Andrew Carmellini’s gracious French cafe and bakery has a long history… and a future as a game-changer for NoHo.
Though not all of us have been stomping this city’s streets long enough to recall every in and out of New York restaurant history, the flash-in-the-pan “it” spots and beloved-but-now-defunct institutions live on in a certain way. This is particularly true downtown, where the most recent renaissance of streets or neighborhoods dates back merely a few decades–a short enough period for some people to remember the whole story.
One of those people, presumably, is Josh Pickard. The restaurateur is a partner along with chef Andrew Carmellini and Luke Ostrom in Lafayette, a grand and lovely French cafe that opened recently on a prime Noho corner. This covetable piece of real estate, with its sprawling footprint and high ceilings, has been in Pickard’s possession since the late 1980s, when it opened as long-running go-to Time Cafe, and beneath that, Fez Lounge. Most of us remember its last incarnation, as Jeffrey Chodorow and Joe Ng’s haute dim sum haunt Chinatown Brasserie (said to be relocating to a smaller space nearby).
It’s a location where all the names in downtown New York restaurants seem to have converged: Serge Becker (Miss Lily’s, Super Linda, La Esquina) was Pickard’s partner in Fez. A rep tells me that nightclub was a predecessor to Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater up the street – where, as it happens, Carmellini recently debuted the Library. “We’ve come full circle,” the rep tells me over lunch at Lafayette’s long, glossy bar. “This is where Josh started his career.”
A few of us delight in all this history, but most diners probably don’t care. And that’s just fine, because Lafayette at face value is replete with enough charms that it could be airlifted to a strip mall in Plano, Texas, and would no doubt become an immediate hit. Like the partners’ Tribeca smash Locanda Verde, Lafayette is an all-day hang. Come for morning coffee and pastries at the French bakery up front. There you can choose the day’s bread from among loaves studded with olives or walnuts, pick up a bag of house-made granola or malted milk balls, or indulge in an airy tart or macaron that seems lifted from some fairyland. Then drop by for a business lunch in the dining room’s lovely daylight hours, or return by evening for a convivial dinner.
The cavernous dining room has been tamed by design firm Roman and Williams, in whose handiwork you see echoes of the other Carmellini-Pickard-Ostrom spot they decked out, the Dutch in Soho. Instead of one giant see-and-be-scene space, Lafayette is composed of intimate and cozy nooks at two different height levels. In classic bistro fashion, everything gleams: the white-painted walls, dark-wood floors, brown leather banquettes, and vaguely old-fashioned light fixtures.
Also shiny is the huge rotisserie station, where golden-crusted fowl, hunks of lamb, and other promising proteins rotate on full display. Whether you go the roasted route, opt for some of the excellent house-made charcuterie (the foie gras kills it) or choose something lighter and more seasonal from Carmellini and chef de cuisine Damon Wise’s menu, you will likely be delighted. I could scarcely dream up a dish more springlike than the trio of sublime scallops served over spring pea puree with tarragon and morels that I tried recently. And I couldn’t stop stuffing myself from the charcuterie sampler board.
There’s a creative cocktail menu and serious French wine list, plus a focus on that class of lighter quaffs known as aperitifs. These will likely be the drink of choice for the 80-seat sidewalk area set to open soon. When the crowds fill that space, as they inevitably will this summer, it will represent the next evolution for this storied address, not to mention the neighborhood that surrounds it.