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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All the Cool Kids are Having Pancakes for Dinner: Eating Post-Brunch at Clinton Street Baking Co.

Clinton Street Baking Co., conveniently located on Clinton St.

Clinton Street Baking Co., conveniently located on Clinton St.

As a kid I always loved the nights when we’d eat breakfast for dinner. The liberal arts graduate in me wants to assign some larger psychoanalytical meaning to it — the thrill of the perceived rule-breaking, the change in routine from spaghetti or hamburgers. But let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill here. The truth is I just love breakfast food, and at any time of the day I’ll gladly eat a bagel, eggs, or any sort of pan-fried bread-based object covered in syrup.

One of the seemingly most glamorous aspects of being an adult is the ability to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Strawberry Poptarts, raisins, and some hummus? Call it dinner. Cold pizza and some questionably warm milk? Sounds like brunch. In actuality, at least on my budget, this does actually turn into a lot of breakfast for dinner. After all, most of the ingredients of an omelet or frittata are pretty affordable. Unfortunately, this does serve to remove some of the magic of a home-cooked evening breakfast. But just the right restaurant adventure can bring back the spark, and out pops the overeager kid in me once again.

And so it only seems obvious that I would buy a Google Offer from Clinton Street Baking Company. The restaurant is world famous for its pancakes, and perhaps even more well-known for its notoriously long brunch waits. In fact, I had previously tried to go to CSB years ago when my older brother was first admitted to the bar, but after being told our wait would be over 2 hours, my family decided to fill our stomachs elsewhere. And so when that Google Offer popped up selling a dinner for 2, I figured it’d be a great chance to check out a hotspot during the off-hours.

Fortunately, as with my other recently investigated brunch staple Good Enough to Eat, CSB serves many of its most popular brunch dishes on the dinner menu. My offer came with 2 beers, a choice of dinner entree, and an order of those famous pancakes, and so this past weekend I embarked on a lady-date with my friend Sarah to see if CSB’s pancakes would satisfy my nostalgia for syrup at sunset.

First Impressions:

The restaurant is small, but warm and inviting, living up to its bakery title with a glass case full of desserts right as you walk in.

The restaurant is small, but warm and inviting, living up to its bakery title with a glass case full of desserts right as you walk in.

Clinton Street Baking Co. is located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area I always regret not spending more time in. Found just off East Houston on, shockingly, Clinton Street, the restaurant is cozy and inviting, featuring the warm pastel colors and decor of an old school luncheonette. Unlike Good Enough to Eat, which played up its inherent quirkiness, CSB is homey but straightforward in its design — stainless steel, wooden tables, and a few posters on the walls that make it feel like a familiar neighborhood joint. My friend Sarah was kind enough to join me for dinner, and she arrived first at CSB, just as they reopened for dinner. CSB serves brunch daily from 9am to 4pm, then reopens at 6pm for dinner. Although the dinner rush is exponentially less busy than their chaotic and epic brunch service, in the scant ten minutes between Sarah’s arrival and my own, the place had nearly filled up. Luckily, Sarah was seated immediately, and had her choice of tables when she got there, picking a lovely little booth by the window.

The handful of tables line the walls, which are sparsely decorated, emphasizing the focus on the food.

The handful of tables line the walls, which are sparsely decorated, emphasizing the focus on the food.

The service at CSB started and ended strongly, but had a bit of a dip in the middle. Our waitress was friendly and aware of the Google Offer, which made ordering simple. As it happened, our booth was directly across from the bar, so it took less than 30 seconds between ordering our beers and their arrival at our table. I got the Empire White Afro, a citrusy wheat beer that reminded me of a more refined Blue Moon, and Sarah had the Captain Lawrence Kolsch, which was slightly darker, but still on the lighter side.

The view from our table -- note the beef taps mere inches away.

The view from our table — note the beer taps mere inches away.

Unfortunately, after speedily taking our order and delivering our dinner lickety-split, there was a lull in the service. I tend to drink a lot of water during my meals, and was disappointed that no one came to refill my water glass while we were eating. Yes, I had my beer as well, but I’m a thirsty person, and ended my meal slightly parched. However, CSB made up for this with the unexpected goody bag at the end of our meal — more on that later. Let’s talk pancakes and eggs.

The Food:

Although the emphasis is clearly on classic American homecooking, Clinton Street Baking Company’s menu is also populated with comfort food from across the globe, from a handful of different burgers and the fried chicken and waffles, to vegetable enchiladas, spaghetti carbonara, and fish and chips. And of course let’s not neglect the only slightly slightly reduced breakfast section. Sarah and I briefly toyed with the idea of fish and chips as our other entree, but ultimately thought it would be a strange combination with the obligatory pancakes. We settled on the Huevos Rancheros to make a full breakfast-for-dinner-play, crossing the spectrum of savory and sweet brunch items. For our pancake order we chose Banana Walnut Pancakes over the Blueberry Pancakes and the special pancake of the day, Chocolate Chunk. As classic as blueberry pancakes are, I’ll choose a banana over a berry any day of the week, and I won’t apologize for it. Perhaps the more shocking move was passing over the chocolate option, but I thought I’d be missing out on the authentic CSB experience if I picked the special over one of the menu’s mainstays. Oh, and just in case we weren’t truly embracing our full carbohydrate potential, we also ordered a side of sweet potato fries. You know, to get our veggies in.

I see your bread basket and raise you some complimentary mini biscuits.

I see your bread basket and raise you some complimentary mini biscuits.

