The theme is the all-day French brasserie, in the style that Keith McNally nailed at Balthazar and a bunch of other places. If McNally has proven anything, it’s that this type of restaurant can print money, if it’s done right.
So far, printing money is Lafayette’s major accomplishment. It reproduces the genre faithfully, and reasonably well by New York standards. If it can remain this good, after the critics have finished with it, Lafayette could even be essential. Of course, it could also become a mediocre tourist spot, like McNally’s Pastis. All options are open.
It’s hard not to be wistful at the thought of talent squandered. Carmellini at Café Boulud was one of the best three-star chefs in town, and his success at A Voce showed that it was no fluke. When he opened Locanda Verde, you could at least understand why he aimed low: the city was still recovering from the financial crisis. Despite that, Locanda Verde turned into a terrific place—as it still is—despite its modest aims.
But the financial crisis is no more. Michelin-starred tasting menus are sprouting up all over town, like spring ramps. Not that that’s the only way to aim high; but it is one of the ways. Carmellini no longer has to aim low. Apparently, he wants to. Whether Lafayette turns into another mediocrity, like The Dutch, or becomes a solid (if uninspired) asset, like Locanda Verde, remains to be seen.
You would certainly have high hopes for Lafayette if Damon Wise, the current chef de cuisine (formerly of Craft), remains in the kitchen. He’s your insurance policy if Carmellini wanders off to open food trucks in Dubai, or whatever next suits his fancy.
The menu is right out of the brasserie playbook, with various charcuteries ($16–30), fruits de mer (oysters from $2.50–$4.75; plateau $82), French Market (mostly snacks, $5–18), hors d’oeuvres ($11–18), pâtés (pastas, really: $18–24) and entrées ($22–33).
Eggs Lafayette ($9; above right) are a great way to start: hard-boiled eggs with smoked sablefish and trout caviar, two to the order.
Soft Shell Crabs ($18; above left) with zucchini and sauce bagnettou were a pleasure. Asparagus ($17; above right) were at the heart of a terrific seasonal salad, with ramps, smoked egg, and trotters.
Beef tartare ($17; above left) was given heft with a nearly indetectable helping of bone marrow. Fleur de Soleil ($18; above right) is a delightful pasta that Mario Batali could serve, with snap peas, pancetta, and mint.
The wine list is a highlight: 12 pages, all French, with bottles ranging from $40–475, and twenty-five selections by the glass, from $9–22. This is a wine list that would reward repeat visits, all by itself. A 2008 Bandol, which the sommelier decanted for us, was $85. I haven’t looked up the retail price, but how many just-opened restaurants would even have it?
The cocktails are also worthwhile, but what stood out more was the bar’s refusal to transfer the tab to our table. Aside from that lapse, service was very good—better than I expected, from a place that has been packed since the day it opened and clearly doesn’t need my endorsement.
I come away from Lafayette wishing it were more, believing it still can be more, and hoping — at the very least — that it won’t devolve into anything less.
Lafayette (380 Lafayette Street at East 4th Street, NoHo)
Food: French brasserie/bistro classics, generally well prepared
Service: Mostly very good
Ambiance: A bustling brasserie