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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Brunch at Good Enough to Eat: It’s all About the Biscuits, Baby

I like to think of myself as a fairly tolerant, openminded person, but there are two types of people in this world that I believe I fundamentally cannot get along with: people who hate dessert, and people who hate bread. I’m just not sure what common ground we could find. Obviously we’ve heard a fair amount about my love of dessert — today, let’s focus on the other vice.

There are restaurants I frequent purely because of the bread they offer, from megachains to haute cuisine. One of the best parts about going to Outback Steakhouse (Bloomin’ Onion aside) is the endless supply of their Questionably Authentic Aussie Brownbread. The breadbowl at Panera is equally legendary, as is the Rustic Flatbread of Cosi, and the buttermilk biscuits at Cracker Barrel.  Not to mention the complimentary bread baskets like those I encountered at Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa, or the cornucopia of white, multigrain, and raisin nut rolls offered at restaurants like Daniel or Toqueville, where you may pick as many as your carb-loving heart desires.

An embarrassing personal story to further illustrate: the summer after my freshman year of college, I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Cannes Film Festival through Penn’s Cinema Studies program. Although we had access badges for the festival, they were very limited, which meant that the only way to see the top-bill movies was to wait on line, sometimes for hours, for any extra available seats. And so what did this fresh-faced, first time in France ingenue choose for sustenance during the long, hot hours of hope and disappointment? Why, entire loaves of raisin bread, of course. Much like my deplorably slow learning curve with Starbucks hot chocolate, it took me way to long to fully consider the ramifications of consuming entire boules daily.

While I’m slightly more realistic these days about the amount of bread I should be putting in my body each day, my fervor is far from diminished. And so after months of Jacob regaling me with tales of the buttermilk biscuits (and generally high caliber brunch) at Good Enough to Eat, we finally found a Saturday morning to make the trip to the Upper West Side, and try them out.


First Impressions:

Good Enough to Eat's cozy, laid back charm.

Good Enough to Eat‘s cozy, laid back charm is obvious from your first glimpse.

Good Enough to Eat is another one of those New York food scene staples. The restaurant was established in 1981, a fact they rightly take great pride in, considering the ephemeral nature of restaurants in Manhattan. GETE’s enduring popularity was clear to see when I arrived on Saturday morning. The restaurant opens at 9am, outrageously early by NY brunch standards, but even by the time I got there at 9:30, there was already a line waiting outside. Yes, the weather was especially nice this weekend, but the majority of the brunching populace was unlikely to be out and about for at least another hour and a half.

The line greeted me bright and early on Saturday morning.

The line greeted me bright and early on Saturday morning.

GETE’s whole aesthetic evokes a folksy New England small town cafe, from their maroon awnings with white trim to the literal picket fence that borders their outdoor seating. The fence actually appears again once inside GETE, where is separates the bar from the dining area. Inside, the walls are exposed brick, covered with knick knacks and odds and ends, most of which involve depictions of cows. Even the bathroom has a collection of hand-drawn cows sent in by children. Some of the quirkier decorations include a random muffin tin high on the wall, Good Enough to Eat -branded clothing (another testament to its popularity), and fake potted plants. The place is small, with probably only ten tables inside and another six outside, and there is a general bustling air of charming unpretentiousness, from service to plating to the menu itself. There’s a full bar, as well as a classic diner-style case full of homemade baked goods, from muffins (clearly they have other tins available) to a variety of pies.

The indoor section of the picket fence is just visible at the bottom center.

The indoor section of the picket fence is just visible at the bottom center.

The pie case next to the full bar.

The pie case next to the full bar.

Looking towards the back of the restaurant. Note the muffin tin on the right hand wall.

Looking towards the back of the restaurant. Note the muffin tin on the right hand wall.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this casual attitude in the way that incoming customers are handled. The staff is very nice, but GETE does not take reservations for brunch, nor do they take your name up front. Instead, everyone gets in line outside of the restaurant, and the hostess comes by to find out how many people are in your party, then seats available tables depending on size. With this system, it is perfectly possible that a group of four arriving after a group of two could be seated first (as actually happened to us). Jacob and I ended up waiting about 30 minutes for our table, so I can only imagine what the wait would be like around noon.

 

The Food:

Eventually we were seated, and once we sat down the service was prompt, but never to the point of ushering us out the door (we had time to eat and linger for a bit afterwards). As it was Cuatro de Mayo, there were a number of Latin-themed brunch specials, but I opted out because they came with tortillas instead of biscuits, and I had my eye on the prize. I think this ultimately tempered my enthusiasm, however, as in my heart of hearts I was really in the mood for Huevos Rancheros or something similar.

