The first thing I saw on a recent afternoon at L’Ami Pierre, a new French café in the center of town, was a man with a piece of baguette dangling from his mouth. The moment was not staged. The man was on the move, holding the rest of the paper-wrapped bread in the crook of his arm as he pulled on his jacket. The bread had been genuinely irresistible.
It seemed plausible, before trying it, that this baguette could be the best in the world. L’Ami Pierre (149 W. 51st St.) sits across a pedestrian walkway from Le Bernardin restaurant, and while the businesses aren’t technically affiliated, they have in common Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin’s longtime chef and co-owner weather. In September, Ripert opened L’Ami Pierre with his friend Pierre-Antoine Raberin, former co-chairman of the macaroni brand Ladurée. (Ripert is primarily a consultant, but his name is on the awning.)
In November, Le Bernardin turned fifty. Its founders, brothers Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze, opened the seafood restaurant on the Paris Left Bank in 1972 and moved it to New York in 1986. Ripert, 57, started working there in 1991. In the decades later, it has managed to maintain the highest accolades: Michelin stars, Times stars, top rankings on top local and global charts, and has become a celebrity.
Another afternoon I went alone for lunch at Le Bernardin. I drank champagne and ate an exactly circular disk of scallop tartare topped with a generous caviar quenelle, then lobster medallions in a sabayon verjus, then a plump halibut fillet on truffle purée and sunchoke, surrounded by tiny roasted carrots. to perfection. For dessert, I spooned cream and caramel chocolate out of a hollowed-out eggshell. The food was beautiful, the service impeccable. She couldn’t take her eyes off a couple sitting a few tables away. They were both dressed to the nines, but their manners were completely nonchalant, as if this silent, almost sacred dining room was a mere cafeteria.
The man with the baguette seemed somehow to have had a more sensual experience. It would be hard to argue that L’Ami Pierre’s baguette is the best in the world, or even in New York, but I’m willing to argue that there’s nothing more luxurious than a jambon-beurre, the classic French ham and butter sandwich. L’Ami Pierre’s version delivers on its basic promise. With a crisp, golden, shiny crust and a soft yet chewy crumb, the baguette, baked on the premises, holds its own with its delicious fillings.
The cafe’s to-go salads on refrigerated shelves: Chicken Caesar; spinach with goat cheese and pine nuts, left me cold, and a butternut squash soup was on the sour end of earthy. But the viennoiseries, particularly the pain with raisins— sang with distinct notes of butter, much like a chocolate chip cookie, further distinguished by its unusual, pie-like shape, slightly dipped in the middle, with steep, crisp edges and rectangular morsels of rich, chocolatey chocolate. dense.
A few blocks away, Ignacio Mattos shows us what can happen when a chef of the highest pedigree lends his expertise to the pursuit of small daily pleasures, plus a rarefied multi-course dinner. At tables in a covered “terrazza” in Lodi (1 Rockefeller Plaza), his Milan-inspired cafe, he can order a luxurious meal. He doesn’t miss the elegant scribbles of dazzling chicken liver pate on crostini, or the bone-in pork schnitzel, when available. Inside is a café and bakery that uphold the same standards in a more casual way, surprising amid the sterile downtown salad bars. An ordinary cardboard container can hold an extraordinary farro, cabbage and prosciutto soup, or a crispy lentil salad with fennel. The other morning, while he was having a macchiato and eating an excellent maritozzo—a large brioche pouffe with a thick streak of whipped cream and filled with vanilla custard—a smartly dressed older gentleman on the stool next to me was doing exactly the same. She gestured at the cake gleefully, explaining that he was from Rome, just like he was, and strode briskly out into the cold. (L’Ami Pierre $2.50-$14; Lodi cakes and paninis $4-$15.) ♦