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'Top Chef All-Stars': Let's judge Tom Colicchio

January 13, 2011 |  6:30 am

1Tom Colicchio didn't get to be the lead judge on "Top Chef" because he's the culinary answer to Simon Cowell, who apparently can't sing a lick. Instead, Colicchio (like "Project Runway's" Michael Kors) is judging from experience and authority.

Colicchio started cooking professionally at age 17, and his lauded restaurants include New York's Gramercy Tavern and Craft.

Like the successful superchefs Danny Meyer, Mario Batali and Thomas Keller, Colicchio's culinary empire now spans the country: Crafsteak in Las Vegas; the New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco sandwhich shops 'wichcraft; Craft in Dallas, Los Angeles and Atlanta; and the new Colicchio & Sons and Riverpark in Manhattan. He has published three cookbooks, and consults at several private clubs.

As anyone who watches "Top Chef" knows, any cook is only as good as his or her last dish--if it's got your name on it, whatever you send out from the kitchen better be great.

It's obviously physically impossible that Colicchio can cook at (or just run through) all of his eating establishments, but his all-star standing does in fact ride on their food: If the diners suffer, so, too will Colicchio's profile. 

With that in mind, we decided to put Colicchio to our own "Top Chef" test, dropping by three of his New York restaurants on a quick trip earlier this week. While he's hardly up for elimination for any of the food we ate, he should be concerned about some of his front-of-the-house miscues--a critical issue in "Top Chef's" annual restaurant wars episode, set for next week.

Stop One: Colicchio & Sons.

Colicchio is spending more time cooking at this restaurant than any of his other establishments, but he wasn’t on the premises Sunday night (we asked).  Rather than bankrupt the paper by dining in the main restaurant, we opted for the less expensive Tap Room. We ordered the three-course tasting menu: escarole salad with duck ham and pickled squash, braised lamb with market mushrooms, and cinnamon waffles with roasted apples and calvados ice cream. We washed it down with a pint of Southampton Double White Ale, one of the many small-production beers on tap.

Judge’s Table: Heavenly. Nothing overly complicated; simple flavors, everything well-seasoned and cooked perfectly. The service was a bit spotty, with 20 minutes passing between the salad and the entrée, and the waiter apologizing for equally lethargic dessert. But on a freezing night in a cozy restaurant, no one was in a hurry to go.

Stop Two: ‘wichcraft.

This is Colicchio’s chain for gourmet sandwiches and salads, akin to Los Angeles’ (much better) Mendocino Farms. They’re sprinkled throughout New York—some have indoor tables, some don’t. We ordered the meatloaf, cheddar, bacon and tomato relish on a ciabatta roll.

Judge’s Table: The food was very good. The setting, not so much. We caught a late lunch at the Rockefeller Center location. The floor was filthy, our table covered in crumbs (the restaurant wasn’t full, so the table  had been sitting empty for a while), and a magazine rack hung sideways from the wall, pulled off one of its moorings. The staff had plenty of time to chat amongst themselves, but apparently was too busy to clean the place.

Stop Three: Craftbar.

A more casual version of Craft, with an eclectic menu of salumi, bruschetta, charcuterie, pasta and fish. We ordered pecorino risotto balls in a spicy tomato sauce for an appetizer, followed by red snapper, soffrito-braised salsify in a habanero-lime vinaigrette.

Judge’s Table: The service (outside of slow-to-arrive breadsticks) was impeccable. As soon as the host sat us, she asked if we wanted a newspaper as we were dining alone (we brought three with us, but it was a nice gesture). The risotto balls, deep-fried and filled with melted cheese, sure weren’t healthy, but man did they taste good. The fish was cooked expertly, but there was hardly any kick to the habanero sauce, and the soffrito had started to separate, leaving an oily smear in the plate. Nevertheless, it was overall a very good lunch.

Like many celebrity chefs (paging Wolfgang Puck and his leather-like airport pizzas!), Colicchio may be spreading himself thin, but his restaurants’ food is consistently impressive—an impromptu dinner my wife and I had at the bar in the Century City Craft is one of our favorite meals of all time.

Tiffani and (it's about time) Jamie had to pack their knives Wednesday night, but Colicchio is nowhere close to elimination.

 --John Horn

Photo of Tom Colicchio: Barbara Nitke/Bravo