April 29, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Lafayette Anew

 Pastry Chef Jen Lee’s “Apple Tarte Fine Pour 2” with Batterkill Farms crème fraîche.
Pastry Chef Jen Lee’s “Apple Tarte Fine Pour 2” with Batterkill Farms crème fraîche.

          In the old days, ancient times to some of you, a restaurant could open quietly, perhaps after rehearsals for friends and family. Then it would hope to weed out a front-of-the-house goofus or two, while the chef drove the kitchen crew to race at full speed. The Times' gentlemanly restaurant critic, Craig Claiborne, would stay away for three months or so. I, the critic then at an influential city weekly, raring to exercise similar restraint, might manage to stay away, maybe, six weeks.

“Boulangerie, Patisserie, Café” is painted on the big arched windows luring you inside.

          There were only two or three critics that counted anyway. Not ten thousand yelping, foaming at the mouth, self-appointed fork-heads. The religion of “I eat, therefore I am a restaurant critic” had not evolved. Nor were there a hundred communication outlets for peepers reporting a rip in the construction paper hiding a new restaurant facade, or a gleam in an entrepreneurial eye, even before the lease is signed.

Copper pots, chickens turning on the rotisserie, chefs in classic tall toques on view.

          But never mind, we live in the now. No way a box office star like Andrew Carmellini could hope to fire up the ranges at Lafayette, spring’s most anticipated launch, discreetly, only for invited friends and family. No, not without a surge of demand for tables, an invasion of klieg lights and iPhones. 

Per Se veteran James Belisle does Lafayette’s bread in a kitchen below: See the pastries.

          How quickly they find the way: Sedate Upper East Side burghers from the chef’s days at Café Boulud. Elderly unfashionables willing to eat at 5:30 just to say they were there. Wise guys lumbering up to the podium, confident they can persuade the unarmed hostess it’s in the house’s interest to see they are seated. The nocturnal nomads always in search of the new and stiletto’d fillys and stallions that once claimed the VIP room at The Dutch. There is the static of cheek-grazing, much macho-hugging of the chef’s partners, Luke Ostrom and the entrepreneurial Josh Picard.

          In an off-stage moment, Picard seems clearly exhausted by the visitations. But how thrilled he must be that Carmellini’s longing to cook French again, and this stylish “Grand Café” has reinvigorated this Romanesque Revival landmark, once the setting for his Time Café and the popular Fez downstairs, and most recently, the remarkable Chinatown Brasserie that never was as popular as it deserved and needed to be.

Through the works of the bar clock guests in the party room can watch the action.

           I’m early. Picard leads me past a pair of chefs tending the open rotisserie, into the unfinished party room. There, I can look into the dining room through the workings of a large clock set in the backlit bar. It’s a vintage indulgence that reminds me of the movie “Hugo.”  The bar is already two and three deep with folks waiting for the early birds to pay up. Two young women sip coffee and nibble pastries at a counter in the bakery-café. A waiter passes with bouillabaisse in a copper oval.  That familiar perfume of lobster with saffron, tomato and butter hits my nose. It looks very French and smells “Frenchie” too. 

Stir in some of the fabulous rouille to add zest to the elegant bouillabaisse for one.

          My friends and I settle into a caramel leather booth, so deep the ‘bussers’ cannot reach our plates to clear. I sense this is an ultimate VIP table in the handsome Roman & Williams designed sprawl with rosette bistro lights that line the arched windows, brass sconces, and the staccato of inlaid woods in shiny enameled white walls. “Listen,” I cry to my pals. “We can talk without screaming.”  Indeed, that sand-colored stuff on the ceiling is sound-proofing. A rare and benevolent gesture these days when the painful din seems to be deliberately built in.

Marinated sweet peppers, with fermented crème fraîche to spread on excellent bread.

          The waiter announces “a gift from the Chef,” La Riviera: a wooden board with ovals of radish in one groove, marinated red and yellow peppers with capers in another, and an island of luscious cultured crème fraîche to spread on the house’s marvelous bread. We’re devouring it and already on our second basket of bread as the kitchen strains to service a house so quickly at capacity.

“Eggs" is one egg stuffed with Russ and Daughters smoked sablefish and trout caviar.

          Finally, starters.  I have to be careful tasting my one half of one half of eggs Lafayette, which is actually one chicken egg split in two, brilliantly stuffed with pricey smoked sablefish and topped with glistening trout eggs. I love it and want to finish it off.  I suppose we should order another.

A dab of mustard and a bite of cornichon add oomph to the perfect terrine maison.

