By Beverly Stephen
Photos courtesy of Le District
After a solemn and sobering visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan, a snack could be in order. What could be more restorative than steak frites and a glass of hearty red?
So why not go to France? Or at least a French market by simply crossing under the West Side Highway via a space age tunnel that emerges in the soaring Winter Garden with panoramic views of New York Harbor. There beckons the newly opened Le District, a 30,000 square foot Gallic fantasy divided into four districts—restaurant, café, market, and garden. Within these districts all culinary needs for eat-in or take-out can be met from poisson to patisserie from fleurs to fromage. Tourists and worker bees from the likes of Goldman Sachs and Conde Nast are likely to eat-in at one of the restaurants, at one of the counter seats scattered throughout, or on the 7,000 square foot plaza looking out to the Statue of Liberty. Residents and perhaps the same office workers on the way home can buy the raw materials for dinner. And don’t forget the flowers. Even if you’re staying in a hotel, there’s nothing like a bouquet to make a room feel like home. Fleuriste Yasmine Karrenberg offers an array of chic arrangements at her shop inside Le District. “I’ve been doing flowers as long as I can remember!” she says. “As a child, there were lilacs, peonies and lillies of the valley in our family garden. Then my parents always had five bouquets delivered to the house every Saturday!”
Le District is the brainchild of restaurant impresario Peter Poulakakos of HPH restaurant and development company and his business partner Paul Lamas (they pretty much have downtown cornered with Harry’s Café and Steak, The Dead Rabbit, The Growler, and Financier Patisserie among others). They took inspiration from Parisian markets such as La Grande Epicerie and even other countries that have been touched by French culture such as Morocco and Vietnam. Chef Jordi Valles, an El Bulli alum, was recruited to be culinary director of the whole project. Under him is an army of chefs and cheese mongers, butchers, bakers, and sausage makers. It’s part of the stunning development of Brookfield Place, formerly the World Financial Center, which is now home to a carefully curated food court called Hudson Eats, a bevy of high end retailers such as Theory, Hermes, and Burberry and the newly relocated International Center of Culinary Education. Time, Inc. and Saks are coming soon.
Little more than a decade has passed since the area suffered the devastating 911 attacks. And then there were the angry flood waters of Hurricane Sandy. Now FiDi, (Financial District), arguably the hottest real estate in the overheated Manhattan market, has literally risen from the ashes.
The first thing you see entering Le District is the riotously colorful French candy store La Cure Gourmande which offers an astonishing array of nougats, caramels, biscuits and even olives au chocolat (chocolate covered almonds in disguise) all available in gift worthy tins. This is the first U.S. outpost of the store that originated in Languedoc-Roussilon and now has 45 locations around the world.
Across the aisle is a creperie, a waffle station, and a patisserie displaying jewel-like French pastries. And of course a coffee bar. Save room for dessert! But proceed to other temptations—freshly baked breads, cheese, charcuterie, salads, and sandwiches (I chose a delectable roasted lamb sandwich with ras al hanout and hummus white sauce), brasserie style meals, wine, and beer. And packaged goods for Francophiles to take home—French olive oils, argan oil, mustards, spices, salts, and sausages. If you prefer to avoid temptation, graze before 4 p.m. when the salad bar transforms into a chocolate mousse bar offering eight different varieties white and dark with such toppings as orange confit and speculoos cookies.
Poulakakos himself was standing in the aisle munching on a crepe when I stopped him to ask about his vision. “I’ve always been thrilled with French cuisine,” he said. “It’s the backbone of precision.” As for the customers. “I want to be there for everyone. People who live and work here love it.” Of course, he’s not oblivious to the fact that 12.4 million visitors were counted in downtown Manhattan in 2014 and more are expected this year.
Comparisons to Eataly, the insanely popular Italian food hall, seem inescapable. Le District has already been dubbed the French Eataly. But who’s complaining? Eataly has become one of the top tourist attractions in New York City behind the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Last year seven million shoppers crowded its aisles while the cash registers rang up $85 million in sales. Should Le District be far behind? Mais non!
Visit Le District