Chef Armand Arnal's resume reads hilariously backward. At age 18, he moved to New York to learn French cookery from masters Daniel Boulud at Daniel and then Alain Ducasse at The Essex House, where he stayed for four years. Arnal eventually returned to his motherland and took over the restaurant La Chassagnette and its vast onsite garden, applying the French teachings he learned in New York to his own place in Arles. A guinguette concealed in vines, rooted in seasonal, contemporary French cookery with postcards out to Japan and the Mediterranean. Backward or forward, he was doing something right. Just six months in, Arnal's garden restaurant scored a Michelin star, and he has maintained that stamp of excellence every year to date.
The menu at Maman, a cafe Arnal opened on October 6 with lifelong friend and hospitality vet Benjamin Sormonte and his girlfriend Elisa Marshall, is not entirely dissimilar from that of La Chassagnette. In place of a tasting menu, patrons order seasonal French/Mediterranean salads, sandwiches, and baked goods at a counter for grab-and-go, or take their food to a cozy rear room with communal tables.
Marshall hails from a design background and she conceived Maman's farmhouse chic dress and its white/blue palette (a nod to the South of France) with guidance from Sormonte. Sormonte, a native of Montpellier, France, is vice president of restaurant/bar team the Experimental Group North America and runs Soho wine bar La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, situated next-door to Maman. The pair wanted a warm, inviting cafe that reminded them of their own home.
It's unusual to hear about new businesses setting up shop in New York without tales of real estate distress. But Maman is one of those rare cases. Marshall, Maman's pastry chef, regularly passed by 236 Centre Street, most recently a poster shop (and before that a machinery warehouse), en route to La Compagnie. Intrigued by the space and interested in opening a cafe, she approached the property owner about the business. Serendipitously, the poster shop's lease was about to expire, and she and Sormonte were able to negotiate their way in. After three months of demo, during which they uncovered an original tin ceiling and blemished floors from machinery warehouse days, Maman was ready to serve.
Originally, the plan was to open a coffee and lunch cafe selling a concise menu of seasonal French-inspired salads, sandwiches, and baked goods for patrons to take out. But the space came with more room than the team initially expected, so they reworked a back office into the cozy rear seating den that's now equipped with communal tables, distressed whitewashed brick walls, and rabbits. Many rabbits. Both Sormonte and Marshall's favorite childhood pet, which makes an appearance atop tables as vases and within toile chair cushions. Alongside other eclectic vintage pieces like a church bench from France and a 1920s bread machine.
Maman's philosophy is to serve a fresh, seasonal menu that changes daily, with everything made in-house, says Sormonte. "We'll make what we know how to make... with the ingredients we can find in New York." Adapting some recipes, especially those for bread, has been challenging because of the humidity here and because New York water is harder than water in France. But, a newly installed water filter is helping and after a couple weeks of tweaking recipes based on requests from customers, Manam is baking both plain croissants and pain au chocolat.
Despite ongoing menu additions, Marshall is only baking about 20 percent of the total number of baked goods she would like to eventually serve. In the future, look out for seasonal fruit tarts, clafoutis, crumbles, and more cookies. Right now one will find excellent gooey chocolate chip cookies studded with macadamia nuts, almonds, and walnuts; and individual chocolate cakes with moist, almost molten centers, flavored delicately with Earl Grey tea, and topped with a cap of chocolate ganache.
Many recipes, like Marshall's chocolate chip cookies and Arnal's pain bagnat (a small round sandwich from Nice filled with the fixings of a Salad Niçoise) are based on family recipes both Sormonte and Arnal grew up eating. On any given day one can expect to find a soup or two (all are vegan), like the pear and parsnip puree recently on offer, in addition to a handful of sandwiches, and salads such as the red rice salad with eggplant ratatouille; a kale and chicken Caesar; and a croque 'maman' made with house-baked bread, béchamel, ham, and Comté cheese. There's usually an open-face tartine on offer too, topped with beetroot hummus and ricotta; or smoked salmon and dill yogurt. And a quiche isflavored with truffle ham and pecorino. Eventually Arnal plans to expand the menu a bit and offer a proper sit-down weekend brunch. Maybe some private dinners, too.
At the moment, Sormonte is in charge of sourcing product and, in addition to hitting the Union Square Green Market, he's procuring fruits and vegetables from Blooming Hill Farm upstate. He picks up jamón from nearby Spanish grocery Despaña on Broome Street, and Parisian ham is purchased via Fromaggio cheese shop at the Essex Street Market. All of Maman's cheese comes from there as well.
Maman also has a small larder, which the team wants to expand. They're currently selling sardines in snazzy packages from Portugal and salt from Ibiza. Maman is also collaborating with Dr. Sue's Chocolates out of Texas on a private label of creatively flavored sweets like toasted almond chardonnay smoked sea salt chocolate and a rosemary sea salt chocolate bar. A co-branded line of exclusive seasonal juices in the works is with Alain Maillait, the haute French juice and fruit nectar company known for its seasonal drinks. Though pricey, they're worth the $7 for flavors like yellow peach and tomato.
As far as Maman's retail component, the team is keen on introducing New Yorkers to new unique brands. They're considering a pop-up shop in collaboration with popular Toronto juice company Greenhouse Juice Co., and are one of the few spots in New York brewing Canadian tea company Sloane. Brooklyn-roasted coffee beans from Toby's Estate.
It's not every day that a Michelin-decorated chef takes it down a notch, bestowing affordable seasonal eats on New Yorkers. Maman isn't so much a cafe focused on organic food, rather it's a place that celebrates great ingredients in uncomplicated ways. And together, Arnal, Sormonte, and Marshall are connected through their affinity for food. Each learned to cook from his/her mother. Hence the restaurant's name, "Maman," "Mother" in French.
239 Centre Street, Soho