Finesse in the Familiar: Brunch at Lafayette Grand Bakery and Cafe

As I’ve mentioned before many times on this blog, I would not consider myself much of a thrillseeker. I’ve never been to Six Flags, you won’t catch me buying sriracha, and the concept of bungee jumping seems like  Medieval torture-device-turned recreation to me. The only area I really dare myself to try the new and unconventional seems to be the culinary scene. The more new cuisines and restaurants I try, the more curious I grow about Filipino dishes, or Himalayan food, or what makes an Alsatian dinner distinct from a French one.

This mindset can have its disadvantages, however. I often find myself unwilling to go the safe route when there are so many options in New York, so many opportunities for the thrill of finding a new flavor combination you never even knew you liked. But that can lead to missing out on an equally affecting meal due to its familiarity. Frank Bruni recently wrote a column in the New York Times about the value of being a regular, of returning to a specific restaurant for the comfort, the reliability of the service and menu, and the satisfaction of eating a meal you know will leave you happy. In fact, he mentions the chicken at Barbuto, a place I’d love to go back to, but often overlook because I’ve been there before, and they serve Italian instead of Afghani.

I bring this all up because of my recent brunch at Lafayette Grand Cafe & Bakery. It’s a perfect example of the kind of restaurant I find myself passing over too often in favor of Lebanese or Colombian fare — familiar French dishes executed with a delicate touch. Did I discover anything remarkably new during my brunch? No, but what I did have was a lovely meal with an attentive server, delicious food, and a pleasant atmosphere. It was a great reminder to put aside my foodie fanaticism for a second and enjoy the whole dining experience, from company to table-setting. And that is something that makes a place worth returning to.

First Impressions:

Lafayette -- the of a French cafe inside the body of an American brick behemoth.

Lafayette — the outside of a French cafe inside the body of an American brick behemoth.

Unsurprisingly, Lafayette sits on the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones Streets, evoking the classic bistro aesthetic, but spread out within a massive space. The descriptor “Grand Cafe” makes sense once you enter the restaurant and see how the generally claustrophobic sidewalk French bistro has been blown out to American Super-size proportions. Fortunately, this makes for a very comfortable restaurant, retaining the clean cut style of rich wood, white and blue accents, and light colored marble across a high-ceilinged dining room. Besides the indoor dining area, Lafayette features the largest outdoor seating space I think I’ve seen in New York, wrapping all the way around the corner. We ended up sitting underneath a massive awning because of possible rain, but there were probably 20-25 tables of different sizes within the partitioned outdoor area.

Inside Lafayette -- a larger dining area is up a few steps to the left, and the bakery is to the right.

Inside Lafayette — a larger dining area is up a few steps to the left, and the bakery is to the right.

As they say in the name, Lafayette is not just a sit-down restaurant. Walking in, you come face-to-face with the bakery and coffee shop, which offers takeaway savory and sweet items throughout the day, from baguettes to sandwiches to pastries (tartes, macarons, eclairs, quiches and more). The bakery has some countertop stool seating near the window, and a high table in the center with newspapers on it, for those wishing to pause for a moment while they dive into their danish du jour. I really appreciated the care and attention to detail shown in the selection of newspapers, composed of a wide array of international sources. If I lived a bit closer, I would definitely consider coming down for a petit dejuener and a leisurely read of the New Yorker.

The bakery area, full of unfairly tempting treats like the brightly colored macarons in the lefthand display case.

The bakery area, full of unfairly tempting treats like the brightly colored macarons in the lefthand display case.

The Food:

They have towers of croissants, in case you were concerned about the legitimacy of their French origins.

They have towers of croissants, in case you were concerned about the legitimacy of their French origins.

Lafayette’s brunch menu is made up of traditional fare with a bit a French flair to it, from oatmeal with cognac-stewed fruit to a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a croissant. After drooling over the abundant amount croissants in the display case of the bakery, and in the company of two fellow bread enthusiasts in Jacob and his mother, Brauna, we just had to start with the Boulangerie Basket (an assortment of baked goods with Vermont butter & confiture). Foolishly thinking we would still need a good amount of food after that, Jacob got the Smoked Salmon Benedict, and Brauna and I chose the Egg White Frittata with Mushrooms.

