With The Craftsman New American Tavern in Encinitas, Wade and Kristi Hageman have created a companion eatery to their popular Blue Ribbon Pizza. The Craftsman makes a bolder splash, with more expansive farm-to-table offerings featuring hearty and sophisticated dishes that toe the line between comfort and gourmet.
The Craftsman doesn't have the trendy Coast Highway real estate of its sister restaurant, but it does occupy a cozy space along an always-busy street (207 El Camino Real). The interior has an easy, rustic charm, with warm wood and mason jars bursting with greenery. A giant sketch of a pig dominates the wall (and the website, craftsmantavern.com), with helpful lines dissecting the tastiest parts of our porcine friend.
The Hagemans do animal products quite well, as the piggy pic foreshadows, from in-house sausages and porchetta to steak and lamb. I'm one of those eaters lamenting the loss of pâté on California menus (please don't yell at me; I've heard all the pros and cons), so I happily zeroed in on the chicken-liver mousse with pickled onions.
The mousse came thickly slathered on crisp, toasted country bread, topped with fatty yet-feathery cracklings, providing an occasional bit of salty crunch. The mousse was light and creamy, rich with flavor, with a just-sweet aftertaste. I could have eaten toast after toast with a crisp white wine and considered the meal a smashing success.
But, oh, the burger sounded so tempting. The Craftsman doesn't reinvent the patty; it merely starts with quality grass-fed beef and then piles on strong flavors like a salty bacon-onion marmalade and smooth blue cheese. This is how I like my burgers: meaty with a bit of a twist. Sharing the stage with the burger was a plentiful cone of duck-fat fries.
I feel like duck fat might be the emperor's new clothes of the food world, and at the risk of getting drummed out of the Food Writers' Club (or at least having my official polo shirt confiscated), I don't get the fuss. Though claims abound that duck fat is healthier for frying things (when, really, not frying things is what's healthy), people mostly wax rhapsodic about the glorious taste it imparts. I don't get it. You know what makes fries—and everything else, for that matter—taste good? Salt. The duck-fat fries that came with my burger were delicious because they were hot, crispy and well-seasoned. You could have told me they were fried in Wesson, and I still would have given them a thumbs-up.
Despite the jolly pig on the wall, there's also lighter fare to be found. I was impressed with the Porcini Crusted Cod. The earthy mushrooms combined with the moist ocean flavor of the fish made for a light and clean meal. Served on a bed of velvet-smooth potato purée with a delicate mushroom broth, the fish dish was filling without being heavy.
The Hagemans know food, and they know hospitality. The Craftsman is accessible and tasty any way you slice—or fry—it.
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