For the sheer scale and ambition of the project, one would be hard-pressed to find fault with anything on the menu. Mr. Carmellini’s years running Boulud Sud (1998-2005), his long successful run at The Dutch and Locanda Verde, and his general Midwestern openness have equipped him with unimpeachable technique, just as Mr. Wise’s years under Tom Colicchio have.
The appetizers, under the heading French Market, include dishes of great subtlety—like thinly sliced raw Maine scallops served lightly dressed with a sauce aigrelette, so sublime as to be a saltwater sacrament—and dishes of simple pleasures. Les olive vertes, picholine and nocerella, were warm. More restaurants should warm olives, because they are awesome.
Those oysters “Sargent,” actually Blue Points, are jazzy riffs on a classic, fantastic and thalassic. Softened by seaweed butter, topped with toasted nori and wakame, which is like the kudzu of the ocean, and baked, their brininess has been softened in the process, but their marine minerality astutely sharpened.
Astute is exactly how I would describe most of the food. Inspired? Not really. But smart and perceptive, certainly. Raclette, a cheese too often confined to blanketing potatoes, ennobles a very good brisket burger at lunch. Muscat grapes, like capers, are used to great effect, as in a perfectly prepared dorade, where they cameo in an update of sauce veronique, or at lunch, where they top little grilled shrimpies and are studded with capers. (Capers and grapes are the biggest culinary coups here.)
And Mr. Carmellini does land as well as he does sea. The steak frites, which came tremendously undercooked and almost raw, was salvaged by the fries, pick-up sticks of crispy cholesterol. And the excellent foie gras terrine, accompanied minimally with rhubarb and brioche, is beyond reproach.
In the final analysis, the food isn’t anything to write home about, for the same reason letters from the front can’t capture the horrors of war. They just can’t be quarantined from their context. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t—for better or for worse—transcendent. At Lafayette, it’s for the better. Lafayette is the three-legged stool of food, space and time. Knock out one leg and, like Shoeless Joe in Field of Dreams, the place becomes insubstantial when ex situ. But it’s that shimmering elusiveness that assures immortality.
As in many sanctified spaces, the ghosts of Time past still rumble around Lafayette. Years ago, at Fez, I remember seeing the Mingus Big Band. Sue Mingus, Charlie’s snow-haired, severe-looking widow, would call changes from the banquette.
Those guys knew something about space, and they knew about keeping time. Baritone sax player John Stubblefield used to weave his way between tables with his big horn around his neck, blowing the booming first notes of the classic Mingus tune “Moanin’”. The line starts on an A that falls precipitously to a low and almost silly-sounding B-flat.
Stubblefield died in 2005, shortly after Fez closed. But, as I sat among the blessed of the world in their fairytale France of Lafayette, I remembered that at that time, in that space, all his notes sounded true, even the flat ones.