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 negot...
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 Boulud’s 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 it’s possible to dine on platters of chicken-fried quail without having to make the slog out to Williamsburg or Bushwick.
So it’s no surprise that Carmellini’s latest venture—a big, spangled, category-killing brasserie called Lafayette—is 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, there’s 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 it’s 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 Carmellini’s 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 you’re 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 they’ve captured that real French-brasserie feeling,” said an actual Parisian at my table, as she ate the generously portioned, Côte d’Azur-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 you’ve fattened up on the pastas, y