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The baked oysters “Sargent” with seaweed from the hors d’oeuvres menu

Big Pain, Big Gain

by Gael Greene | Manhattan magazine | May 28, 2013

Are you a new restaurant junkie? Your pulse speeds and your restaurant-obsessed heart is already beating faster as you walk into Lafayette, landing so close to its iconic French boulangerie. Your eyes home in on the rustic loaves, the plump baguettes, the fruit-studded breakfast pastries in their baskets, and you want something, quick, a chewy crust of anything, yes, now before dinner.

Oh yes, dinner. The food world is already here. This is Andrew Carmellini’s new “grand cafe.” That’s what he calls it and the press has fallen for the grandeur. I think it’s a gorgeous brasserie. A grand cafe has tablecloths. Rectangles of paper on the table signal to lower your expectations. It won’t be a serious steak. It will be a flatiron steak-frites. For $26. And the rotisserie chicken for two will be just $22 per person. And aren’t you grateful, given how many hapless new spots are blinded by dollar signs?

The 5:30 diners are just leaving. Upper East Side seniors exit in triumph. A wedge-shaped tough delivers his credentials at the podium, demanding to be seated, as an early wave of compulsive first-nighters heat up the bar waiting for tables to clear.

Chefs in classic tall toques work the rotisserie in front of a row of empty bentwood chairs set at the counter for eating. Hanging copper pots are a pretty illusion. There are tiny two-tops up front and booths so deep the waiter can’t quite reach dishes to clear in artfully divided spaces a few steps up.

“I wanted to create a feel of many small rooms,” says Josh Pickard, partner now with Luke Ostrom in all of chef-owner Andrew Carmellini’s ventures—Locanda Verde, The Dutch, The Library at the Public, W Hotel in South Beach. And now Lafayette, instantly a downtown magnet in the Romanesque Revival landmark that once housed Pickard’s Time Cafe and the bar-lounge Fez below. The Monday it opened at 5:30pm there was already a line waiting at the door.

For me, a fan of the now defunct Brasserie Chinatown, the rich new Roman and Williams design—brass and leather, flower-shaped bistro lights, intricate wood marquetry—sweeps away chinoiserie reveries. It’s bright enough to see a boldface somebody across the room and that sand-colored stuff on the ceiling is acoustical. You can hear yourself talk without screaming. That and the marvelous bread is my best memory of our first dinner.

Wait, let me also mention the marvelous Lafayette eggs, actually one egg, sliced in half, stuffed with pricey smoked sablefish and crowned with trout eggs from Russ and Daughters. The chef lives nearby and picks it up himself in the morning. The peppery rouille that came with so-so $50 bouillabaise is memorable too.

The excitement at Locanda Verde was full-blown on the plate very early. My first meal at The Dutch blew me away. But there are 160 seats here, and another 84 when it’s warm enough to open the outdoor cafe. I feel Carmellini and Chef de Cuisine Damon Wise inching their way to mastering the crush.

Back a few nights later, I find the house studded with food world royalty. Paul Liebrandt on his night off from Corton. Pastry master Pichet Ong tasting all Jen Yee’s desserts. Ruth Reichl across the way. Elizabeth Falkner who left stardom in San Francisco to do pizza at Krescendo in Brooklyn and left there in May. New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle. There’s a long pause between courses, but our threesome has already been wowed by the baked oysters “Sargent,” with bits of toasted nori and wasabi, and the coquilles pasta which is not shells, as the name suggests, but large elbows with veal ragout and the sheep’s milk cheese brebis. A savory toss that still haunts me.

The sign says Salle de Bain—that’s where you take a bath, cheri—but it leads to the W.C. In the ladies room two tourists who’ve rolled in with their suitcases ask my friend if they should stay. “The rabbit casserole is amazing,” she assures them. There’s a gasp and they roll back out the door.

Nothing about Carmellini is frivolous unless you count the bathroom sign. He tasted 40 different butters to find the one he liked best. “For great bread, you have to have great butter,” he tells me over the phone. He has a woman in California sending him spring vegetables from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. He doesn’t just go to Battenkill Valley Creamery for creme fraiche, he spends extra money for their milk and cream too. But rather than bring cheese from France, he buys a big block of local goat cheese fresh and has Murray’s age it for him. He’s invested in the Lamborghini of pasta extruders here—“All of our pastas are made in-house with 100 percent organic non-GMO flour,” the menu promises. From now on, he says, he plans to make all the pastas in all his restaurants. There will be more Lamborghinis.

So don’t expect avant-garde Paris or intimations of a Michelin three-star. There will be no stylish sous-vide prep here. The Moroccan chops will come off the rotisserie. Duck breasts will be browned in butter. The waiter will deliver mustard and cornichons with a simple, very clean terrine maison. It’s called a pate on the menu. There will be tripe bourguignon and blood sausage for those who crave innards. And any number of familiar options for those who would rather die than eat rabbit.

“We’re getting better all the time,” Pickard confides when I settle in for my third dinner. And it’s true. I am with a new set of food-world friends. As before, the bread and the essential butter set us up in a positive mood for the evening. The chef again sends out a Riviera platter. Knifes cross over the swatch of thickened creme fraiche, requiring yet more bread. “Where is the bread?” one of my guests complains.

“It takes a few minutes,” our server explains. “We have to cut it to order.”

The lush duck mousse with cherries and walnuts piled on the house walnut bread stirs a rush too. I float back to earth, wantonly thinking about ordering a second. But the roasted beet salad, piled high with mache and frisee, punctuated with hazelnuts and enriched with fleur verte has arrived. And we share the scallops a la plancha my companion has suggested as a starter. These are perfectly cooked—caramelized and rare—decked out with spring peas, morels and pea sprouts.

It’s just a steak-frites—the flatiron cut—nothing more, but that’s classic bistro too, and it is really rare this time, as ordered. The béarnaise butter spooned on top is sloppy. I’d rather have it as a sauce to dip the very good fries in. The rotisserie chicken really works this time too, lemony, with a roasted half-globe of garlic, sliced potatoes and onions softened and glossed with the bird’s drippings. The spring risotto cooked in mushroom stock is refreshingly citric too, full of mushrooms and cuts of bright green asparagus.

I want to say I’m happier with desserts too. But the gorgeous apple tart—a must for two or three or even four to share—is nothing more than a very pretty pastry (singed a bit tonight). I’m slathering it with creme fraiche, thinking how much better it might be with a different apple, some lemon, maybe salty caramel and puff pastry by a master.

Lafayette
380 Lafayette St. /Corner of Great Jones Street, 212.533.3000, lafayetteny.com

Lunch: Mon-Fri., 12-3:30pm
Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 5:30-11pm, Thur.-Sat., 5:30-midnight
Bakery hours: Mon.-Fri., 7:30am-close, Sat.-Sun., 8am-close