Our waitress was very friendly, and happy to answer all of our questions about the menu, and said it would be no problem to specifically request an almond croissant as part of our Boulangerie Basket. Apparently some lines got crossed in communicating our order, however, because this is the basket that arrived at our table:

An almond croissant for each of us, plus one for Elijah?

An almond croissant for each of us, plus one for Elijah?

Unclear if the kitchen was bitter about our high-maintenance request, or if they just thought we’re really big fans of almonds. Although we probably could have taken those four croissants down, when our waitress checked in on our table, she immediately realized how ridiculously redundant the basket was, and let us keep one croissant while she asked the kitchen for a more varied replacement. Take two:

Muuccchhh better. If I'm going to carbo-load, can I at least get some variety?

Muuccchhh better. If I’m going to carbo-load, can I at least get some variety? Clockwise from the top right: blueberry muffin, pain aux chocolat, raisin-walnut bread, and a plain croissant.

This time our basket was made up of a regular croissant, a pain aux chocolat, a blueberry muffin, and three pieces of raisin-walnut bread. The basket was served with Vermont butter and “confiture,” a French preparation of fruit preserves (apricot in our case). The basket ended up being my favorite part of the meal, which I suppose is understandable given the physical prominence of the bakery and the high-level pastries on display.

The Almond Croissant -- lone survivor of the demise of our first Boulangerie Basket.

The Almond Croissant — lone survivor of the demise of our first Boulangerie Basket.

The Almond Croissant was well worth requesting — the dough was light and flaky, but had a strong buttery quality that melted on your tongue. The almond filling was moist and gooey, not as mind-blowing as Breads’ version, but certainly a very high quality croissant. The Pain aux Chocolat was also good, although less memorable in my mind than the almond — there’s a lightness to the marzipan/almond filling in an almond croissant that I’ve yet to find in a chocolate one. The rich, fudgy center was made of dark chocolate, just on this side of bittersweet. The only downside was the distribution of ingredients. The filling was located too much in the center, so achieving the maximal bite combination of croissant dough and chocolate was a little difficult.

I usually don’t like blueberry baked goods, but I found the Blueberry Muffin surprisingly satisfying. I think it came from the fact that the muffin dough was almost coffee-cake like in texture, a thick, dense crumb that had some real chew to it, plus they used clearly fresh blueberries. I feel like so many of my taste preferences are based on experiences with lesser quality ingredients (you mean Entenmann’s isn’t the height of farm-sourced baking?), so I often surprise myself in the face of premium versions of foods I thought I disliked.

I’m always game for raisin-walnut bread, although it felt a little out of place in this basket of thick, butter-laced dough. That aside, the piece I tried was a solid effort, if not a showstopper (truthfully, most slices I’ve encountered in the US will never hold a candle to the raisin baguettes I ill-advisedly wolfed down in Cannes). Although we made a honorable attempt at finishing off the basket, we did end up having a few pieces of bread left over, including the regular croissant which Jacob doggy-bagged for later. After all, we did have our actual entrees to eat as well.

The partially deconstructed Smoke Salmon Benedict.

The partially deconstructed Smoke Salmon Benedict.

The Smoked Salmon Benedict (“served on brioche with sauce choron”), arrived in a cute cast-iron pan. The menu description was a bit misleading, since the brioche was actually placed off to the side, with the rest of the dish front and center. It was as if someone had slipped the bottom out of the benedict. The poached eggs were served atop a bed of sauteed spinach and smoked salmon, all of which was covered by the sauce choron (a tomato-infused hollandaise sauce). Nontraditional as it was, I really liked this approach, since it keeps the toasted brioche dry and crunchy, and allows you control the proportions of egg and toppings to bread base as you wish. I’m still at the point where salmon is an unnecessary (if no longer outright disliked) part of a dish, but I thought the eggs were nicely poached, and I enjoyed the addition of the tomato to the hollandaise — the acidity helped to brighten the sauce, which I frequently find a bit too heavy for egg dishes.

The Egg White Frittata -- a fresh, if familiar vegetable foray.

The Egg White Frittata — a fresh, if familiar vegetable foray.

