For restaurants in New York, there are spaces blessed and spaces cursed. The accursed kind is inevitably occupied by a telltale loser parade of strangely named tenants, like FR.OG, and ill-begotten concepts, like a “barstro.”
During their short lives, these places are as barren as Sarah, as lonely as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and as shifty as a carnival barker. Nevertheless, observers can’t help but be touched and a little awed at the enduring capacity of man to think he can succeed where surely he can’t. Sound the sad trombone.
Those spaces in the tabernacle of the anointed don’t see as much turnover, but they have similar tells. They bustle at night and hum during the day. In springtime, their patios are full of people. Black town cars idle in bike lanes before their doors, presenting a threat to the atmosphere—and to bicyclists—but that matters little to those within. At these tables, beyond these gates, it’s already paradise. Lafayette, Chef Andrew Carmellini’s long awaited grand cafe, which opened in March, is located in such a blessed space.
Twelve years ago, when I first moved to New York, the space was Time Cafe, a mediocre restaurant with a mural of the Mojave, a burger under $10 and an absolutely terrific downstairs club called Fez Under Time Cafe, which gave underage kids the chance to drink, unknown acts the chance to sing, and headliners like Johnny Cash and Jeff Buckley the chance to slum it. It closed in 2005 after a long and happy life and was replaced by Chinatown Brasserie, which didn’t dry up for six years and was most notable for a real tough bartender named Rainlove Lampariello (who told me his “parents were hippies”). After that rainbow dissipated, Lafayette appeared.
On a recent Tuesday evening, the sprawling restaurant felt like the set of one of those Garry Marshall ensemble romantic comedies. It’s the place where Ashton and Julia would eat on their magical first date. Like The Dutch, one of Mr. Carmellini’s other restaurants, Lafayette was designed by Roman & Williams, the husband-and-wife firm behind the Ace Hotel as well as the sets of movies like Zoolander and Addicted to Love. They are masters of golden-glow maximalism.
Even in real life, the crowd—and there is always a crowd—was from central casting. Windswept women with perky breasts, perfect highlights and ballerina flats sat with men whose stubble was so well groomed it looked more formal than the depilated cheek.
As I was led to my table by one of three siren hostesses in black dresses and white pearl necklaces who had greeted me with a beauty so strong it felt like a wall, not a welcome, the seated women followed me with their Westchester blue eyes, flicking their tongues over the teaspoons of crème fraîche that accompany any good tarte, as if to say, “The man I am with is wealthier, more handsome and more successful than you. Nevertheless, I’d be down for a quickie, if you want to meet me in the restroom.” I too was in paradise.
Much as I imagine heaven to be, Lafayette is more theme park food court than restaurant. There’s a patisserie, kitted out with perfectly formed baguettes and pain de campagne in a spread straight out of Amélie. There’s a zinc bar, lit softly by a large glowing custom clock designed by Roman & Williams. There’s a rotisserie station, where skewered Amish chickens, never Jewish or Cathlolic ones, rotate on a spit. But most of the space is meant for sitting.
Downstairs, in what used to be Fez Under Time Cafe, there’s a vaulted private dining room. Upstairs, there are 12 tables abutting plush leather booths along Great Jones Street, where the tables are large and the ballers are seated; a purgatorial space where Jeffrey Chodorow was eating on the night I visited; and a tucked-away alcove where those beautiful hostesses seat the ugly and people with babies. But as I said, the ugly are few.
For all of Lafayette’s pageantry, the menu is remarkably sober and, if anything, a bit cautious. Mr. Carmellini, assisted by Damon Wise, the longtime chef of Craft and short-lived chef of The Monkey Bar, sticks to the classics. He has drawn from nearly every region of France. The Mediterranean is amply represented by a salade Niçoise at lunch and a spaghetti Niçoise at dinner, and by the general preponderance of capers. But there’s also tripe Bourguignonne, Lyonnaise charcuterie and something called oysters “Sargent,” inspired by John Singer Sargent’s Oyster Gatherers of Cancale. Since Sargent was a man admired for his technical facility, if not his originality, one can see why Mr. Carmellini likes him.
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.