Next time you’re waiting three-deep at the bar for a table at Balthazar, consider Lafayette, a 10-minute walk uptown where the thinner (so far) crowds are happily sucking shrimp heads and quaffing $21 flutes of Billecart-Salmon Champagne.
Credit Andrew Carmellini -- the guy behind Locanda Verde (an Italian trattoria) and The Dutch (an American chophouse) -- for opening a Balthazar-competitor that’s quieter, quicker and less cramped; where the bartenders graciously transfer your drink tabs and where the main event is chicken for two. Lafayette’s another winner.
The golden birds turning on the rotisserie confer a heady, homey perfume to the surroundings. The low heat gives the meat a soft texture; feel free to shred the flesh with your fingers. The skin isn’t crisp as in roast chicken, but delicate and satisfyingly unctuous. Gorgeous.
This all costs $38. Or $72 at Balthazar if you’re so inclined.
Chef de cuisine Damon Wise sends out raw scallops with sea salt and olive oil at exactly the right temperature to show off the sweetness of the scallops and fragrance of the oil.
Pickled ramps tame slightly bitter Jersey asparagus, to which Wise adds cubes of fried pork trotters for depth. Follow that up with soft shell crabs, oozing their juices into basil and olive purees. Pair it all with an off-dry Engelgarten ($22, an Alsatian blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois), and there’s your non-pareil dinner on a 100-degree day.
Lafayette, like almost every Carmellini spot, serves tripe. The version here is braised with bacon and red wine and finished with bone marrow.
“Meh” moments are rare on Lafayette’s long menu -- a forgettable octopus here, warmed oysters that taste like spa food there. Two big misses stick out: Beef tartare is an $18 fail, mushy meat with the flavor of salad dressing. The $32 steak frites is a pass as well, with a one note-beefiness that’s drowned by herb butter. That’s a big N.G. for a bistro.
Carmellini, who insisted on overcooking his pastas when Locanda first opened, has reformed. Firm spaghetti comingles with rare tuna, confit tuna and charred tomatoes. The result is a brilliant briny mouthful ($23). Squid ink fettuccine rocks just as hard, with sweet shrimp, smoky chorizo and an olive-slicked maritime tang ($21).
Bouillabaisse, in Lafayette’s opening month, was a $75 affair, studded with musky langoustines, tender lobster tail and garlicky rouille. The current version, at a more accessible $33, has been demoted to a supporting role for black bass. The sharp pernod-spiked sauce, studded with croutons, still steals the show.
Duck au poivre ($29) is epic, packing the tenderness of filet mignon, the punch of game and the mouth-filling heat of pepper. Devour it with an earthy $14 Syrah and swear off steak forever.
What charms Lafayette lacks -- the sprawling interior wouldn’t seem out of place at a downtown Cincinnati hotel -- are made up for in utility. I once sought refuge from a sudden storm (along with a bridal party and a dozen others) in Lafayette’s commodious bakery, late in the afternoon, when the doors of many other venues are locked.
The reward? A salty-sweet pain au chocolat ($3.50).
Jen Yee and boulanger James Belisle are the talented forces behind this half of Lafayette. Yee’s whimsical sweets -- bitter orange Creamsicle-style eclairs, chocolate sausages and birthday-cake macarons -- push her into the ranks of New York’s most au courant pastry chefs. I’ve caught myself peering over her counter, like an impatient 6-year-old, before dinner’s even over.
Do we finish with Yee’s fragrant strawberry delice at the table? Or do we make a run for the pastry counter? There are no losers in that debate.
Rating: ** 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: Most dishes under $35.
Sound Level: Close to 80 when full but always tolerable.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside Tip: Try the trout roe-topped deviled eggs ($9).
Special Feature: Banh mi sandwich for lunch ($14).
Back on my own dime? Yes, especially for the bakery.
Lafayette is at 380 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212-533-3000 or http://lafayetteny.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Eat, don’t talk.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Katya Kazakina on hot art.