Hundreds of restaurants open in New York City every year, but only a few open with the press, fanfare, and excitement of a Hollywood blockbuster. At this point, Andrew Carmellini should be referred to as food game James Cameron. The dude goes big. Real big. He’s learned how to manipulate all the right loud-mouthed, powerful people into his corner and can roll out a restaurant better than anyone else in this city. Which is exactly why people have been talking about Lafayette, his new French monstrosity, for what feels like forever. We were in the minority when we dropped a so-so rating on Carmellini’s last big premiere, and we’ll continue to stand by our “good, not great” take on The Dutch. But this time around, we are happy to report that we’re fully buying the hype. Balthazar, you had a good 16-year run, but it’s time to step aside. Lafayette is now the quintessential French bistro of bustling downtown NYC.
Lafayette is an impressive place. It’s a massive restaurant in a space you’re probably familiar with, previously home to Chinatown Brasserie and Time Cafe. The huge room is populated with cushy booths as far as the eye can see, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. And even with all that space, people are still spilling out of every crevice, drinking at the bar, having a croissant at the bakery in the front of the restaurant, or gathered in the downstairs cellar/private dining room/late night party lounge. It’s really crazy just to see how much there is going on in this place at any particular moment, and yet Lafayette keeps it’s sh*t together pretty well.
Part of that successful execution seems to come because Lafayette is most certainly not cutting corners. Close attention is paid to every detail, and therefore the service is pretty much flawless. And even with all the bells and whistles here, it’s the simple things that impressed us the most. From the fresh-baked bread, to the french fries, to the butter lettuce salad, the basic things tend to be the most memorable. From there, scoping the massive menu here is kind of like browsing at your favorite store: you want to buy everything. Raw bar, meats and cheeses, crudo, tartare, handmade pasta, steak frites, bouillabaisse, rotisserie chicken for two, wood fired things, dessert... the options are endless. We were actually considering holding this review until we had eaten every dish on every menu. Not because it was necessary, but because we wanted to. Then after four trips and nearly $1,000 spent, we figured we’d stop right there. At least until one of us qualifies for a loan or something.
Lafayette isn’t going to be the best meal you have this year, but it’s definitely going to be one of the most fun. The beauty is that Lafayette treats you like an A-lister, even if you’re not.
Soft cheese, toasted bread, wood roasted sweet peppers and whole radishes... this is a delicious way to kick off your meal.
Everything Lafayette does that employs the services of bread is pretty much a win. A light, citrusy Maine crab salad with aioli on top of toast? Yep, this is good.
They didn’t miss a beat with the crudo, either. This raw scallop starter is fresh and delicious.
Is it weird if our favorite item at this entire restaurant is the butter lettuce salad? It’s absurdly good. The first time we came here, our waiter was going on and on about this thing like his own mother was back there making it herself. We have since ordered it every time we’ve eaten here. Big, soft, leafy green leaves of lettuce are topped with some shaved veggies, Roquefort, thin slices of country ham, and a perfect herb vinaigrette. Even if you’re not someone who usually gets down with salad, you should order this.
With so much going for Lafayette’s salad game, the frisée wound up being a disappointment. We found the dressing to be way too acidic, and it completely overwhelmed the dish. Also, our lardons were too dried out. We know that’s how they’re supposed to be in a classic frisée, but these just seemed to be overcooked and on a mission to take out one of our teeth.
We’d estimate that 99% of restaurants have some form of salad with chicken on it profiled on their lunch menu. We’d estimate that 0% of those restaurants have one as good as Lafayette’s. We’ll get into their chicken in greater depth below, but it’s served sliced and hot off the rotisserie, on a bed of greens with an amazing tarragon poppy dressing.
This is about as good as a fancy steak tartare can get. It’s finely chopped with just enough herbs and egg in the mix, and is topped with a little blob of bone marrow. This will be a regular order on every return trip.
This spring pasta is incredible. The house made “flower”-shaped pasta comes in a light cream sauce with snap peas, pancetta, and mint. It’s light but fresh and full of flavor. If it’s on the menu, you want this.
They do a better spaghetti niçoise than they do salad niçoise, that’s for sure. It’s a cute idea to lay slices of rare tuna on a big bowl of spaghetti, and it tasted great. But our one complaint was that there wasn’t enough tuna. For a $20+ bowl of pasta, we would hope for a tad more than four small slices of fish.
We loved this. The dense pasta had a nice balance of crunchy things, spicy things, and fishy things all mopped up in an awesome sauce. We’re still thinking about this one. Order it.
As we’ve said before, octopus is either amazing or bad, and sadly this one fell closer to the latter than the former. There was barely any octopus on the plate - we got four chewy tentacles and a whole lot of smoked eggplant. Skip it.
It was between the scallops and the wood fired dourade, which we saw another table get and immediately regretted not ordering. But once the scallops came, we forgot about all that. They did a great job with these jumbo scallops, stacked high with all kinds of veggies and stuff. You can’t do it much better.
Keep in mind, this isn’t the NoMad or Commerce or anywhere else that laces chicken with foie gras and stuffed black truffles and sh*t. This is simple, straightforward chicken out of a rotisserie, and it’s delicious. No bells and whistles, just juicy, flavorful bird in a big cast iron skillet to share.
Temperature was a bit of an issue on one of our trips, as we were served a lukewarm steak and cold fries. It was bad enough that we actually had to send it back, which is rarely something we do. They got it right on take two, and while the steak was great, it’s the french fries that stole the show. One can get a nice bottle of wine, a butter lettuce salad, an order of fries, and dessert and go home a very happy camper.
Reason enough to come for lunch. The burger is legit. Look at it. You want that.
Where to start? Well, since we haven’t eaten our way through too much of the bakery yet, here’s where we’re at: The apple tart for two is ridiculous. Order it, even though it’s $19. The light donut holes otherwise known as Beignet Maisons are solid, but not life changing. We could have gone for a thicker chocolate mousse for dipping, but the passion fruit butter on the side was awesome. The chocolate chip cookie gets a B-. Not chocolaty enough and too dry. And the best thing we’ve had is the almond croissant, which is absolutely incredible.