The Egg White Frittata with Mushrooms seemed pretty plain from its description, but our waitress explained that the menu really undersells the item. The frittata actually includes the titular mushrooms, plus arugula, cherry tomatoes, and thinly sliced fingerling potatoes. Brauna and my dishes arrived in a colorful, cleanly plated manner, with the pop of the bright, freshly cut tomatoes and the arugula sharp against the softer yellows of the egg and sliced potato base. The interior of the dish revealed that it was clearly made of egg whites, but I swear there must have been a substantial amount of butter involved in the cooking, considering how rich it tasted. It probably sat a bit heavier than a regular egg white frittata, but the lump in my stomach could also have come from the ten pounds of bread I had already scarfed down at that point. Perhaps because of this, I really appreciated the acidity of the raw tomatoes as well as the bitterness of the arugula, and was delighted by the variety of mushrooms included once you cut into the frittata.  The freshness of the produce in the frittata helped to elevate the more bland egg white foundation.

Final Thoughts:

Let's be serious -- this is what France is all about, right?

Let’s be serious — this is what France is all about, right?

Overall, the dining experience I had at Lafayette has stuck with me more than the food that made up my brunch. I certainly enjoyed my meal, and have little bad to say about the specific dishes, but I felt like my frittata and the sauce choron flair of Jacob’s benedict were things I could fairly easily crib for my own weekend cooking. By far, the best part were Lafayette’s baked goods, and I would definitely come back to the bakery for a quick snack and a cappuccino. It’s actually located just down the block from one of La Colombe’s cafes, which is one of my favorite coffee companies I discovered while at school in Philly. I’d expect that I’ll continue to hit up La Colombe when I’m strolling through the area, since I really prefer their brew, but if I want to sit down, read a paper, and relax, Lafayette wins out.

As for the restaurant itself, I think the attentive service and large, spacious dining areas make Lafayette worth trying out for dinner (especially because I tend to prefer non-brunch French food). The relatively low noise level and comfortable distance between tables also make Lafayette a good spot to take your parents.

Embracing a little risk-taking doesn’t mean we have to put aside our occasional desire for the comfort of the familiar. Reliability and classic appeal are valuable and rare commodities in our increasingly multicultural and heterogenous world. Restaurants like Lafayette remind me that sometimes the best toys aren’t the shiniest, and sometimes the best parts of a meal are the people you get to enjoy it with. So call up your parents, your friends, your significant other, and head over to Lafayette for a solid meal in a pleasant setting. Worst case scenario, you walk out with an exceptional eclair or two.

Lafayette Grand Cafe & Bakery

380 Lafayette St (corner of Great Jones)

http://lafayetteny.com/

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A Tale of Two Bakers: Dominique Ansel’s Cronut v. Breads Bakery

All right, my friends, it’s time for a croissant cagefight, a donut deathmatch. We’re talking full on pastry prizefighting. In this corner we have … the up-and-comer, the hot new hybrid, the latest culinary craze to hit Manhattan — Dominique Ansel’s one and only Cronut! And in the other corner … the tried and true technician, the desert darkhorse, the archetypal archduke of allspice — Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant. It’s a throwdown for the ages, and the only type of warfare I readily endorse. So (in what must be a violation of a trademarked catchphrase) … let’s get ready to crumble!

Dominique Ansel Bakery‘s The Cronut:

For those who may be unaware of the Cronut Mania overtaking Manhattan at the moment, here’s a bit of context. Dominique Ansel, formerly of the Michelin-starred Daniel, and currently one of the top pastry chefs in America, recently devised a new form of pastry. His personal Frankenstein’s monster is a half-donut, half croissant hybrid, and therefore was christened The Cronut. Arriving last month, the pastry swiftly sent shockwaves through New York’s foodie scene, eliciting the kind of fervor that might seem more reasonable at a Twilight premiere. Lines began to form at Ansel’s Lower East Side bakery, and as they stretched longer and arrived earlier, Ansel had to start instituting rules (outlined on the “Cronut 101” page of their website — yes, this exists). The bakery can only produce between 200-250 cronuts each day, so customers were limited to only two per in-store purchase, six if you manage to get on the pre-order list — which won’t happen, because they’re already full. Oh, and if you want that in-store Cronut? Better gird your loins and bring some energy drinks along — you’re lining up at 6am for that buttery bad boy. The bakery opens at eight, so pack a sudoku book or two.

