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The Craft House review: Nautical Mile restaurant offers upscale tavern fare, finely tuned cocktails

Located on Woodcleft Ave in Freeport, The rustic and cozy Craft House offers three very different dining spaces -- a quiet back room with booths, a classic bar with high tops and televisions and an outdoor terrace overlooking the Nautical Mile. On Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, chef Cassandra Quinlan-Ashford prepared one of her specialties -- an autumn nicoise salad with duck breast. (Credit: David Pokress)

The Craft House

42 Woodcleft Ave. (on the Nautical Mile), Freeport

516-665-3950

COST: $$$

SERVICE: On point and knowledgeable, rarely stifling

AMBIENCE: Three very different dining spaces: A rustic, cozy front dining room with a rathskeller-like bar and thick wooden tables; a quieter back dining room with booths; and a classic working bar with high-top tables and televisions. Across the street is an outdoor beer garden with a scaled back menu.

ESSENTIALS: Open Tuesday to Sunday 4 p.m. to 4 a.m.; handicapped accessible; parking is challenging, find some on a side street.

Steamers and beer. For most of my life, this is what I figured people came to the Nautical Mile to find. Whether as a kid eating on the Freeport strip after a fishing trip or as a carousing 20-something, Woodcleft Avenue seemed to be a string of places that mirrored each other — restaurants and outdoor bars where food took a back seat to a canal view and copious booze.

The Craft House, which opened on the Nautical Mile this summer, doesn’t totally dispatch with that raison d’être — drinks and food, possibly in that order — but takes those preconceptions and twists them around. Beer and cocktails, even wine and coffee, are far from rote here — in fact, they would be superlative anywhere. And the food, from wakame-laced shrimp salad to burgers smeared with bacon jam, is chef-driven — and you get the sense it’s what the owners might like to eat.

Those owners, Vincent Minutella, Liam Whyte and Bob Miller, also run Mineola’s The Black Sheep Ale House, plus a craft-beer bar across Woodcleft Avenue. Their latest venture seem intuitively designed: There’s a casual working bar to one side; a quiet back dining room with booths; and an intimate front dining room with tables wedged into nooks and a craft-cocktail bar resembling something from a Flemish painting.

Craft House chef Cassandra Quinlan-Ashford is a culinary-school-trained Long Island native who spent two decades on New York City’s restaurant scene (Tabla, the Savoy, Judson Grill, and The Skylark, among others). Though her dishes could loosely be construed as gastropub fare — exemplified, maybe, by a finely tuned charcuterie board piled with cured meats and a Gorgonzola for the ages — the chef plucks from other traditions to keep things interesting.

For instance, a pair of steamed bao buns, street food that usually appears filled with pork, are stuffed instead with tender lobster meat — bold and creamy in one bun, warm and buttery in the other.

Kohlrabi, a much underutilized vegetable, is made into a slaw for some fried bluepoints with wispy edges and a smear of dijonnaise — super delicious. Deviled eggs, a gastropub standard, are slightly smoky and dotted with translucent balls of trout roe.

Most arresting of all, at least visually, is a flight of house bacon, a 2-D sculpture of belly slivers cured for five days then rolled in different spices, served with brew cheese and very pungent mustard. Nab the ones slathered in Sriracha and brown sugar before everyone else does.

Fat and salt are drinking food staples, but the kitchen’s comparatively healthier plates are on equal footing, from a creamy roasted carrot soup with gentle Indian spices to a gingery shrimp salad tumbled with wakame and crunchy vegetables. A clever riff on a Nicoise salad that subs rosy-pink duck breast for tuna is an enticing autumn switcheroo.

These plates are solid chaperones for The Craft House’s well-considered drinks; there is a superb craft beer menu, a rotating legion of gems — a few IPAs, sure, but also sours and dark beers aplenty and my personal food-friendly favorite, a tart Berliner weisse from southern England. Wine lovers are treated with love, too — wines are adventurous, even by the glass — and head bartender Tracy Johanna creates masterful cocktails, from a crowd-pleasing nutty Amaretto sour to a frothy rye sour garnished with hop cones.

Entrees are finely put together, but sometimes don’t resonate as clearly as smaller plates. A lot of care (and a really good bird) seems to have gone into a roasted partially deboned half of a chicken that’s deeply caramelized and moist. But it has too many flavors going on, from herbs to glaze. Braised short ribs are fork-tender and velour-like, but somehow blunted in flavor; sea scallops, though carrying an excellent sear and a puckery beurre blanc, also taste muted and tentative.

Pub food, instead, carried the meal’s latter portion: A fantastic fish and chips of cod with thick chips that gamely soak in a dousing of vinegar. And the pub’s messy get-in-your-mouth burger, with Cheddar and mustard and barely sweet bacon jam. (Ask for the duck fat fries.)

At The Craft House, we were happy to let our hair down a little, as is the Nautical Mile way, without sacrificing flavor.

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