With lots of belt-tightening, restos like Craft turn to quailty, affordable lunches

GNOCCHI SHINES | The creamy potato dumplings and the flavorful sauce almost excuse a slightly chewy beef short rib at Craft’s surprisingly affordable, streamlined lunch. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)


ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Mexicans laugh at us gringos for eating “lunch” at noon and “dinner” at 6. Go into a bistro in Mexico City — or a lot of European towns for that matter — and you’ll see diners gorging themselves at 4 p.m., with the big meal of the day still yet to come.

Americans are not likely to change their eating habits so radically, but restaurants are catching on that maybe folks would like to enjoy a bigger meal, at a good price, earlier in the day. It helps their bottom line, too, as many eateries — especially high-end ones — are finding themselves wanting for customers willing to splurge a little on something other than gasoline.

Over at Craft — among the highest of high-ends — new chef de cuisine Tim Bevins is flexing his muscle for the lunch menu. Founding chef Tom Colicchio’s traditional style of freshly prepared, family-style New American fare still dominates at dinner, but during the day, Bevins has created more familiar a la carte entrees, most under $12, with service streamlined to give you the chance to explore the textures of Craft without breaking the bank or spending longer than your lunch hour enjoying a meal.

The menus at Craft have never been designated simply “summer” or “spring,” or updated with a Post-It pinned on the corner or chalk board indicating “today’s special.” Rather, they usually contain today’s date — this is what the kitchen thinks is good now. That means, literally, a bill of fare: A small menu printed daily on butcher paper outlining the chef’s best of the day.

The set-up is conducive to sharing if you wanna dine with friends or coworkers, but each item makes a hearty meal in itself, though the bruschetta and chevre with walnut pesto ($8) provides an ideal appetizer: Soft, salty goat’s milk cheese melts in your mouth as the crunch of toast and nuts give it body. (You don’t need it, though: Every meal comes with a complimentary arancini, a baseball-sized risotto cake with a sweetness from the honey-vinegar gastrique.)

I was taken aback by the “duck egg, escargot, asparagus and brioche” ($10). The combination suggested something like an open-faced sandwich, but it was more of a scrambler, with the egg fluffed around a good-sized dish and dotted with escargot and cubes of toast. It’s a surprisingly healthy dish, what with greens and being high  in protein, though you realize why snails are usually doused in garlic and butter: It gives them flavor they don’t inherently have.

The sam’ich here ain’t no ordinary bread-meat-bread stackable. At nine bucks, the croque madame with ham and pecorino cheese and a fried egg floated on top, is the most luxurious single-digit lunch special you’ll probably find in town. Sure, it’s a cholesterol bomb (a handful of lightly dressed frisee does nothing to convince you it’s a low-cal option), but the ultimate in Francophile comfort food.

The kitchen hand rolls the garganelli ($14), a cigarette-sized pasta tube tossed with sweetbreads. If you’re a fan of the thymus gland of a cow (and who isn’t?), you’ll like the spicy bite from the tomato; if not, it’s an excellent introduction to a tasty delicacy that deserves more respect.

I was disappointed by the chewiness of the beef short ribs ($16) — that meat should fall off the bone — but the sauce was flavorful and the gnocchi so creamy I’m surprised they made it from my fork to my mouth. When’s the last time you thought about eating this kind of lunch when someone else wasn’t buying?

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.