On the weekends, GETE only serves breakfast and dinner menus, so even later-arriving brunchers should expect maple syrup over mayo as the condiment of choice. There are a number of options within this sphere of brunchfluence, luckily, so diners can pick from several different types of pancakes, waffles, and egg dishes, and GETE even offers a tofu scramble for vegans. I ended up ordering the “Little Italy Omelet,” while Jacob picked the Turkey Hash. After our half hour wait just to get it, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly our meal arrived.

The "Little Italy Omelet" -- well executed, but nothing spectacular.

The “Little Italy Omelet” — well executed, but nothing spectacular.

The omelet was filled with roasted mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese, and came with biscuits and strawberry butter, of course. GETE cooks their eggs loose, which they do mention on their menu, but I neglected to notice this until after I had ordered, so the omelet was a little underdone for my tastes. It was still cooked well, and there was a good proportion of eggs to filling. The roasted mushrooms and tomatoes dominated the dish, especially the tomatoes which definitely tasted of being packed in olive oil. I found the eggs a little underseasoned, but still it was a solid omelet that was the right size to leave me full without being too heavy.

Jacob's "Turkey Hash" -- a pile of breakfast.

Jacob’s “Turkey Hash” — a pile of breakfast.

I thought Jacob’s dish was a bit more successful. The Turkey Hash is made up of roast turkey, potatoes, red bell peppers, carrots, celery, and two poached eggs, and comes with the aforementioned biscuits and strawberry butter. At least on Saturday I had a serious need for potatoes in my breakfast, because I went after the ones in Jacob’s dish when he offered a taste. It was a sizable dish, and I probably wouldn’t even need the turkey to be satisfied by it, although I was impressed that there was actually chunks of roast turkey, rather than slices of cold-cut. The dish was really elevated when Jacob broke open the poached eggs, and the rich, buttery yolk soaked into the hash. The turkey and vegetables were fork tender and far from dry, but you really can’t argue with throwing another layer of cholesterol on the pile.

But the best part of my brunch by far were the biscuits and butter. Although they had been built up quite a bit, I did not think they were oversold. The strawberry butter was soft and fresh, and had small slivers of actual fruit in it, muddled in like a beautiful butter cocktail. It’s hard to recall, given the sangria-induced stupor of my brunch at Calle Ocho, but I think Good Enough to Eat trumps it in terms of purity of strawberry flavor. The biscuits were small, about the size of those store brand square Parker House rolls my mom used to put out for dinner (those rolls were sick — can you still buy them?). The biscuits split apart easily, the middle soft and just a touch flaky, but far from the commercial endless layers of Pillsbury Grands. They arrived on the plate slightly warm. I don’t think they were fresh from the oven, but in terms of texture they were still tender and moist, and buttery in a real, goddamn there’s a bunch of butter in this way, almost creamy when mixed with the strawberry butter.

Just two biscuits was not enough, and I think if I could do it again, i would just accept the fact that I’m a bread fiend and get one of the other, more exotic brunch dishes (like the Apple Pancake, the Pumpkin French Toast, or the standard menu item of the Migas: scrambled eggs with tortillas chips, bell pepper, cilantro, onion and cheese) and just shamelessly order myself a side of biscuits as well.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, my brunch at Good Enough to Eat was solid, if not awe-inspiring, but in retrospect a lot of the disappointments probably came from not listening to myself. The lesson here is trust your gut when you’re about to fill it, folks. Good Enough to Eat is a cheap enough Manhattan brunch for you to indulge in a side of biscuits if it’s mandatory like it was for me. I’d recommend trying it out, if mostly to have the experience of dining at a NY institution — not too many places in New York make it into their fourth decade. The prices are reasonable, the atmosphere friendly and homey, and the biscuits are worth the trip uptown. Since Good Enough to Eat takes reservations for dinner, and offers both the biscuits and some of the more popular brunch dishes (like the Migas and the Gramercy Omelet) on their dinner menu, I think I’ll avoid the wait next time and go in the evening. That way I can hit all my weaknesses and indulge in dessert as well. Because if their biscuits are any indication, in the category of baked goods, Good Enough to Eat very much lives up to its name.

 

Good Enough to Eat

483 Amsterdam Ave (at 83rd St)

http://goodenoughtoeat.com/

 

A Shamefaced Admission

I had a really lovely Thanksgiving — full of friends and family and an utterly incomprehensible amount of food. I have so much to be thankful for, from a great job to an unbelievable support system, to even the basic necessities of light, heat, food, and a roof over my head, which I am all the more so grateful for in light of Hurricane Sandy. But I do have one regret from Thanksgiving, a disappointment in my own behavior. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve discovered my threshold: I ate myself to the point of nausea.

