Devoured by your eyes first, nourishing spirit as well as body, creative cooking is as much art as anything in the Louvre. Using art's glossary, it would be fair to say Lait Cru Brasserie is a French minimalist. The Connecticut Street space that was formerly Martin Cooks now combines a cheese shop with a small restaurant in the running for the highest finesse-to-employee ratio in the city.
Owner Jill Forster manages the tables and Chef Will Petersen runs the kitchen, each with a few assistants. What they accomplish with their modest workforce is a hymn to simplicity. Yet little on Lait Cru's pared-down breakfast and lunch menus is ordinary.
Breakfast potatoes are glazed in maple butter. Lunch brings a toasted cheese sandwich elevated with triple-cream Brie cheese on brioche, with housemade potato chips. Dinner dishes are French-inspired, but their stripped-down, yet surprisingly effective design evokes another foreign reference: Ikea.
There are no meatballs, but other satisfactions abound, all day long. Serving breakfast, lunch and brunch six days a week, dinner Thursday through Saturday, Lait Cru Brasserie bloomed out of Forster's Nickel City Cheese and Mercantile. Retail cheeses and accoutrements are on sale on one side of the room, while on the other a half-dozen tables and a bar accommodate diners.
The interior of exposed brick and varnished wood is sparsely decorated, with grace notes like fresh flowers and cloth napkins. Light floods the high-ceilinged glass-fronted space on sunny days, casting diners in a golden glow.
Prior encounters with the potatoes and pork belly ($15) at brunch and a croque madame sandwich (mortadella, emmental cheese, egg, spicy mornay cheese sauce; $12), had whetted my appetite for dinner.
Forster recognized me as we arrived that evening, and led us to a window table with a pew on one side and chairs on the other. We chose glasses of wine from an all-French list backed up with bottled beer and an extensive cider collection. (No hard liquor, though.)
On this night, the dinner menu included six starters, three salads, five entrees, plus cheese and charcuterie.
A platter of cheese and charcuterie ($25) was a tableau of classy nibbles that let us meet three dairy characters (peppery blue Minnesotan, nutty Spanish, stinky-in-a-good-way Vermonter). Nduja, spreadable Calabrian salami, and 600-day-old prosciutto, were joined by ground cherries, cornichons, smoked mustard, dried cherries and plenty of toasted baguette.
Savory beignets ($11) were the next thrill. Bite-sized pillowy doughnuts were swiped through garlicky mayonnaise jazzed with Aleppo pepper flakes and dispatched swiftly.
A Spanish player, white gazpacho ($9), added coolness to the evening. Diced cucumber, radish and onion and a drizzle of good olive oil floated on cold broth thickened with almonds, flavored with garlic and hiding green grapes.
One missed connection was king crab on sweet-spicy red rice ($18). The delicately sweet crustacean earned its crown but failed to connect with strawberry-studded rice spiked with heat.
In the greenery department, a salad du jour of baby peas in pod, pencil-thin radishes and asparagus, and baby lettuces ($10) was made of vibrantly fresh produce dressed too sparingly. Not so the Lait Cru salad ($10), more impeccable vegetables in just enough tangy crème fraiche vinaigrette plus toasted nuts and shavings of raw milk cheese.
Petersen takes advantage of his cheese shop location again in his macaroni and cheese ($10), firm radiatori pasta in a silky sauce with a solid cheddar backbone but plenty of funk from wilder strains.
By comparison, the mains were straightforward. Steak frites ($30) didn’t offer the classic Belgian-style fries, but the freshly cut skin-on potato wedges were satisfyingly crispy outside and fluffy within. The rosy-centered beef, presented in a pool of horseradish cream with roasted mushrooms and the last ramps of the season, made it a consensus favorite.
Monkfish ($24), sprinkled with spice and roasted to medium-rare, intrigued with dance partners of tingly sweet chile honey and the crunch of Asian-inflected daikon slaw.
Dark-meat flavor came through in a brace of roasted quail ($27) on barley risotto, but its pale skin sapped its scrumptiousness. A partly deboned half chicken ($27) sported admirably browned skin. On French green lentils cooked with carrots and celery, livened with the kick of pickled shallots, it was a hearty combination with plenty of tender meat.
Despite its size, Lait Cru budgets for a pastry chef, Amanda Robertson-Baroni. After a bite of goat cheese cheesecake with pistachio crust, capped in apricot, I was grateful for the investment. Other striking desserts ($8) included airy cream-stuffed profiteroles and an ethereal ile flottante on crème anglaise, especially appreciated since the demise of Rue Franklin.
A bar of walnut-studded, ganache-clad chocolate mousse on berry gelee hit the chocolate spot. The capper was a lemon tart that balanced acid, butter and black pepper with swoonful precision.
Much bigger places have left much smaller impressions. It's not the size of the staff, it's what you do with it.
Lait Cru Brasserie – 8 plates (out of 10)
Where: 346 Connecticut St. (462-4100)
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Price range: Breakfast, lunch $7-$15; starters, $8-$24; entrees $22-$30.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Gluten-free options: Include salads, chicken, steak.