None of the above is a joke — this hyperbolic hysteria is actually happening each day in downtown Manhattan. A Cronut black market has developed, with seemingly otherwise unemployed and endlessly patient people offering hand-delivered Cronuts for those willing to shell out nearly 10 times the store price (one Cronut retails for about $5, on Craigslist people are asking for upwards of $50 a delivery, depending on the neighborhood).

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

 

I received my Cronut secondhand as well, but never fear, I did not sink so low as to entrust my dessert delivery to a complete stranger. A good friend and fellow foodie Randeep decided to endure the line and get a Cronut the oldfashioned way (well, the month-old-fashioned way, I guess), and was generous enough to let me buy his second pastry off him. So full disclosure: the Cronut I tasted was a day old. I did my best to reheat it in the toaster oven at work, but I recognize that my views are tainted by the ravages of time upon those delicate layers of dough.

The Cronut carrying case -- classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

The Cronut carrying case — classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

 

The Cronuts are packaged in a golden, pyramidal box, which could be viewed as either a way to placate the masses and elevate the experience (this is no Krispy Kreme donut, mon ami), or as an over-the-top, eye-roll inducing display of food fetishism. Guess which camp I fall into? Look, I know I’m one to talk in my glass house of Oreo and Levain cultism, but I sometimes I find the spectacle of food presentation a little unnecessary. I’m all for molecular gastronomy and innovative plating, but I don’t think the way you package a baked product needs to be any fancier than a white cardboard box. The beauty of Dominique Ansel’s Cronut is in the design of the pastry itself. The gold box adds a layer of pomp and circumstance that feels like a poor play to make me feel like the Cronut unboxing should be an event in itself.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

 

Thankfully, as I alluded to above, the Cronut itself is a gorgeous display of craftsmanship. Even after a day of marinating in its own creamy innards, the layers of flaky dough were still distinct. Golden-brown and crispy on the outside, with a soft yellow, multilayered inside reminiscent of the croissant-side of its family, the pastry cream was still soft and oozing from the crevices. Cronut 1.0 was flavored vanilla rose, but Ansel is rolling out new flavors each month, so my June Cronut was lemon maple. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a lemon person, so I wish I had gotten to try the Cronut in its initial form.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

According to Ansel’s website, the Cronuts are first fried in grapeseed oil, then rolled in sugar and filled with pastry cream, completing their donutification. This means that when you bite into the Cronut, the dominant flavor is that of the cream filling instead of the dough itself. For June’s iteration, the foremost taste is strongly lemon, with a hint of vanilla from the surrounding dough. I struggled to find any maple flavor at all, although it may serve mainly as a sweetener. A day after it was baked, the Cronut had indeed lost some of the lightness in the pastry, but you could still see the wafer thin and springy layers as you tore into them. The overall impression I got was one of eating a deep-fried croissant, perhaps because the basic architecture of the dessert was born from a croissant. I’m not sure what could have brought the Cronut closer to its donut heritage — perhaps its best thought of as a croissant adopted and raised from birth by donut parents.

All in all, while I applaud Dominique Ansel’s creativity and devotion to raising the pastry game, I think I’d rather try one of his takes on a more traditional dessert, like his highly regarded Kouign Amman (which was previously the most popular item on the Bakery’s menu).

 

 

Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant (and more):

2013-06-08 11.40.56

Our other contender comes from Breads Bakery, down in Union Square. Breads is relatively new to the New York scene, opening in the beginning of 2013 as the first American outpost of the popular Lehamim Bakeries in Tel Aviv (Lehamim means “breads” in Hebrew). Located just off Union Square on East 16th St, Breads seems to still be flying just under the radar, despite earning the accolade of baking the “best babka in NY” from New York Magazine. When I visited the bakery/cafe last Saturday, I found a steady stream of customers but plenty of space to linger, sit and sample the menu.

Inside Breads -- the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Inside Breads — the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Breads offers both savory and sweet goods, with their loaves of various breads and baked items at the front counter, a coffee bar and selection of salads and sandwiches in the back, a small seating area in the middle. They win major points for an enthusiastic staff — everyone I talked to was willing to explain the menu and offer their own recommendations. Plus, you gotta love a place that not only offers free samples as you walk in, but also constantly replenishes the supply and rotates the sample selection. In the time I was there I got to try a fresh hard and crusty baguette, a boureka, and some onion bread.

