This is Café Lafayette, the near-West End brainchild of chef Michael Macknight, who, after a few years away from the cooking world, has returned to share his culinary expertise. A student of Wolfgang Puck and Marcel Desaulniers, of Williamsburg’s Trellis, Macknight’s menu focuses on quality cuisine presented in an unassuming atmosphere.
There’s some serious attention to culinary detail here. All breads are made from scratch except for the sourdough, and butter is nicely whipped and soft. The sweet pickles served at lunchtime are homemade and the wine list is carefully chosen to complement the flavors of each item on the menu.
Lunch is an excellent bet, with most dishes around the $7 mark. The atmosphere buzzes with chitchat as ladies and gents enjoy salads and light sandwiches. The shrimp salad is a large scoop of tangy, mayonnaisey baby shrimp served atop mixed greens with fresh fruit. Chicken tarragon sandwiches feature sliced grapes and are plated with a side of fresh bacon-accented potato salad.
The dinner menu is a select offering of small plates, soups, appetizer salads, entrees and homemade desserts from $6 to $26. The crab-cake starter is not to be missed. Two jumbo lump crab cakes rest in a light cream sauce dotted with country-style ham and fresh corn kernels. Oyster stew is served surrounding a puff pastry; the heavy cream sauce seemed to overwhelm the briny flavor of the oysters.
For entrees, a homemade meatloaf is wrapped in bacon and briefly seared on both sides. Its crispy texture pairs deliciously with mushroom gravy. Lamb loin chops are served atop black truffle risotto and arrived very rare (when ordered medium rare) with the subtle earthiness of the black truffles lost amongst cream and cheese.
Saffron pasta is al dente bucatini tossed with jumbo shrimp and grilled salmon in a velvety tomato-leek broth. It’s a lighter option to meatier dishes such as bistro steak and sautéed duck breast. Roasted monkfish is topped with Chinese noodles and seaweed salad in a pungent curry and coconut milk broth.
Desserts truly exemplify Macknight’s attention to detail. Rum raisin pudding is simply to-die-for and is drizzled in a gooey caramel sauce. Champagne poppy cake is a tart extravaganza with a lemon curd sauce and fresh strawberries.
Business is good here. Almost too good. Servers appeared overwhelmed and unprepared for the dinner rush. It took more than 20 minutes to order a drink and dinner ran a good three hours with most of it spent waiting. Water glasses were never refilled, the breadbasket stayed empty and coffees arrived well after the desserts were finished. After opting to share a larger table with a couple of other diners (which is all part of the relaxed friendliness here) we ended up staring at their leftover dirty dishes until our check arrived and they were long gone.
The dining area, although funky and casual, is awkward in design. There is no bar or waiting area, so patrons waiting to be seated end up hovering over other diners as they eat while dodging the rushing servers. For a restaurant charging fine-dining prices, some rearranging at the front of the house and an additional server are crucial. The food is all here, but even the tastiest of cuisine cannot overcome a less than stellar dining experience.
The complete dining package needs some re-examination, and with some simple alterations such as a few seats next to a corner counter and another server or two, Café Lafayette will soon live up to its first-rate cuisine. SCafé Lafayette ($$$)
1007 Lafayette St.
Lunch: Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday through Saturday starts at 5 p.m. Sunday brunch: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
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