          The terrine maison (that’s what it is, though it says “pâté maison” on the menu) has a fresh clean taste. It desperately needs a wakeup dab of the mustard that comes with it. It’s almost there, like most everything tonight -- the unremarkable grilled octopus with smoky eggplant, the not-quite-rare-enough steak-frites, fries not quite hot enough, the chicken for two on onions and sliced potatoes that is remarkably moist, perfectly okay, but missing some spirit.

Chicken for two with potatoes and onions in drippings gets better on each visit.

          The house-made fleur de soleil pasta with snap peas, pancetta and mint would be better with some flavorful broth. The rouille that comes with the bouillabaisse is excellent. I could eat it with my fingers if it didn’t come with toasted slices of baguette. But the fish stew itself could be more lusty. I feel Carmellini and Chef de Cuisine Damon Wise struggling, the kitchen overwhelmed in that early visit with tables turning even after 10 pm as we are gently encouraged to pay the check. The ingredients are there. Pâtissière Jen Yee’s classic “APPLE TARTE FINE POUR 2” with Battenkill Farms crème fraîche. Her small beignet to dip in milk chocolate mousse or  heavenly passion fruit butter. Intense blueberry sorbet. But nothing to write home about.

A blur of traffic through tall, arched windows is not quite Boulevard Raspail but…nice.

          I remember the first weeks of Balthazar. “It's hard to believe Keith McNally didn't dig up a corner of Montparnasse and ship it directly to Spring Street,” I wrote then. It came with a bakery that looked like Paris and bread we couldn’t stop eating. The chefs, Riad Nasr and Lee Hansen, also from Daniel Boulud’s kitchen, struggled to keep up with the frenzy of table turns, but I wrote, “the food is already better than what you'll eat in most Paris brasseries.” 

Oysters in a painting by Sargent inspired the look of Carmellini’s with toasted nori.

          Back again, I find Lafayette's kitchen timing is still off, but there’s no passion lacking in the baked oysters Sergeant with seaweed or the seafood salad with its sublimely perfect sea creatures, tossed with celery and chickpeas, afloat in a thin sea of juice from the shells, olive oil and lemon.

Remarkably moist rabbit in a casserole with green olives and pommes paysan.

          The rabbit is remarkably moist too (as it often is not elsewhere) in a casserole with small potatoes, crushed tomatoes and bits of bright green olive. The grilled Berkshire pork chop could be moister and more flavorful but not the small square of confit’d pork belly alongside. That’s more than just right. And the lentils laced with French curry are classic. My companion reluctantly sneaks one last bit of the confit.

Grilled chop and confit of Berkshire pork belly with lentils du Puy and French curry.

          I’m feeling possessive with the pasta I ordered too. “Coquille” it said on the menu, meaning shell. The waitress tells us they are ears. But in fact, the pasta turns out to be large elbows, marvelously lush with veal ragout and brebis, ewe’s milk cheese and like all the pastas, house-made.

The menu says “coquille” with veal ragout and sheep’s milk brebis. I say, wonderful.

          At the next table, pastry chef Pichet Ong is sampling all the house desserts. The Cordon Bleu trained Yee made her mark at Aureole and worked most recently with Sho Shaun Hergatt. Shattered slabs of meringue are the signature of her burnt honey vacherin with apricot, cardamom and mint. My companions seem excited by the sweet cheese cramant with blueberry sorbet in a deep bowl painted with blueberry streaks.  I’m put off by broken crumbles of cornmeal croutons, tossed on top. That’s not my idea of a vacherin. The cramant doesn’t seem French to me.

Shards of baked meringue crust Jen Yee’s apricot, cardomom vacherin.

          My friends stop at the bakery to buy Danish and croissants for breakfast. We are all planning to return. The house opened for lunch last week and any minute the kitchen will start serving breakfast in the café. It’s Andrew Carmellini’s vision after all. He is not an Iron Chef and you won’t recognize him from TV because that’s not what he cares about. He is a scholar of cooking. Friends who worked with him comment on his arcane knowledge.

Sweet cheese with sparkling Crémant, blueberry sorbet, cornmeal croutons.

          He told The New York Times he always knew he wanted an Italian restaurant. Locanda Verde. An American restaurant. The Dutch. And now French.  Lafayette.  He spent months in France cruising restaurants, tasting for this moment.  I do not doubt he’ll get it right.

380 Lafayette Street, on the SE corner of Great Jones. 212 533 3000. Bakery opens at 7:30 for coffee and pastries. Full breakfast restsaurant service from 7:30 beginning Monday May 6. Lunch noon till 3:30. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 till 11. Friday and Saturday till midnight.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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