Restaurants: A true Craftsman
Mike Phillips' successor, Benjamin Jacoby, makes the menu his own.
Like many practitioners working in the restaurant industry, Craftsman chef Benjamin Jacoby started at the bottom: a 14-year-old washing dishes in the ridiculously small kitchen at the former Chet's Taverna. In the intervening seven years, Jacoby worked his way up until he was sous chef to chef/co-owner Mike Phillips. "I kind of grew up there," said Jacoby. "It's where I learned to love food, and cook food."
Jacoby followed his mentor to the Craftsman in 2006. When Phillips left the restaurant about 18 months ago -- to focus on producing charcuterie at his Green Ox Meat Co. -- Jacoby stepped up to the stove. Since then, he's been slowly making the menu his own, all the while honoring the lessons he learned from Phillips.
Including, it would seem, preparing gnocchi. "I've been working on the recipe since I was 16," said Jacoby, who is now a year shy of 30. Practice evidently makes perfect, because those potato gnocchi boast a delicate, mouth-melting texture that pairs beautifully with pieces of house-smoked chicken and rich, flavorful sun-dried Italian tomatoes, the whole shebang splashed with a bit of tangy crème fraiche. It's a stunner of a dish.
Ditto the superb pork chop, a showcase for Jacoby's commitment to made-in-the-Midwest products, in this case sweet, juicy pork from Waseca, Minn., farmer Tim Fischer. It's also an exercise in restraint. Jacoby doesn't muddle the pork's gold-standard flavors with a marinade. Instead, he relies upon salt and pepper and the heat of the grill, a formula that unlocks even more tantalizing caramelized flavor. It's a monster of a thing, and it's served with creamy, gold-hued mashed potatoes, the kind of combination that pretty much demands membership in the Clean Plate Club.
Jacoby is enormously proud of his charcuterie, and he should be. He picked up his enthusiasm for the cured meats from Phillips, yet he's also forged an effort to create items that separate him from his predecessor's legacy: a ruby red and black pepper-kissed duck breast prosciutto, an exceptional coppa, several silky terrines and wonderfully rustic pâtés and rillettes, all served with sharply pickled vegetables and other pitch-perfect accoutrements.
Other disarmingly simple grill dishes include lamb chops and a hanger steak, along with a trio of expertly seasoned and cleverly topped burgers, made using turkey, beef and lamb and served with the kind of freshly cut fries that routinely defy self-discipline. It's tough to imagine a more decadent Reuben, and on the lighter side, Jacoby has an eye for selecting and presenting top-of-the-line local cheeses, and a flair for gravlax, turning each bite into velvety bliss.
That said, a lamb pancetta carbonara -- what a cool idea -- was something of an ill-defined mess, and a pair of entrees -- butternut squash- and chèvre-stuffed cannelloni, polenta smothered in sautéed winter veggies -- didn't step too far outside the vegetarian comfort zone. Also, the pace from the kitchen can be maddeningly glacial.
But there is more than mere promise in Jacoby's work. He's the real deal, both a rising star and a worthy successor to Phillips' much-lauded tenure.
February 23, 2012