French Cafe Food, Not So New but Very Much Improved
The classic cafes of Parisian boulevards — rattan chairs and their occupants facing the sun in all but the nastiest weather, waiters stepping nimbly over small dogs — are central to the city’s street culture, but they’re pretty marginal to its eating and drinking culture now. Cafes may have been known for their namesake drink in Voltaire’s day, but since then their coffee has become internationally notorious. Today the Parisian love of caffeine is more likely to be consummated over flat whites, cortados or, most un-French of all, filtered coffee at a third-wave espresso shop.
Meanwhile the pillars of the cafe menu cover, those blunt salads and trusty omelets and utilitarian ham sandwiches, are not exactly drawing crowds like the shakshukas, pancakes, avocado toasts and acai bowls found at younger cafes like Ob-La-Di and Holybelly.
With some searching, you can probably find cafes in France that produce the standards with conviction. Or you can go to La Mercerie, in SoHo, for simple, determinedly old-school French cooking with every detail in place. The chef, Marie-Aude Rose, does not make toasts, but she makes toast soldiers: sticks of white bread with butter smeared along their browned surfaces, but otherwise naked so they can drink up the orange yolk of a soft-cooked egg on a ceramic pedestal.
For the past four months, Ms. Rose has been cooking as if the fate of the planet depended on the tenderness of her cheese omelets, the judiciousness of her vinaigrettes, the airy spaces in her croissants and the crackle of the buckwheat in her savory crepes.
If those feats were as easy as they sound, La Mercerie’s breakfast-through-dinner menu wouldn’t be a major addition to the city’s restaurant supplies. But they aren’t, and it is, and some of the thanks goes to Ms. Rose’s hard-core training when she was embedded in the unforgiving kitchens of Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire.
Then, like a lot of aspiring chefs of her generation, she heard the call of the bistronomie movement, and went looking for a less cloistered restaurant. What she found was Spring, a new, relaxed, seasonally attentive place where an American named Daniel Rose was doing all the cooking himself. After she turned up, something clicked and the restaurant began to get attention around Paris and abroad. Her sensibilities overlapped with Mr. Rose’s in other ways; the two started dating and later married, opening additional places along the way.
The Roses moved to New York about two years ago when Daniel opened Le Coucou, his tribute to the Le and La restaurants of old. La Mercerie, three blocks west, was not in their plans until Le Coucou’s chief owner, Stephen Starr, was brought on to operate a cafe inside a furniture and housewares store being planned by Le Coucou’s design firm, Roman and Williams.
La Mercerie sits at the junction of two mighty rivers of contemporary eating trends: the redundantly, if catchily, named all-day-cafe movement and the restaurant-as-shopping-catalog approach pursued by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s places inside ABC Carpet & Home.
When you sit down for breakfast (or lunch, or dinner — see, all day) at La Mercerie, you will get, in addition to a menu, a card printed with small line drawings of every piece of tableware in the cafe, and its price. If you are very taken by the “rustic washed linen napkins” you can buy a set for $104. For $275, there is a small teapot from a Danish potter who has supplied Noma. If this is outside your budget, you can still use them at La Mercerie for an hour or two before you have to give them back, like a rented tux of rustic washed linen.
As borrowed lifestyles go, it’s a pretty nice one. Many of the servers are dressed in high-waisted, loose-legged trousers and flowing white dress shirts, as if they were in costume for a Fred Astaire movie. Meanwhile, the customers never seem to be rushed or out of sorts, and I started to wonder if they were all extras being paid to sit there looking serene. Or maybe eating next to a room full of expensive vases, Swedish sheepskins, enormous woven baskets and antique tables makes everybody feel as if they are one of the exhibits in a small museum.
The theme of the merchandise is craft — it’s all handmade — and Ms. Rose has taken this to heart in her kitchen. La Mercerie’s chicken bouillon is simmered and skimmed just the way it should be. Marked by balance and brightness, it is oolong tea to bone broth’s double espresso. Also in the bowl are an egg with a liquid yolk and, down at the bottom, a flock of herb-pasta butterflies, each one the size of the tip of your pinkie.
Ms. Rose’s pastries are already some of the finest in the city. Croissants have crisp whorls on top that you can count like tree rings; the savory ones are filled with ham and Comté, or broccoli and cherry tomatoes in custard, which may not sound good but is.
More exotic is the tourteau fromagé, a palm-size cheesecake with a blackened, domed top. Born in Poitou-Charentes, it looks something like a Boston cream doughnut, but its interior is a moist, fine-crumbed cake that tastes, just barely, of fresh goat cheese. Ms. Rose serves it with a poached apricot in star-anise syrup. If you are a serious pastry watcher, you will want to add it to your life list.