Thursday, October 10, 2013


What ever may or may not have been taking place during the incipient stages of Lafayette, Andrew Carmellini has tied up any of the loose ends and fashioned them into an intricate, beautiful weave like a hand-tatted doily.  Carmellini is one of those smart, super talented chefs that can cross genres, and pulls them off flawlessly.  Locanda Verde (Italian) is going strong coming up on five years, The Dutch (New American) is so busy it's next to impossible to get a table and Lafayette (French) is destined to become another gilded notch on his collar.  And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Lafayette took over the old Chinatown Brasserie: it's a big restaurant, with additional outdoor seating that I was able to take advantage of given this revisit to July-like temperatures (thankfully, with slightly relenting humidity).  Under breezy cobalt blue umbrellas, we pulled up sturdy picnic chairs to a marble table.  Angled away from the busy traffic of Lafayette street, you could almost imagine yourself in a grand cafe in the south of France.  White-washed wood and glossy white subway tiles set off the blue accents, giving it a Provencale air tres authentique.  It would behoove you to begin your meal with a cocktail: their list is provocative- fresh and seasonally balanced.  I tried the Crochet Rouge,  a bourbon-based drink that sipped subtly of malt and brightly of citrus, expertly balanced and supremely drinkable.  Our genial sommelier helped us unearth an unfamiliar wine (from their rather pricey list).  We procured a reasonably priced ($45) bottle of WEinbach Sylvaner, and marveled at its robust perfume, and lusty body.  I dubbed it the Marilyn Monroe of white wines, voluptuous and tantalizing.  It paired well with our entire repast.

As the wine was voluminous in flavor, so are the dishes.  Many salads are big enough to split, and at these prices, that's not a terrible idea.  I think one could probably get away with sharing an appetizer and entree, each with a side and dessert plus wine, and come away feeling regally sated for under a $100.  Going the traditional route, however, will tax you noticeably more.  Extraordinarily crisp local butter lettuce is heaped on the plate, anchored down by crumbles of exceptional, pungent Roquefort and swaths of
 country ham in a light herbal vinaigrette.  Even better is the roasted beet root tumbled with soft,
 earthy tufts of mache, tempered ribbons of pickled red onion, crunchy caramelized cashews on a dense pillow of fragrant bergamot yogurt, gently citrus and unctuously rich.    There are several other appetizers I'd avidly return for, including an octopus with charred eggplant, although I'm sure if I do I'll be too late for the arugula with organic strawberries or the heirloom tomatoes with feta and pancetta.  There are French Market offerings we missed as well, such as sweet peppers and breakfast radishes, and a tempting Maine crab a la nage.  Heartier options like pate or tartare might endure a little longer.

A return visit might also include the highly recommended black fettucine, or cocquilles with beef cheek and brebis- both dishes that remained in the running right up until crunch time.  Lamb chops Marocaine made up for any carnivorous deficit, however, luckily ordered medium (because even then were on the rare-ish side), three chops teepeed over beady Israeli couscous and some confited shoulder, melted leeks and whole Lilliputian carrots.  Plates are fairly well-balanced, including vegetables and starches not necessarily noted on the menu.

 Thus, a side of brussels sprouts may not have been requisite, but they were wildly appreciated- fearlessly roasted with thick chunks of bacon and horseradished smudged with garlic.    Not to be missed, even if you don't think you need them.  East coast halibut was another last hurrah
 of summer, perched atop a sweet slurry of corn with a vermillion sauce poivree.   Wood-grilled trout, however,  trumped of the piscine dishes, its silky flesh permeated with a profound smokiness, reminding why this fish is so commonly used in appetizing.  The lingering char trickled down into a toothsome bean ragout, which mingled a variety of legumes with yellow and green haricots, all brightened with a vibrant  orange-inflected citronette.

For a finale, we went out in grand style: a Belles Poires tart for two, which was easily big enough for four or more.  Gossamer layers of buttery pastry cradled tender, spiced pears in a thick smear of
pistachio custard.  A small scoop of cooling yogurt sorbet kept its distance so as not to sog its ethereal crispness, but ready to anoint individual bites as desired.  Belles, without question.  Perhaps even more remarkable (and I guessed it!) was the sublime coffee (decaf!) served alongside: Stumptown at its absolute finest, thick and chocolately, gulpably smooth but sippably decadent.  This was certainly among the best coffee I've ever had... and how fitting.

Our waiter bid us adieu with a somewhat scripted adage, but his sincerity behind the words was unmistakable.  So it is with anything that chef Carmellini touches.  Perhaps there was a hiccup or two upon opening Lafayette, but he is a chef much too smart, much too talented, capable and respected to have left any of that to persist.  Perhaps our waiter's words were a bit foreign to his tongue, but given a little time, he'll have it rolling out as effortlessly and eloquently as Lafayette has shaped up to be.

380 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 533 3000

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