There are five boroughs in New York City, but in the food media world, some get more attention than others. So please welcome our new Staten Island correspondent, Vincent Gragnani. —The Mgmt.
What makes Chez Laurent unique is not its location—a strip mall in Staten Island—but the feeling you're eating in a home somewhere between Paris and Lyon. Chef and owner Laurent Chavenet and his wife, Esperanza, run the entire show here. They seat you, take orders, prepare and serve the food, and clear the plates—with Esperanza often holding the couple's 2-year-old son, Daniel.
I had heard Chez Laurent was tiny, but when I first pulled up two years ago, I found a bakery sandwiched between a pizzeria and Chinese takeout. With red-and-white checkerboard curtains, Chez Laurent's facade may not suggest fine dining, but it is inviting.
This bakery that converts to a bistro on Friday and Saturday evenings seats only a dozen people, at tables with checkered tablecloths and an Eiffel Tower tea light. The menu here is limited and changes weekly, but you can usually count on favorites such as an escargot appetizer or shrimp Provençal entrée. The menu always includes a several-course "tasting" lineup.
Laurent personally describes the entire menu to all of his customers. If his thick French accent isn't enough to convince you this is the real thing, the opening act of the meal should: a basket of warm, freshly baked bread, often a small loaf of sourdough and small loaf stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella. These are accompanied by a tiny bowl of French sea salt, a generous serving of chive butter, and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. The chive butter is clearly homemade, and a favorite of mine—my only complaint being that it is usually too cold and firm to easily spread across the bread.
Having eaten my way through the tasting menu before, I decided on my most recent visit to stick with the regular menu, starting with an appetizer of shrimp a la Laurent ($13.95)—a generous portion of seven medium-sized shrimp, cooked with garlic, butter, herbs, diced tomatoes, garlic croutons and shaved Parmesan. My friend Michael—recently returned from a short stopover in Paris—started with escargot ($9.95), prepared almost identically to the shrimp.
As soon as Laurent took our orders, he was in the back, chopping vegetables. Peer over the bakery counter throughout the evening, and you're likely to see him at the stove, the side of his face illuminated by the occasional errant flame.
For our entrees, Michael went with the cassoulet ($28.95), a relatively recent addition to Laurent's menu. Served over a ragout of white beans, this dish included duck leg confit, garlic sausage and Saucisse de Toulouses, a homemade sausage made with duck and pork.
I opted for the sea scallops ($28.95), pan-seared in white truffle oil and served over ratatouille—a mix of diced eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs. While the bread can stand on its own without any help, it also came in handy throughout the evening, soaking up the rich, herb-infused sauces that our appetizers and entrees were prepared in.
Laurent suggested we finish our meal with chocolate fondue and fresh fruit. But when Michael and I asked what else he might suggest, his alternative was a chocolate cake with crème brulee center, covered in a chocolate ganache—an incredibly rich dessert that went perfectly with what remained of the bottle of Bordeaux (a 2005 Saint-Estephe) we had brought.
Two weeks later, I met Laurent and Esperanza for coffee, Laurent's lingonberry-yogurt cake and an hour-long conversation about their restaurant and its Staten Island context. Laurent used ratatouille to explain to me the similarities between French and Italian foods. Southern Italians, he said, have an almost identical dish: caponata. The main difference is that while the Italian dish is usually cooked in one pot, the French sauté each of the vegetables separately, and then combine them just before serving. That way, each vegetable retains its distinct flavor. But in the end, French and Italian cuisines are not that different, he said.
"In the South of France, they cook with olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs and garlic, just like the South of Italy," he said, comparing his homeland with the country to which 45 percent of Staten Islanders trace their lineage. "In Northern France, in Normandy, it's butter, cream and eggs, just like northern Italy.
"Cream is cream, butter is butter, olive oil is olive oil," he continued, adding that he could adjust his methods slightly, change the names on his menu and run an Italian restaurant.
But Laurent is unmistakably French. When he was 4, he saw Chef Michel Olivier on television and told his parents he wanted to be a chef. After graduating from culinary school in France, he worked at several one-, two- and three-start Michelin-rated restaurants and then opened his own bakery in Paris. In 1999, just before Laurent moved to Staten Island to pursue his American dream, Olivier walked into his bakery, and Laurent thanked him for inspiring his career.
A small strip mall in a working class, ethnically diverse neighborhood of Staten Island seems like an unusual place for someone whose chocolate ravioli in crème anglaise was once named the best dessert in all of Paris in 1995. But such thoughts come from a distinctly American point of view, Laurent told me.
"Why do people think they have to go to Manhattan to go to a good restaurant?" he said. "In France, you can go into a little town and it will have a 3-star Michelin restaurant. It's because the chef is good. Location is important. But not for the quality of the food."
Laurent maintains his own food quality by personally buying his groceries, often making weekly trips to two farmers' markets in Brooklyn, as well as markets on Staten Island: The Greenmarket at St. George, Gerardi's on Richmond Terrace and a newly formed farmers' market in Charleston, where Laurent sells his own scones, quiches, butter, sausages and salad dressings. And when the growing season starts, Laurent hopes to have his own garden at the Decker Farm, New York City's oldest continuously operating farm.
In the coming weeks, we can expect to see a Valentine's Day brunch that features eggs fresh from the Decker Farm. Laurent's dinner menu will soon include rabbit raised there.
He also tells me that he expects to roll out on his dinner menu a "pork fillet mignon" served with roasted gnocchi. This potato-based pasta is synonymous with Italian food—a sign that maybe Italian and French cuisines maybe aren't that different after all. But instead of poaching the gnocchi, as Italians do, Laurent will roast them, assuring a crisp outside and light and fluffy center.
Italian and French food may have similarities, but running a successful French restaurant on this island has been a challenge for Laurent. His BYOB policy doesn't help, he said, nor does his informal décor.
But perhaps like the 650 or so customers who receive Laurent's menu each week via e-mail, I am drawn back because of the setting and the fact that I can bring my own wine. With dim lighting, French music playing, and French menus and press clippings on the wall, the décor really isn't that bad.
"People who love food want to come here," he added. "People who want to go out and impress a friend are not going to come here because we don't have alcohol. People want cocktails. In France it's the opposite. We don't care about décor, we care about what's on the plate. We could change the décor a bit, but what is going to change? The food will still be the same."
991 Bay Street, Staten Island NY 10305 (map)