A small sample of Breads baked goods.

A small sample of Breads baked goods. Note the rugelach on the left.

I didn’t get to test New York Magazine’s assertion this go-round, but I did buy a piece of rugelach, the other item Breads is well-known for. Both the rugelach and the babka are loaded up with a Nutella/Belgian chocolate filling, and covered with a sugar syrup after emerging from the oven, leaving a soft, flaky crust.

2013-06-08 12.31.33

Breads‘ rugelach, bringing me back to my days in Jerusalem.

My typical preference for babka or rugelach is cinnamon over chocolate, but man this was one phenomenal rugelach. You can detect just a hint of nuttiness in the filling, but the dominant flavor is the rich Belgian chocolate, similar to a ganache in texture. The dough is flaky on the outside, but yeasty within, the filling and the sugar glaze keeping it moist (and lingering on your fingers). Breads’ rendition reminded me of the personal-paradigm-shifting rugelach I had at Marzipan in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s because the chef behind Breads Bakery is Uri Scheft, a Danish-Israeli with an eye towards twisting up traditional breads, but a reverence for tradition with Jewish staples. For example, along with the dark Scandanavian rye loaves that fill the baskets at Breads, Scheft bakes up challah each weekend for Shabbat.

 

The flat but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

The flat, but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

But the more appropriate dish for Cronut comparison (Cro-comp?) is Breads’ version of an Almond Croissant, which Jacob selected. (Again, the lucky duck lives in the neighborhood — clearly I need to move to Gramercy.) While almond croissants are one of Jacob’s favorite pastries, I’ve only had a handful in my life, probably due to the poor quality of most of the ones you find at the local Starbucks or Au Bon Pain. Much like my rugelach experience, however, Breads’ take on an almond croissant proved eye-opening.

The pictures featured on Breads’ website show a familiarly puffy pastry, but the almond croissants we encountered at the bakery were the flattest I’d ever seen. However, the croissant was clearly baked with care, golden-brown with some slightly burnt areas near the edges. It appeared to be double-braided, almost like a challah loaf, and had marzipan piped on top, beneath a dusting of powdered sugar and sliced almonds. The first bite revealed that marzipan also filled the middle of the croissant. More viscous than the pastry cream in the Cronut, I strongly preferred Breads’ filling, since it gave a moistness to the croissant dough but held the whole pastry together, making it easier to eat overall. The lemon maple cream of the Cronut squirted out with each bite, leaving you with pastry cream on your hands and face. The more stable marzipan also allowed the taste of the dough to have more of a presence on your tongue. It made the almond flavor purer and more natural tasting than the common almond croissant, which tend to be differentiated from their original brethren simply by tossing a few almonds on top.

 

All in all, the Cronut and Almond Croissant fared equally on dough texture, but Breads wins out because of the basic architecture of its dessert. I think you need the integrity of a yeast donut to properly handle the pastry cream. In fact, most of the cream-filled desserts I can think of have a certain amount of heft to the surrounding baked dough — eclairs, cupcakes, even twinkies have a stronger structural base compared to the airyness of croissant layers. While the frying of the Cronut solidifies the dough a bit more after baking, the pastry cream doesn’t get absorbed by the Cronut, making the process of eating it a messier experience than its elegant appearance would suggestion. In the end, I sampled all three of these pastries long after they had been baked. Although the Cronut suffered the longest delay, even my friend who tried it fresh out of the fryer concurred that it was good, but not really worth all the hype. I’m happy for Dominique Ansel to get the business, because I honestly believe he’s pushing the industry forward, but on a blow-by-blow count, Breads Bakery wins in a knockout. The newest eye-catching, show-stopping fad can be pretty thrilling at the time, but sometimes all you need is a small tweak to familiar formulas to really be memorable.

Bottom line? If you can find your way to a Cronut with little hassle or time investment, give it a shot — it’s definitely a beauty to behold. But feel free to sleep in on Saturday morning if getting up at 5 sounds awful — Breads Bakery will be there, open until late and inviting you to sample and revel in some rich rugelach or commendable croissants.

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring Street (between Sullivan and Thompson)

http://dominiqueansel.com/

Breads Bakery

18 E 16th St.

breadsbakery.com