At first glance, Jean Lafitte might seem like just another pleasant midtown restaurant for a business lunch; in other words, exactly the sort of place its namesake wouldn’t be caught dead in. Lafitte was a pirate, more at home crossing swords on the deck of a frigate than discussing book contracts over a bottle of Perrier. His swashbuckling image is at odds with the bourgeois comforts of the wood-paneled dining room, except for the old French movie posters hanging on the walls (among them Le Grand Sommeil , avec Humphrey Bogart et Lauren Bacall).
Lafitte was the stuff of a bad 40’s movie, a renegade who pillaged Spanish ships in the Gulf of Mexico and sold his booty through a blacksmith shop in New Orleans. In return for a pardon from Andrew Jackson, he did a bit of gun-running against the British (some say he even won the war for Jackson). But-it was in the blood-he ended up a pirate again. He liked fancy clothes and pretty women, too, and of course good food. I could see Jean Gabin in the role, cocky but vulnerable, with Marlene Dietrich as his raw-boned, predatory New Orleans flame.
In fact, the maître d’ at Jean Lafitte looks like he could be Jean Gabin’s brother. The restaurant, which is now in its 14th year, is owned by Eric Demarchelier, with his brother Patrick and Christian Courtin Clarins (of the cosmetic company). It seems to attract an older, more respectable clientele than you find at Demarchelier, their raffish bistro on the Upper East Side (more Clarins
On a recent evening, the dining room was filled with staid middle-aged couples, some of them French, dining by the light of votive candles that glowed inside little frosted igloos etched with scenes of Paris and galloping huntsmen. The walls of the dining room, which has near perfect proportions, have been repainted a creamy vanilla, the banquets reupholstered in burgundy.
Until the end of last year, Jean Lafitte served traditional bistro food with a few Cajun dishes such as jambalaya and catfish thrown in for good measure. (After all, the pirate’s portrait does hang over the bar.) The cooking was decent without being anything to talk about. But now a new chef, Eric Gonzales, has been installed. He was formerly at Bernard Loiseau’s La Côte d’Or in Saulieu, and most recently at Clairefontaine in Luxembourg. He describes his food, deriving from his native region, as “nouvelle Provence.” That means garlic, olive oil, tomatoes and herbs, obviously, but then his cooking takes off in unexpected ways. This is not a menu to skim briefly before settling on the steak frites. The dishes all sound so interesting it is hard to decide what to have.
To start, there is a terrine of garlic confit, which seems like an odd idea. But it consists of whole creamy cloves nestled inside a delicate, clear chicken aspic, accompanied by a heap of chopped celery and chervil leaves seasoned with lemon and salt. “A Dandy in Aspic,” remarked a friend. “It is one of those unexpectedly perfect dishes. The salad reminds me of a recipe by Marion Cunningham for parsley-not foodie-approved flat-leaf parsley but the curly kind-just chopped and seasoned with salt. Wonderful.”
Also wonderful were two other salads, one made with gently cooked leeks, black truffles, Parmesan cheese and roasted tomatoes, the other consisting of small fingerling potatoes sliced and topped with a round of black truffle so they stared up at you like cartoon eyes. They were generously sprinkled with truffle oil and served on field greens. You could smell the truffles across the table.
As food from the Mediterranean becomes increasingly popular, New Yorkers are getting accustomed to the fact that all sardines aren’t created by spontaneous generation in the can (and as Alan Bennett, the sermonizing clergyman in the 1964 movie Beyond the Fringe , put it: “Life is like a sardine can; there’s always that little bit in the corner you can’t get out, isn’t there?”). Mr. Gonzales makes a remarkable dish I had never had before, consisting of fresh sardines served on a confit of peppers and anchovies and baked inside a pine nut crust topped with puff pastry. In another interesting twist, he takes socca, a coarse pizza made from chickpea flour that is street food in Nice, cuts it into thin tartlets the size of a quarter, and serves them with puréed and stewed artichokes.
The service at Jean Lafitte is very professional, although one evening, perhaps because of the complications of the new menu, it was rather slow between courses. But the food was worth the wait. Rouget, or red mullet, was cooked with mozzarella, a coulis of black olives, red wine and basil. Fillet of sea bass was topped with a layer of mashed potato and its crisped skin, surrounded by picholine olives. The turbot was strange, a little wet from being soaked in smoked milk, and served in a dark red wine sauce with carrots and cumin.
I loved the sweet, intense sauce with the squab and its delicious crispy potato pancake, and the duck glazed in spiced honey, cut in pink slices and surrounded by powdered cinnamon. Sweetbreads were good, too, scented with thyme and licorice and served with stewed green onions and clafoutis of mushrooms.
For dessert, I wasn’t sure about the “mousseline of avocado ‘orange-lime’ with gooseberry caramel and chocolate tuile.” The waiter shook his head. So instead, we opted for the more conventional hot flourless chocolate biscuit (more of a soufflé, actually) with vanilla pine nut ice cream, and a fine crème brûlée with pears.
“Salted greens!” said a friend when his plate arrived. “They’re back!” They were, both with a compote of red fruits with raspberry vinegar and with an exquisite basil-lemon parfait. The combination was odd, but it worked.
On the way out, my friends made a reservation for later in the week. “I want to come back just so that I can have that truffled potato salad again,” he said. Jean Lafitte would have liked it, too.