Anyone who understands a cafe to be an informal hangout for nibbling and lingering — a “small restaurant where simple fare and drinks are served,” as the Cambridge dictionary puts it — will be forgiven for strolling into La Mercerie without a reservation or a lot of cash. The Soho newcomer does, after all, claim to celebrate the “thoughtful delights of everyday French cooking.”
But this particular cafe sits inside the Roman and Williams Guild, a design emporium that sells the artisanal dinnerware patrons use during meal service. Cards on every table advertise the lofty prices; a single earthenware teacup and saucer runs $125. And that nice ottoman just outside the dining room? It’s $10,000.
An all-day place for an impromptu rendezvous with a colleague this is not — not with $32 white asparagus salads, and not with the lack of dedicated seating for walk-ins after 12 p.m. There are no bar stools. There is no takeout except for pastries and espresso. And virtually any lunchtime table can book a week out. If this sounds outrageous for a place that sells crepes and coffee, well, it kind of is. But at least there’s a good reason for the demand: Marie-Aude Rose is the chef.
She makes really good crepes. Ambitious New York chefs don’t tend to iterate on that Parisian street staple, nor do they tend to serve tuna-fish sandwiches for dinner like Rose does. The prevailing resurgence of French food in Manhattan has taken a variety of forms, from hip small plates spots with natural wines to haute-poultry purveyors to exalted tasting palaces. What distinguishes La Mercerie — and what ranks it as one of the most compelling Gallic spots of the past decade — is its unusual dedication to riffing on humble French-cafe fare.
A waiter ferries over a white plate covered by a craggy grey dome. This is the grilled buckwheat crepe; it hides a soft pile of chicken cut with carrots (for sweetness), cream (for richness), and tarragon (for aroma). You use the earthy pancake, which is crisp like a dosa, to scoop up the meaty bits with your hands. It’s not so much a standard portable crepe as something that could hold its own at a Michelin-starred establishment.
Or consider a single soft-boiled egg. Rose places it atop cauliflower-tofu puree, speckles it with breadcrumbs, and anoints it with a few wisps of Parmesan. The flavors express themselves with such breathtaking clarity — the vegetal punch of the chou-fleur, the opulence of the golden yolk, the umami-richness of the cheese — that one wonders why Robuchon isn’t selling these at his slick chef’s counter. Rose asks $15 for this masterpiece.
La Mercerie isn’t really an everyday cafe; it’s rather a Nancy Meyers-esque, upper-class fantasy of one. Cue the plush aqua mohair banquettes, the $6 croissants (Balthazar charges $3.75), the rustic linen napkins (take home four for $105), and the in-house florist peddling curvy myrtle topiaries.
These frivolities notwithstanding, it’s a heck of a debut for Rose. She’s a Parisian chef who’s worked in the kitchens of Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire, two of the world’s most celebrated practitioners of haute gastronomy, as well as that of Daniel Rose, a Chicago-born culinarian famous for his dressed-down approach to fine dining at Spring. Daniel hired Marie as Spring’s first cook. The duo married and moved to New York in 2016 so Daniel could open Le Coucou, an awesome (and expensive) ode to the grand French dining rooms of yesteryear.
La Mercerie, located a few blocks away from Le Coucou and run by the same operator, Stephen Starr, is cheaper and more casual by design — but no less technical or studied in its fare. There’s probably not a single tasting-menu venue in New York with a more comprehensive butter program.
Accompanying Cantabric anchovies are butter sticks laden with as much vanilla as ice cream, acting as a gently sweet counterpart to the assertively saline fish. Patrons spread sourdough slices with a lemon butter that’s as aromatic as sorbet, or a speckled buckwheat butter packing the aromas of an autumnal bonfire. But best of all is when the kitchen sends out icy Kushi oysters with pats of seaweed butter. The bivalve is refreshingly cucumber-y, while the nori-spiked dairy, smeared on a rye cracker, amps up the umami factor with a more powerful burst of brine.
Fans of the trendier aspects of all-day dining, take note: There are no grain bowls, chia puddings, or bespoke-blend burgers here. In the morning, you come for crisp ham and cheese croissants; they smell richly of dairy, as much a product of the buttery laminated dough as the heady, 18-month-aged Comté. In the afternoon, you come for a rare filet, doused in cognac sauce, and paired with tangy blue cheese pommes dauphine. And on a sweaty summer evening, you come for the salad nicoise, with a pile of slow-cooked tuna, green beans, and olives drenched in enough pungent anchovy vinaigrette to make the palate beg for Champagne.
If your table isn’t ready, hosts might suggest strolling back into the guild itself, where you can admire a soft reindeer pelt over a bespoke couch ($16,000) or negotiate the angles of a cubist chair that looks plucked from the set of Beetlejuice ($30,000). There’s nothing uncommon about mixing restaurants and retail; Bloomingdales, ABC Home, and other department stores have a long history of hosting culinary establishments. The reason for these mashups are as simple as a buffet in a Vegas casino: to keep people inside and to keep them spending.
But at La Mercerie, where the cost of goods is so completely out of reach to so many, the restaurant rather takes on the air of an aspirational advertisement, a postcard from a fictional millionaire’s lifestyle. And in this regard, one has to ask whether Starr, one of the country’s most successful independent restaurateurs, could’ve found a larger space for Rose’s stunning cooking, rather than place her cafe in a store where a sofa costs more than a Ford Fiesta sedan.
It would be nice to see more folks sample Rose’s stellar boeuf bourguignon, a shimmering red-wine braise that sits over a pile of firm, buttered penne, or her epic roast chicken, deboned and with the skin as crunchy as the layers of mille-feuille. Just when the salty bliss of the bird starts to shock the palate, something unusual resets it: garlic-ginger nougatine, discs of sugar-enriched allium that Rose should sell by the bag as candy.
One last note: If New York is having a bit of a pastry moment right now, La Mercerie is sometimes a laggard in this regard. Rose’s torteau fromager, a French cheesecake made from chevre, recalled an arid poundcake on a recent visit. Profiteroles — pastry puffs filled with ice cream — had about as much flavor as matzoh and quickly took on a stiff texture. Ananas and kirsch — pineapple slices doused in cherry brandy — evoked diced supermarket fruit doused in an indistinct spirit.
Then there’s Rose’s orange-flower-water-laced brioche, which might be one of the sweets of the century. In the morning, she cuts a single generous slice into four oversized batons and stands them up in a bowl of creme anglaise. Guests nibble and dunk as if these were toast soldiers, letting the eggy sauce fortify the obscenely rich bread. I’ve never encountered something so aromatically indulgent in a cafe, which is why it seems perfect in this whimsical, flawed, beautiful daydream of one.