Our meal started with a complimentary plate of miniature biscuits, a pleasant surprise, as I’m always excited to see a bread basket that contains more than plain old sliced Italian bread. We got four biscuits for the two of us, which was generous considering the carbo-loading we were about to engage in. The bad news is that the biscuits were served only with a few regular foil-wrapped pats of butter (“what, no homechurned strawberry butter?” the bourgeois brunch snob in me cries out), and arrived firmly at room temperature. Even so, they still had a great creamy, rich flavor, and had the right slightly crumbly texture, so I actually didn’t feel the need to put butter them further. CSB’s biscuits would definitely have been significantly stronger if warmed — but as they were served, they were just average. (I do recognize that I may be especially biased at this point in time, given my recent fantastic biscuit encounters at Good Enough to Eat and Cafeteria.)

The Huevos Rancheros -- well cooked, but undercut by a lackluster tortilla.

The Huevos Rancheros — well cooked, but undercut by a lackluster tortilla.

The Huevos Rancheros was also a solid dish, but as Sarah agreed, would have been a bit underwhelming if ordered as someone’s sole entree. The sunny-side-up eggs had yolks that broke open with ease, and I really enjoyed the variety of condiments that were served under the eggs and cheese — soft red beans, alternately spicy and cool jalapeno sour cream, salsa picante, and guacamole. What prevented the dish from truly succeeding was its tortilla base. The tortilla seemed barely touched, floppy and dry on the outside, and flavorlessly soggy in the middle under those semisoft toppings. What really clinches a good huevos rancheros is the textural contrast of a crunchy tortilla paired up with the loose eggs and condiments. CSB’s version had all the right ingredients, but had a weak foundation that undermined the overall dish.

Sweet Potato Fries -- perhaps a little random given the rest of our meal, but still deftly cooked and delicious.

Sweet Potato Fries — perhaps a little random given the rest of our meal, but still deftly cooked and delicious.

Although seemingly a little off-theme, the sweet potato fries were very well done, and ended up working wonderfully with our meal (pro tip — try dipping them in the maple butter that comes with the pancakes). I like my sweet potato fries even softer than my preferred model of thick-cut, starchy french fries, mostly because I adore the pure, unadulterated taste of sweet potato. (In fact, I will frequently just roast a sweet potato for dinner with a little salt and pepper, or even cinnamon. Sweet potato and avocado — also a killer combination.) CSB’s sweet potato fries were thin cut in varying shapes and sizes that suggests  they were handcut. Some were slightly charred on the ends, giving a nice crunch go to with the more mushy (in a good way) middle. They were served with ketchup, but I actually don’t particularly enjoy ketchup with my sweet potatoes, and so like the hot sauce that came with the huevos, I largely ignored the condiments (mostly because I’m a spice-wuss).

Banana Walnut Pancakes -- a wake up call for pancake enthusiasts.

Banana Walnut Pancakes — a wake up call for pancake enthusiasts.

Purely by luck I saved the best part of the meal for last — Clinton Street Baking Co.’s legendary pancakes. Now there’s a lot of hype around certain dishes in New York eating, especially when it comes to brunch, so I was fully prepared for these to be a letdown. I’m also of the opinion that so often the pancakes you encounter out in the world are perfectly fine, but nothing to write home about — the average order at IHOP is not going to blow your mind in any way. But these pancakes, my friends, these were the real deal. They reminded me of the true potential of pancakes — from the familiar buttermilk base, to their firm, yet fluffy texture, the pancakes were fully cooked through, browned on the edges and golden in the middle, just thick enough to provide some real chew. Candied walnuts were baked into the cakes and added another layer of sweetness, and freshly sliced bananas came on top. The batter itself didn’t have a strong banana flavor, which I actually preferred, because it let the taste of the pancake itself shine through. They came with CSB’s similarly renowned maple butter, which is more butter-maple than maple-butter, as it is literally melted butter poured into maple syrup. I could feel it clogging my arteries as I eagerly dunked my pancakes in, but God bless the CSB alchemists for producing from two classic condiments one glorious liquid gold. With all that sugar, I was very happy to split the stack of three pancakes — I’m pretty sure it would have been a little dangerous to my glucose levels to eat on my own.

Another merit of eating dinner at CSB became clear when our waitress arrived with the check, and placed two small paper bags alongside it. Inside were baked goods left over from the brunch service — Sarah got a lemon poppyseed muffin, and I got a fullsize biscuit. (For those who are curious, the biscuit reheated fantastically for breakfast the next day, and goes great with raspberry jam.) No wait, classic pancakes, and free baked goods? Why does anyone pick brunch over dinner here?

Sarah's bonus lemon poppyseed muffin.

Sarah’s bonus lemon poppyseed muffin.

Why certainly, I'll take another biscuit -- as long as you're handing them out, I'll keep eating them.

Why certainly, I’ll take another biscuit — as long as you’re handing them out, I’ll keep eating them.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I had a comforting and dependable dinner at Clinton Street Baking Company. The laid back and simple homestyle cooking and decor worked well during the calmer dinner period, and the majority of my meal was solidly executed and plenty tasty. This is a restaurant where you really should try out their famous dishes — the Banana Walnut Pancakes certainly lived up to the hype, and were in a class above the rest of the dishes we tried. Because of this, I feel it’s not totally fair to judge the dinner menu without having tried the similarly well-regarded fried chicken. Because of ease of access, I’m happy to go back and give the chicken and waffles a try (I can’t lie, I’m mainly coming back for more maple butter). I would definitely recommend paying a visit to CSB, but delay your visit till after sunset– I’m not sure any pancakes are worth waiting three hours for. Avoid the tourist trap and come back for a relaxing dinner — after all, you’re an adult, and you can have breakfast as many times a day as you like.

Clinton Street Baking Co.

4 Clinton St (off E. Houston)

clintonstreetbaking.com/