craigie on main
For many, Craigie on Main is a “once in a while” kind of restaurant. For me, it’s more like a “once in a year” kind of restaurant. Every time I pass the always-busy corner bistro on my way to snag a scoop at Toscanini’s (which is more often than I wish to admit), it takes a few moments of realist banter between me and myself to stop me from stepping inside sans reservation and taking part in the full sensory experience that Tony Maws provides his mesmerized patrons. Luckily for my wallet, I never cross the threshold and, instead, soak in that moment of passing, feel the warmth radiating from smiling diners and drown my sorrows in a cup of ice cream.
Well, last Thursday, my kettle had blown, my time was up and I was ready to suffer the monetary consequences of what is always a delightful meal at Craigie. In a different context, I’ve talked about my penchant for simplicity. Craigie on Main, with its fine-dining reputation, may not scream simplicity; however, I think that the restaurant actually embodies the term in many ways. Maws cares deeply about his product, whether produce or protein, and wants to do anything to enhance it in ways that are inventive and interesting but that protect the integrity of its natural, unfussed flavor. His dishes can be simultaneously epiphany-inducing and familiar, because they gently remind the diner how a food-item tastes when at the peak of freshness.
My experience did not go off without a hitch – I was given the previous night’s menu and almost ordered from it, my amuse bouche was puckeringly salty, even for an advocate of liberal seasoning – but the careful plating and mostly perfect execution of our dishes more than made up for those snafus. One surprise, though, was the less than stellar service we received, given that the waitstaff at Craigie is known for its excellence. While one of our waitresses was eager and enthusiastic (even if she called Comté a goat cheese), the other was stone-faced and cold.
I think any first-timer should take the tasting menu journey, but we opted to order à la carte on this visit. Our appetizers seemed heartier than necessary, but the flaw was most likely in our ordering. A Soup of Butternut Squash spiked with a restrained dash of curry luckily wasn’t laden with cream, which allowed the naturally sweet winter squash flavor to prevail. The bright soup was complemented by a small Grilled Two Cheese and Pork Belly Sandwich that (surprisingly) wasn’t overly rich. The Shelburne Farms Cheddar (one of my favorites) and Gruyere melted around a very thin and perfectly tender slice of pork belly. It was a great dunker, but the bread was limper than expected.
My House-Made Buckwheat Straccetti with Boudin Noir and Braised Pig Skin Ragoût scratched my porcine itch, quelling my disappointment once I saw that “Pork Three Ways” was not offered that night (better luck next year). When a restaurant’s mascot is a labeled pig drawing, you know you need to let the kitchen exercise its snout-to-tail prowess at some point. The firm, deeply nutty pasta was the perfect complement to such a hearty and richly flavored ragoût. While the blood sausage provided an earthy depth to the sauce,I found out that I much prefer pig skin crispy, although it was not at all chewy or grisly. Had it been tasted for seasoning, it would have been a knock-out.
Chicken Sausage-Stuffed Chicken sounded rather boring and safe. It wasn’t. Although made from chicken, that stuffing along with the most delicate and delicious chantelrelles I have ever had was a definite unami-bomb, and it made the simple roast bird taste intensely flavored, pleasantly gamey and meaty in its natural right. This is what chicken is supposed to taste like, and I think it has eluded me prior to this dining experience. A Potato Purée was light on potatoes and heavy on butter and when it melded with the pool of mushroom jus, it fortified the richness of the whole dish. Softly cooked vidalia onions were a sweet break from the heartiness of the dish, while spinach provided the necessary color.
My Slow-Roasted Dayboat Monkfish was pristine in its plating and execution — pure and innocent, as if it had been touched by pale virgin hands. Hyperbole? I think not. The firm white fish, reminiscent of lobster tail, was perfectly cooked and meaty, while itsy-bitsy, shockingly pink Maine Rock Shrimp were candy-like and impossibly tender. Toothpick-sized strips of quality Serrano ham, julienned by a master, added smokiness to what was a very sweet dish. A small smattering of Charleston Gold rice studded with miniature cubes of ripe pear and chives — clearly chopped by aforementioned virgin — was a brilliant choice to accompany the dish; this variety of rice is known for its slightly floral flavor, and the grains have a remarkable ability to maintain their individual integrity, staying perfectly separate and firm even when swimming in a vast pool of a slightly sharp Sauvignon beurre blanc.
Lastly, I love that dessert at Craigie is not a mere afterthought; each offering is well-composed, relatively inventive and never overly sweet. The Cajeta Crème Caramel was perfectly creamy and pleased this picky custard fiend. The sauce was dark and just under burnt, exactly as I like it. A paper-thin, fluted Sweet Potato Croustillant brought the perfect dash of spiced winter warmth, and candied kumquats woke up the palate with each bite.
A big winner was the Bourbon Pecan Ice Cream Tart. Oh, and it had a chocolate bacon crust. I actually hesitated before ordering this dessert. I hate that bacon desserts are trendy – can I enjoy my cured belly of pig without fanfare? But this crust was perfect. There was just enough bacon to add smoke and salt to the thin, crisp crust. The ice cream was smooth with a deep Bourbon twang, the pecans were lightly caramelized to maintain their crunch and the slick of Mexican chocolate that topped the pie was earthy and rich.
My descriptions of each dish are long. That’s the type of enthusiasm that they inspired. But a careful read shows their inherent simplicity. Not a single ingredient seemed out of place and each was put on the plate for a very specific reason. My one disappointment: after ruminating on the meal as a whole a few days after enjoying it, I realize my most memorable dish may not have been the work of Maws. That one composed bite that I’ll talk about incessantly, bothering those around me for the next few weeks, is of that Ice Cream Tart. It’s the one I’ll remember fondly when it’s time to go back. My monkfish was only a close second. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.