If you open a brasserie these days, you have to take bread seriously. Case in point is Lafayette, the new French restaurant in the old Chinatown Brasserie space on Lafayette Street. Walk in the door and the first thing you're greeted with is a counter displaying racks of brown loaves and glistening pastries that are an immediate sign of the eatery's ambition.
Occupying a corner of the downstairs kitchen, Lafayette's ovens are overseen by James Belisle. He's yet another product of Per Se's bread baking operations, which have sent into the world such luminaries as Peter Endriss (Runner & Stone), Melissa Weller (East River Bread), and Ben Hershberger (Hot Bread Kitchen). After graduating from the French Culinary Institute's professional bread course, James was hired by Per Se, mainly because of his willingness to work the night shift. He spent over five years there before he was hired by Andrew Carmellini to bake the bread at Lafayette. His mission is to bake great French bread, but be creative, not slavish to tradition.
Lafayette's bread operation is still in start-up mode, but already its loaves are worth a taste. Begin with its Pain de Campagne ($8.50), which is also served in the restaurant's bread baskets. This is a big, naturally leavened loaf made from white flour mixed with a bit of rye. whole wheat flour, and salt. From outside in, it's a pleasure to eat, with a good crust and a slightly moist, just dense enough, fragrant crumb. It goes with everything, and I'm happy to eat it three times a day.
Made from the same dough as the Campagne, the Pain aux Olives ($7) is flavored with a very generous handful of olives, both whole and ground. The mix includes picholines and oil-cured olives, as well has a dash of herbes du Provence. The bread is shaped into a kind of fat knot and comes out of the oven trailing an olive-scented haze. If you're not afraid of the olives being the main event, the bread makes a perfect base for some melted Gruyere.
Continuing in the rustic vein, Lafayette's walnut bread ($7.50) is a noteworthy addition to the city's nut bread line-up. Made from half wheat and half white flour, natural leavening, toasted walnuts, and salt, this loaf is a little bit coarser than most—in a good way. The wheat flour and walnuts compliment each other, amping up the all-around nuttiness of the loaf. I've already moved it to near the top of my list of favorite walnut breads.
For a much more delicate loaf, you have to try the brioche ($8). This is a classic version of the bread, made from white flour, butter, eggs, sugar, salt, and natural leavening. It's cooked in a loaf pan, but due to the way it was shaped you can either slice it or pull it apart into fluffy buns. Soft, finely-grained, and delicately aromatic, this brioche would be wasted as French toast. Keep it simple: lightly toasted and then dabbed with honey.