The first thing that strikes you about Craft & Commerce, a restaurant on Beech Street at the fringe of Little Italy, is the design. From the faux ivy exterior…
…to the well-balanced mix of contrasting materials and tones of the interior, the design is remarkable. It is at once open and nearly claustrophobic. It uses cold steel and earth tones, industrial items and homey wood, a blown-up photo of a Jello advertising mascot and a library. The juxtapositions bewilder, fascinate and somehow work spectacularly.
Would that the food met the same lofty standards. Where the design is impeccable the food is imperfect. It is not bad – in fact, at times it is interesting – it just is not great.
On one visit, I had Craft & Commerce’s BBQ Pork Belly Banh Mi. I’ve established that I’m a fan of BanhMi and have quite favorably reviewed a pork belly version previously (http://sdfoodtravel.com/san-diego-miho-gastrotruck/). This one was a little bit different. The addition of a fried egg was an interesting touch. The pickled vegetables were a creative spin on the original. But somehow it did not quite all work together. One issue was the presentation. It was, quite literally, difficult to fit the thing in a mouth. And every productive step taken toward doing so sent the egg yolk oozing out of the sandwich and the pickled vegetables crashing to the tray. And then there’s the fat. Instead of coating the tongue with the essence of meaty goodness – what a pork belly is supposed to do – it seemed overly rendered and oozy. It was, in short, some good ideas that were less than perfectly executed.
Perhaps the best of the lunch offerings was the simplest: a grass-fed beef burger, their “original.” Not exactly original — nor particularly theirs – it is well executed, and paired with the sweet potato fries it is a good lunch. A bit pricey at $11.00, perhaps – and with a somewhat snooty “no ketchup” policy – it nonetheless works.
Perhaps, though, the dish that best summarizes the food at Craft & Commerce is the Ham & Cheese, their version of a Croque Monsieur. The classic French offering is, essentially, a grilled ham and cheese sandwich featuring excellent ham and Emmental or Gruyere cheese on the inside, often topped with a Béchamel or Mornay sauce. It is one of those French things of perfection that depends on the delicate balance between the ham and cheese as well as the juxtaposed textures of crunchy grilled bread and gooey cheese. It would have been, of course, a perfect culinary embodiment of everything that makes Craft & Commerce’s design work so well.
But it did not quite come off. It was, somehow, all out of balance, with the cheese being the main culprit. Instead of framing the ham and offering a contrasting texture to the bread, it was loose and runny. It was not physically pleasant to eat and seemed to cry out for some acid note that, while hardly classic, might have brought the flavors back in line. Count it as an opportunity lost.
Ultimately, instead of echoing the superb balance of Craft & Commerce’s design, the Ham & Cheese highlighted the restaurant’s lack of culinary balance. The space makes it a pleasant place to spend a lunch hour. Shame the food does not match.