Maman, a charming new café along Centre Street in Soho, all began with that classic rom-com trope: Girl meets guy meets Michelin-starred chef.
"I said I wanted a bakery, and Ben said he'd love a restaurant," Elisa Marshall recalls of her first date with her now-boyfriend and Maman co-conspirator, Benjamin Sormonte.
So the duo enlisted Sormonte's childhood friend, Armand Arnal, the innovative young chef who reimagined La Chassagnette in sleepy Arles, France, into a vegetable-focused, Michelin-starred restaurant. Now Arnal is making his mark in New York, collaborating on spritely salads, Provence-style sandwiches and wonderfully homey baked goods with his old friend at the month-old cafe. "Their passion for Provence made me say yes to Maman," says Arnal.
The three gathered heirloom recipes from their mothers and grandmothers–hence the name, Maman–for their daily changing menu. One day, the oversize ceramic bowls on the counter are brimming with rich, pleasantly sour red rice with ratatouille ($6), and the next they're piled high with cucumbers shaved into curly tendrils ($6). Thick charred slices of bread are smeared with roasted beet hummus and dotted with arugula and thin radish discs ($6), or spread with pissaladière ($5), caramelized onions mixed with finely chopped anchovies and salty black olives. Some are a hit (Ratatouille! Toast!), while others could use a little more work (that bland cuke salad).
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And then there are the baked goods. Arnal's chocolate chip cookies ($3.75 each), sprinkled with French sea salt and packed with whole almonds and macadamia nuts, are a shop favorite, but we're also smitten with Marshall's dreamy dulce de leche bars ($5 each). An airy whip of chocolate cream barely holds the buttery cookie base together, making for a delightfully messy treat.
The space is like living room you wish you had, complete with an open kitchen, natural wood floors and a bright tin ceiling. Vintage family photos line the walls, while nostalgic trinkets are tucked into the shelves. It's the kind of place you want to linger in all day and night, and you'll be able to soon, once Arnal launches a dinner series next month. In lieu of a formal menu, he's planning—true to form—an intimate family style feast of braised pork shoulder, celery and grapefruit confit and sweet poached pears for dessert.
"We want to make it feel like you're at home," Marshall says.
With food like this, we won't be late for family meal.
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