To be honest, I’m hardly a prodigious eater on an everyday level. I don’t usually try to push the limits, Kobayashi-style (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bj0CXP_xSL4) (gross, I know), but on certain special occasions, I try to bring my A-game. The most recent incident was at Rosh Hashanah this year, when I challenged the notion of how much dessert is too much dessert (I don’t know, because I didn’t reach a point of saturation. BOOM.) But this Thanksgiving I … I just don’t know what happened. Maybe it was all of the cheese and crackers (Trader Joe’s Raisin Rosemary Crisp, check them out) and stuffed mushrooms and chips and salsa I ate for appetizers. I tried to compensate by reining myself in during the main meal, knowing the importance of sampling the dessert platter — after all, I have a reputation to uphold. But even with an enforced sabbatical of 90 minutes to settle and prepare my stomach, I found myself incapable of coherent conversation after just a small slice of pie and a single lump of rice pudding. I excused myself from the table in pain and humiliation.

Let’s try to focus on the positives, though. While my consumption was somewhat underwhelming (on a public showing level, of course. Clearly stuffing my myself to the brim personally counts as eating a lot.), the holiday provided a venue for me to try out a number of recipes I’d been sitting on for a while. And man, did I let my foodgawker freak flag fly. Here are some of the dishes that graced our table during Thanksgiving:

Round One: Appetizers

For the appetizers I made stuffed mushrooms and rolled a log of goat cheese in a mixture of chopped pecans and craisins. My mother provided an excellent selection of Spanish cheeses plus good ol’ cheddar, and chips and salsa. New favorite tortilla chip (because yes, I am this specific in my tastes)? Tostito’s Multigrain Scoops.

Round Two: Main Course Overload

This gives you the panoramic view of the Thanksgiving table. Starting on the left, we’ve got the classic turkey (expertly carved by my mother) with gravy and stuffing nearby, then Ina Garten’s cranberry conserve, popovers and phyllo deli rolls in the background (by my brother’s girlfriend), butternut squash-pomegranate quinoa (by my good friend Sarah), my take on a veggie gratin, Sarah and my attempt at honey fig goat cheese stuffed muffins, green bean casserole (Pioneer Woman by way of my mother), and my mom’s classic sweet potatoes and marshmallows. Phew.

Round Three: Dessert Extravaganza

Now here are some major stops on the train to dessert-town. First up, my Bourbon-soaked Raisin Cinnamon Rice Pudding. It was my first attempt at rice pudding, and I think it turned out pretty well. Thankfully I managed to snag some leftovers, since my stomach could only handle a teaspoon of it on Thursday.

A Cookie Menagerie

Okay, so here we’ve got a mishmash of authors. From the left we have my mocha white chocolate cookies, then my pumpkin-pecan tassies (tartlets), then my mother’s white chocolate mint M&M cookies, and finally her world-renowned, lifechanging chocolate chip cookies that are a staple at my house, regardless of the time of year.

Chocolate Ganache S’Mores Pie

And last, but definitely not least, we have my favorite dessert of the holiday. Sarah made a mocha ganache s’mores pie with a Nutella-graham-cracker crust and marshmallow topping. Now I’m not a Nutella fan for the most part (I know, I know, but I just don’t like hazelnuts! I’m a mutant, I get it), but whatever web of magic Sarah wove with this pie, I could not get enough of that crust. And obviously my previous posts on both chocolate items and coffee make it clear that I’m a mocha fan. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have 2/3 of this pie sitting in my apartment’s fridge right now, just biding its time.

There was also a tray of assorted M&Ms (peanut butter ftw), a fruit salad, and a bowl of jelly beans, because heaven forbid there isn’t enough variety on the table. Although I guess the fruit salad counts as a last-ditch effort to be virtuous. I had a couple of grapes.

In the end, I was pretty satisfied with my first Thanksgiving as a foodie and aspiring home cook. Some of the dishes turned out only mediocre (veggie gratin, I’m looking at you), and some I was really proud of (those mushrooms were delicious). But it was a nice preview of how my Thanksgivings down the road could be, with all the stress of managing oven temperatures and scheduling when you’ll start dishes, combined with the sheer joy of sharing my passion and efforts with family and friends. Oh, and all the eating, that was pretty great, too.

And yes, now my fridge is full to the brim with tupperware, although I already used up most of the turkey with my new go-to leftovers recipe — Turkey Pot Pie Soup!