Certain cooks slavishly copy conventional wisdom during the course of their careers, while others go out of their way, perhaps too slavishly, to try to redefine it. Then there are those chefs, like Andrew Carmellini, who manage to negotiate the endlessly changing fashions of their day in an effortless, perfectly timed way. Carmellini was Daniel Bouluds chief lieutenant during the last days of haute cuisine, and when that blew up, he opened the excellent upmarket Italian restaurant A Voce. When New Yorkers began clamoring for simpler, more comforting food during the recession, he turned out meatball sliders and rustic bowls of pasta at his popular Tribeca establishment Locanda Verde. Shortly after that, as the great locavore tsunami hit town, he and his partners Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom opened the Dutch in Soho, where its possible to dine on platters of chicken-fried quail without having to make the slog out to Williamsburg or Bushwick.
So its no surprise that Carmellinis latest venturea big, spangled, category-killing brasserie called Lafayetteis almost perfectly timed to catch the wave of French-food nostalgia that has been building, these last several months, all over city. Like other trendy, recently opened brasseries (Le Philosophe, Calliope, Montmartre), this one offers plates of fresh oysters, newfangled versions of duck au poivre, and twirls of skinny golden frites in soft paper cones. Unlike the others, theres also a Balthazar-like boulangerie up front, where you can purchase fresh-baked croissants and pointy baguettes and ogle trays of overpriced pastries displayed under glass. The tall, airy room on Lafayette Street features Continental-style picture windows and spacious coffee-colored banquets, and its easily the prettiest, most workable space that Carmellini and his team have occupied since they began hatching restaurant ideas over a decade ago.
In my experience, the food at Carmellinis restaurants gets better with age, but at Lafayette my tasters and I found several decent things to eat right off the bat. The former Craft chef Damon Wise has been recruited to run the kitchen, and he and his cooks produce slabs of grainy, wine-colored country pâté studded with pistachios ($16), and a cool, properly smooth foie gras terrine garnished with sweetened rhubarb. The small-plate toast dishes popularized by Jean-Georges at ABC Kitchen are called tartines here, and you can get them piled with spoonfuls of opulent duck-liver mousse ($8) or Selles-sur-Cher goat cheese, decked with tomatoes and slivers of fresh radish. My classic beef tartare ($18) was a much better deal than the mealy Hawaiian prawns ($19 with sauce verte), but if youre in the mood for serious feed, begin your dinner with the lardon-rich salad frisée, which is served on a plate the size of a small hubcap.
I think theyve captured that real French-brasserie feeling, said an actual Parisian at my table, as she ate the generously portioned, Côte dAzur-quality seafood salad ($19) and soft slices of boudin noir, which the kitchen plates, tastefully, with a scattering of green garden peas. She was very complimentary about the pastas, too, which include flower-shaped Fleur de Soleil noodles ($18), made in-house and dressed with specks of pancetta and more garden peas; tangles of Provençal-style squid-ink fettuccine bombed with shellfish and bits of smoky chorizo; and chewy shell-shaped coquilles macaroni smothered in veal ragout. Various exotic pasta specials also tend to pop up on the menu throughout the week (if they have the lobster ravioli, order it), although the dish we all liked best in the Les Pâtes section was the perfectly al dente risotto, folded with mushrooms, fresh asparagus, and a creamy Parmesan sauce.
The entrées are the most prosaic part of the menu at Lafayette, although if youve fattened up on the pastas, you may not care. My order of steamed black bass was a little too blandly steamed, and my friend, a bouillabaisse snob, thought Carmellinis large, stewlike bouillabaisse royale was just serviceable, and that the accompanying pot of rouille was thin. The eagerly awaited rotisserie chicken for two ($22 per person) turned out to be wet and overbrined (This is not LAmi Louis chicken, the Parisian lady said), although nobody had any complaints about the New Age duck au poivre ($29), which was seared to a perfect crisp and dressed with kumquats instead of oranges. The weakest components of the lamb chops Marocaine ($28, with couscous and carrots) were the lamb chops themselves, so if youre in the mood for some red-blooded meat, order the flatiron steak-frites, which the kitchen crowns with a pat of gently melting butter infused with béarnaise.
Lafayette is designed, like Balthazar, as a full-service operation, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and like Keith McNallys seminal brasserie, this one seems to be attracting its fair share of boldfaced names, at least in the early going. On a recent afternoon, the table next to mine was occupied by a group of festive, flamingolike models, and across from them was Julianna Margulies picking primly at a salad. My own niçoise salad was exceptional ($21 with seared toro, instead of tuna from a jar), and so was Carmellinis rich, oniony brisket burger ($17), which is served at lunchtime only, with a topping of caramelized onions and melted Raclette cheese. The desserts (an uneventful chocolate tart, the always popular beignet) tend to be less noteworthy. The exception is the buttery apple tart for two ($19), which is served with a sky-blue jar of crème fraîche, stuck with a wooden spoon.
380 Lafayette St., nr. E. 4th. St.; 212-533-3000; lafayetteny.com
Hours: Breakfast bakery Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to close, weekends from 8 a.m. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 3:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $19; entrées, $26 to $33.
Ideal Meal: Small-plate tartines, spring-mushroom risotto, flatiron steak-frites, apple tart for two.
Note: The bar serves a faithful selection of French apéritifs (Pernod pastis, bonal; both $12) and an excellent classic Sazerac.
Scratchpad: One star for the handsome, commodious brasserie space, and another for the solid brasserie menu.
*This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.