Two tables away from me a man, having just sat down, is petting the banquette, running his palm along the thick scrolled top and giving his wife a little “wow” nod. Like us, he’s sitting at what Lafayette calls “The Lovers’ Deuces,” six demi-booths designed for side-by-side seating. These banquettes are indeed seductive: the leather is law-partner quality, the length makes them cozy, not confining, the curved ends are like an affectionate palm cupping your shoulder, and the seat itself is plump and slightly concave. It’s the pinup version of a banquette.
These booths epitomize what Andrew Carmellini is doing at his latest restaurant, Lafayette: Taking much of the brass out of the brasserie. Making the genre softer, more sensuous, more worldly than the venerable French prototype and giving it a culinary passport. He and his designers, Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors, who also did The Dutch and Locanda Verde, have kept some brasserie hallmarks—conviviality (the high-ceilinged, Bergdorf-windowed dining room seats 160), tile work and a zinc bar, bentwoodThonet chairs, and of course, plus de banquettes.
But the overall idea was, “Let’s not have red,” says Standefer. “We wanted to be timeless, but we wanted to be fresh. I’m not an archaeologist.” Translation: Lafayette is the un-Balthazar, and Standefer cheerily admits that the presence of the McNally-conjured period piece just a few blocks away afforded the designers a certain freedom. “Why try to outdo New York’s brasserie benchmark?” she says.
If the menu is Carmellini’s “love letter to France,” then he wrote a lot of it from abroad. The charcuterie board and the pâtémaison, the plateau de la fruits de mer and the steak frites with béarnaise butter are a salute to the traditional brasserie kitchen. Lyon gets a nod in the House Boudin Noir and the TripesBourguignon, and Nouvelle cuisine in the subtle-robust steamed black sea bass with artichoke barigoule.
But like the design, the menu is brasserie a-go-go. In some dishes, Carmellini uses French as a kind of accent aigu: the Hawaiian prawns come with sauce verte, and the silky, chive-flecked Taylor Bay scallops (encore, s’ilvousplaît) with sauce aigrelette. In others, he gets jazzy, using the restaurant’s formidable in-house bakery—James Belisle was the head baker at Per Se and for the Bouchon restaurants—to provide the bread for a tangy, spirited tartine, here made of Maine crab.
But France just isn’t big enough for this brasserie. In the end, Carmellini crosses borders (scallops à la plancha), coins culinary esperanto (coquilles with veal ragout, spaghetti niçoise), and headlines one section of the menu in French (Les Pâtes) in order to speak Italian: That’s the heading for the pasta dishes.
Carmellini was born in Ohio to an Italian family. He learned French working in Paris. His spokesperson says that “the space determined the concept.” The 17-foot ceilings, the columns, the corner expanse at Lafayette and Great Jones Street, formerly the home of Chinatown Brasserie and Time Cafe, is absolutely right for a brasserie. But here it’s a metaphor—and a good one. I can’t help thinking that Italy is still Andrew Carmellini’s oyster. 380 Lafayette St., 212-533-3000