Not every talented cook can make the transition from kitchen lieutenant to restaurateur—especially if the skills don’t extend beyond the stove to crafting a menu and scene that diners will dig. Haute French vet Andrew Carmellini—who many moons ago executed classics under Gray Kunz at Lespinasse—has had no trouble hatching venues diners flock to, perhaps taking a page from his other old boss, Daniel Boulud, one of the city’s savviest CEO chefs.
Since going his own way, Carmellini—along with partners Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom—has turned out crackling barn-burners in cuisines outside his training: Locanda Verde (raucous Italian) and the Dutch (an enlightened view of American). So his return to French food at Lafayette was rightfully anticipated: Heads would turn; fireworks would ensue. Yet Carmellini’s new Noho brasserie is more controlled burn than conflagration; you get the warmth and the glow, but not the stunning blaze.
Everything in Lafayette glows: the blue-flamed rotisserie and wood oven, the soft lamps and candles, and the gently backlit bar. The large room enjoys a proper bustle, not a din. Lithe young things tilt their heads over glasses of Sancerre in that golden light at tables, and over at the bar, clutches of suits strain their necks to get the bartender’s attention.
The menu, cooked by longtime Craft executive chef Damon Wise, is suffused with all sorts of food you’ll want to eat, starting with hunks of pain de campagne that have a beautiful rye sourness and chew. Spend some time with the dishes in the “French Market” section: egg Lafayette with smoked sable and trout roe, a sort of Russ and Daughters take on deviled eggs; and scallop cru (as in crudo), served cool not cold, so the briny sweetness has nowhere to hide.
The baked oysters are also a worthy snack, with seaweed butter to temper the salty liquor and toasted bread crumbs for crunch. Beef tartare trades its classic raw-yolk cap for a quivering orb of poached bone marrow; with a dry-aged beef vinaigrette dribbled around, it’s nearly too much for the tamely seasoned meat to take.
“Les pates” (pastas) are tasty across the board, chief among them spaghetti niçoise with raw tuna and roasted tomatoes to ease the steep, salty pitch of olives and capers, and the fleur de soleil noodles—with pancetta, snap peas and mint—which curl in on themselves, yielding a great al dente chew.
All this good food is occasionally undermined by clunky service. One night our clean wine stems were cleared before the bottle had arrived; our water glasses remained empty for a long, salty stretch; and our waiter disappeared halfway through the meal.
Some of the entrées could kill your buzz as well. An eagerly awaited rotisserie chicken for two isn’t nearly luscious enough to justify the absence of a deeply browned, crackly skin (Carmellini cooks a way better bird at Locande Verde). Steak frites lacks char and musky depth, and is drowned out by béarnaise butter. Duck au poivre packs the mineral punch that you wanted in the steak, but again, sadly, no crunchy skin.
Redemption awaits in Jennifer Yee’s skillfully executed dessert menu. Her mango-and-lime parfait—with toasted coconut flakes set against soft, brûléed mango—looks unassuming in its little coupe glass, but tastes anything but. Even better is her strawberry delice, sweet crémeaux tempered by a tableside pour of tart strawberry consommé, and just-bitter blond-chocolate lace for a shattering crunch.
It was the best dish I ate, the only one that made my heart race. And that’s the curious thing with Lafayette—that a decorated chef like Carmellini has created a place where you want to be, but where the food doesn’t ignite much ardor.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Egg Lafayette, Maine scallop cru, baked oysters “Sargent,” fleur de soleil, spaghetti niçoise, mango-and-lime parfait, strawberry delice
Price per person: Roughly $120 can get you a few drinks, a few small plates and a pasta to share, an entrée and a dessert.
Vibe: Josh Pickard, partner in Lafayette, has owned this piece of real estate since the late ’80s, all the way through its incarnations as Time Cafe (with Fez Lounge downstairs) and Chinatown Brasserie, which is said to be moving to a smaller space nearby.
Soundcheck: Appropriately buzzing, but not too loud for conversation
By Daniel S. Meyer
Chinese cuisine hardly needs an introduction: fusion Chinese food has taken the USA by storm. Chinese food is just as popular in New York City as it is on other cities across the world, and as a result the city boasts not one but three Chinatowns! Spread out over three boroughs, there are plenty of amazing Chinese restaurants nearby no matter where you’re staying in New York.
These days, New York’s Chinese food scene is in full-blown revival mode, fueled by red-hot joints like RedFarm and Mission Chinese Food, edging out dated fixations on cheap and “authentic” with promises of locavore and cool.
The latest restaurant to take a 21st-century crack at Chinese is Fung Tu, from Nom Wah Tea Parlor scion Wilson Tang and Per Se vet Jonathan Wu. In their slender, wood-rich room, cultural references are subtler than the typical red-lantern kitsch; spindly Pyrex light fixtures—made by Wu’s artist wife—were inspired by Chinese lattice patterns. They cast a gentle glow on tight-sweatered scenesters and beach-wood booths as stiff as church pews.
Rather than intensifying flavors, Wu’s cerebral plates subdue them. Ribbons of celtuce ($13) are vexingly tasteless, even slicked with buttery popcorn puree and the salty ooze of a soft-boiled, soy-soaked egg. A beige slab of broad-bean curd terrine ($13) is doused with chili oil, but conjures up little more than solid, grainy hummus.
More disappointing than these creative offerings are reinterpreted classics sapped of their trademark allure. Buttery steamed buns ($12) cocoon a mushy, salt-starved mix of vegetables and glass noodles; a bowl of gummy, spaetzle-esque knots of dough topped with heat-deficient chili-pork sauce ($19) are meant to reference mapo tofu, but recall overcooked Hamburger Helper.
