Craftsteak, Ledyard

 

Craftsteak ★★★ (Superior)
MGM Grand Foxwoods Casino, Ledyard, (860/MGM-0050)

Lunch daily 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner daily 5 to 11. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $9 to $28, main courses $25 to $101, desserts $12.

With its glittering new MGM Grand tower and klieg-bright star-studded entertainment lineup, Foxwoods Casino boggles the senses with wow appeal. In contrast, Craftsteak is an almost Zenlike oasis of calm.

Reminiscent of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Craftsteak's clean-lined interior focuses on the strength and beauty of its structural materials-burnished steel, satiny hardwood, floor-to-ceiling glass partitions where bottled wines are chambered. This beautiful functionalism says a lot about Craftsteak's chef-owner, Tom Colicchio, head judge on Bravo network's "Top Chef," founding chef and owner of Craftsteak restaurants in Las Vegas and Manhattan. Despite all that glitz on his résumé, chef Colicchio's food philosophy is revolutionary in its simplicity: Throw away your cookbook and learn how to cook. Use the purest, freshest ingredients, and "build" with them.

Craftsteak's menu, equally straightforward, is an invitation to customize a meal to your liking-and to think big-beyond, way beyond, a nibble of sushi. We're talking 18-ounce New York strip steaks aged 56 days, grass-fed rib-eyes almost as hefty, whopping portions of Wagyu tartare, onion rings the size of Texas.

Make no mistake, we're in high-roller country. A 10-ounce filet mignon costs $58, rack of lamb will set you back $52. But the quality is there-meat free of antibiotics and hormones, wild salmon, dozens of rich and rare sides. Hen of the woods mushrooms, for example, and Maine crab fondue.

We began with oysters. Six varieties were on offer. I chose three from the East Coast because they're my favorite. In Colonial days, Americans spurned English oysters because they said they tasted like copper. The English responded that copper was better than no taste at all. Both were a little bit right. Oysters have a high mineral content and their taste is subtle. At Craftsteak, the oysters we sampled (Umani from Connecticut, Damariscotta from Maine and Nasketucket from a creek in Fairhaven, Mass.) were unassailably fresh, nicely chilled and flavorful in slightly different ways-the Umani mildly sweet, the Damariscotta more steely, the Nasketucket tinged with a hint of iron.

With Wagyu beef weighing in at $101 for a 16-ounce New York strip, we decided to play for lower stakes and ordered Wagyu tartare for $22-a mistake because when the accoutrements (capers, parsley, chopped onion, egg, Worcestershire et al) were mixed in, the result, though delicious, could have been made with any lean beef with or without a pricey pedigree. Call me knucklehead.

But give me credit for solving a mystery having to do with Maine crab fondue. Piping hot in its baking dish and chock-a-block with sweet, chewy crabmeat, it was thick and creamy without tasting of cream. By the third spoonful, I had figured it out: The thickening agent was potato purée-a healthy touch to balance all the marbleized meat on offer.

All of this is interesting but it is as a steak house that Craftsteak comes into its full glory. Of the steaks we tried, the 18-ounce corn-fed porterhouse, dry-aged for 42 days, aced everything on the table.

Craftsteak's grass-fed rib-eye tastes like beef used to taste in the days when free-range was a fact, not a marketing buzzword. Chewier than corn-fed cuts, beefy but not gamey, and hinting, I thought, of sunshine and rain. I loved it, but if fork-tender is your fetish, go for the filet mignon. Ours was plump and juicy and served au naturel, no sauces needed, but, Judy opined, a bit of béarnaise would be nice. At the mention, our waiter fetched a ramekin of freshly made béarnaise. Build your own meal? Said and done.

Only the rack of lamb disappointed. Tender, tasty but startlingly skimpy, it consisted of three thin chops alone on a plate. Who likes skinny chops? Nobody here in steak- house heaven.

However, our desserts at Craftsteak departed from the ordinary with gusto. With eight candidates on the ballot, we were trying to elect four. Monkey bread was unanimously voted in because none of us had a clue what it could be. When it arrived, we were hard put to describe it. A cross between sticky bun and bread pudding, perhaps? With poached raisins and candied pecans and whipped crème fraiche. Sturdy, not-too-sweet, it was unexpectedly homey. As was a peach crumble, topped with cinnamon streusel. Chocolate financier was as rich and intense as we always hope it will be and sparked with a fresh strawberry compote. 

But the killer thrill was a black cherry soda float made with Boylan's soda-the real, the original, the one and only Boylan's-served in the bottle with vanilla ice cream in a soda-fountain glass alongside. But wait, there's more. Black cherries and chunks of freshly baked brownie were mushed around in the glass. Pour in soda, stir, sip, get foam on your upper lip. Is that a Coney Island roller-coaster ride or what?

But we daydream. What's the score? Craftsteak is suave and tasteful, serves stupendous steaks and brand-names a food philosophy most of us are eager to embrace. It's expensive, but when the time and the inclination to splurge converge, this is the place. 

Lunch daily 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner daily 5 to 11. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $9 to $28, main courses $25 to $101, desserts $12.

Craftsteak, Ledyard

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