Wu’s best dishes summon more assertive flavors. Steamed whole sea bream ($28) is salt-licked by pungent fermented black beans, its silky flesh teetering between briny and sweet. Springy sweet-potato rice cakes ($23) are pure comfort, their meaty chew bolstered by mushrooms, Chinese sausage and crinkly kale.
Those rice cakes give you what you’ve been missing all along, the earthy, wok-fired jolt that makes much of Chinese cooking so seductive. In pursuit of toned-down flavors, Fung Tu too often renders its cooking mute.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Duck-stuffed dates, sweet-potato rice cakes, whole steamed fish
Behind the bar: Wines are inspired by the nutty, fruity flavors of Asian rice wine; as promised by Chicago sommelier Jason Wagner, a watermelon-accented pineau d’anuis mollifies any chili heat.
Vibe: If you’re craving family-style dishes whirling on a lazy Susan, walk west to Chinatown; these delicate small plates were conceived for contemplation, not throwdown feasts.
Cocktail chatter: The oxblood-colored wallpaper panels depict toon leaves, a garlicky spring delicacy that Wu’s grandpa grows in his yard in Yonkers.
Soundcheck: There may be steamed buns on every table, but this is a far cry from the fever pitch of weekend dim sum.
By Daniel S. Meyer
Those who obsessively follow the travails of New York chefs know the story of Alex Stupak by heart. The toque, who built a reputation as one of the country’s edgiest dessert stars at Alinea in Chicago and wd~50 on the Lower East Side, famously flipped from avant-garde sweets to Mexican street food last fall, sending shock waves through the Gotham food scene. That restaurant, Empellón Taqueria, was his first project as headliner. But some critics (like this one) weren’t as inspired by the former pastry chef’s radical shift.
Still, the place was a hit from Day One—popular enough, in fact, to have already spawned an offshoot. The new spot, the taco-free Empellón Cocina, is a return for the chef to more familiar territory: not a sugary retreat, but a step back toward his haute-cuisine roots. This second venture may look more casual than the first—as dark as an East Village saloon, with walls covered in Day of the Dead paintings and a trippy blue rooster out of some peyote-popping fever dream—but much of the food is more creative and high-end than the setting suggests.
Some chefs are like gastronomic Margaret Meads, quick studies in replicating the food of cultures far from their own. Stupak, a notorious tinkerer, is much more original. Everything here is designed for sharing, and a table cluttered with his most impressionistic fare feels Mexican only in the most cosmopolitan sense.
Miniature roasted carrots, in one boisterous small plate, arrive sprouting from an earthenware bowl that’s been artfully streaked with cool yogurt and sweet-spicy mole. And a jagged forest of baby lettuce and fresh masa crackers, propped up by chilled sea urchin mousse and topped with miniature shrimp, is just as wild, with an intense ocean flavor. Another beautiful abstraction features black mole splattered like a Rorschach blot around seared calamari curls, an explosion of super-savory elements with fried potato nuggets and drips of chorizo mayo.
If there were more dishes like these on the menu, the new Empellón might be a transcendent restaurant. But for every upgraded Mexican triumph—the chunky guacamole with shelled pistachios, the queso fundido with sweet lobster meat—there’s a flawed attempt at regional accuracy. The chef’s spin on a traditional tinga from Puebla—a peasant stew made here with shredded duck leg and chorizo—has no real depth, with rare slices of duck breast lost under the muddy sauce. And leathery pork ribs are monochromatic too, the chewy meat drenched in a one-dimensional Oaxacan-style gravy made with roasted tomatoes, pasilla chilies and cinnamon.
Desserts, which are the purview of Stupak’s wife, Lauren Resler (a former pastry chef at Babbo), do a better job of bringing high-end polish to real regional tastes. Her marquesote—a traditional jam-topped Mexican sponge cake—arrives deconstructed, the moist cubes of vanilla cake surrounded by bitter orange marmalade, crumbled brown butter streusel and café con leche ice cream. Another refined-rustic creation features a study in sweet plantains—candied, mashed, dehydrated and made into ice cream—in and around a warm shortcake biscuit.
Stupak’s best work at Empellón Cocina is exciting and thoughtful—the kind of food you’d expect from a veteran savory chef, not a newly minted renegade. The more he accedes to his wildest instincts and forsakes the culinary anthropology, the clearer it becomes: Stupak has the makings of a master.
Eat this: Guacamole with pistachios, queso fundido with lobster, roasted carrots with mole, masa crisps with shrimp and sea urchin mousse, squid and potatoes with black mole, vanilla marquesote
Drink this: The bar has one of the most comprehensive selections of mescal in New York, with 41 different selections in 1.5 ounce pours, ranging from the cheap and potent Scorpion blanco ($9) to the complex and exorbitant Del Maguey Pechuga ($38). Try the Fidencio Classico with a pickled-tomatillo-juice chaser ($6). The extensive list of artisanal cocktails includes the Hecho en Humo, an intriguing mix of El Mayor tequila, black-walnut bitters, an intense reduction of Mexican Coke and a hint of real smoke.
Sit here: The front bar is loud and rowdy—a good place for a strong drink and some snacks. The dining room back toward the kitchen is a much more relaxed place for a full meal.
Conversation piece: The wallpaper images—of a black-and-white Pancho Villa and his rebellious compadres—were taken from the pages of a Mexican history book. A street artist named Gaia, whom Stupak met while walking around NYC, did the blue rooster and other graffiti-ish work in spray paint on the walls.
By Jay Cheshes