Merce and the Muse, and Mary
[UPDATE: Both of these places have closed.)
One of the curious things that’s happening right now in the Paris food scene is a spate of what I consider ‘anglo’-style cafés opening up in various smaller neighborhoods. There are a few that have been around for a while. But in the past year, casual restaurants that sell leafy salads, made with just-cooked fresh vegetables and greens, house made soups, hand-held desserts like individual carrot cakes and les muffins, fresh fruit juices, and coffee made with care and attention, have been giving the normal lunch of choice for harried Parisians, les sandwiches—including the good ones from the local bakeries, as well as those from the unfortunately popular Subway sandwich shops that are rapidly invading France—a run for their money.
These simple cafés and take-outs are riffs on places in England like Ottolenghi that take care when selecting ingredients. Proud of their bounty, they often display (and sell) their carefully-sourced fruits and vegetables, which makes them all the more enticing. Top notch ingredients are used not because it’s trendy to be ‘biologique‘ (…or is it?), but because they actually taste better.
This change of thinking, as evidenced by the popularity of these anglo-inspired places, is fascinating to watch, because countries like America, Australia, and England have a debatably undeserved reputation for serving not very good food. Of course, there’s good and bad food in every country. But when I think of London or Sydney or San Francisco, images of restaurants serving fresh, local cuisine comes to mind and I know quite a few Europeans who’ve made their first trip to America, and are surprised to find such good ingredients and food in the restaurants.
Even more interesting, some of these places in Paris are owned and run by Americans or British folks. And no one is blinking an eye. My Little Paris called Merce Muse’s new place a “Coffee Shop” New Yorkais without apology, but with anticipation. A while back, I read an article about how coffee shops in New York were holding tasting seminars for their employees, and making sure they were using the proper technique for tamping and extracting espresso. And a day doesn’t pass when you don’t hear about some Seattle chef making their own sausage or a new wood-fired pizza oven blazing to life in Los Angeles.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought as to why this do-it-yourself movement has become so popular in America, where people are making everything from scratch, often setting up shops and restaurants to sell them. I can rattle off a long list of friends who’ve started successful businesses launching everything from homemade jams to bean-to-bar chocolate. Perhaps it’s our enterprising spirit, or maybe our drive to succeed?
At Merce and the Muse in Paris’ suddenly-hip upper Marais, the young American owner, Merce Muse, orders her coffee from Denmark’s Coffee Collective and actually went up there to learn how to properly prepare and extract it. Aside from the Caféotheque, this is the only place I’ve seen in town that tamps down their coffee. (When I went to coffee school, they told us the plastic tampers attached to grinders were worthless.) Although I like mine a little more serré (tight) than they pull, it’s nice to have a place close by where I can find a café express that’s not thin or bitter.
Because her place had just recently opened, and since I arrived after the lunch rush, most of the salads and sandwiches were gone, but there were a few desserts displayed on the wooden counter. Merce had originally planned to open a cupcake shop, so you’ll likely find some small frosted cakes no matter what time of day you stop in, as well as Rice Krispie Treats made with dried cranberries. (Okay, those don’t quite fall into the “fresh” food category. But anyone who complains, I’ll take theirs.)
Given enough time, I look forward to returning for lunch in the comfy seating area, which I can imagine is going to get quite crowded once the word spreads. With the fascination for le Brunch in Paris, I think the smell of individual cups of drip coffee filtered through porcelain cones with a special swirl to brew better coffee (or so I was told), and glazed poppy seed cakes, will draw in the local bobo crowd, willing to put down their cigarettes and smartphones just long enough to duck inside for something un peu américain to eat.
Speaking of foreigners making food loved by the French, after a recent trip to Rome, and sharing pizza last night at Maria Luisa, was that I can’t think of any Italian restaurants in Paris where the cooking is done by anyone but Italians. Italian restaurants have always existed in Paris, but only in the past few years has authentic Italian food become more widespread and appreciated. Ditto with Japanese food.
But in all those places, it’s always Italians behind the stoves and manning the pizza ovens, not French cooks. (In the case of real Japanese restaurants, not the fast-food sushi places that have exploded in numbers in Paris, I’ve only seen Japanese cooks, except at Rice and Fish sushi, which has an American sushi-maker.)
Perhaps it’s because Italy is so close to France they just leave it to the Italians, who are doing a great job of opening up places in Paris that become instantly popular once word gets out about them. La tête dans les Olives, La Briciola, and Olio Pane Vino are some of the places that serve terrific Italian food and are very popular.
Gelato has also taken off in Paris, too, and places like Pozzetto and Grom are serving Northern Italian-style gelato in Paris. Rich and thick, you’ll see less emphasis on lightness and more concentrated mixtures, sticky and dense with hazelnuts and chocolate. Just next door to Merce and the Muse is Mary.
Like her neighbor, Mary Quarta’s gelato shop is full of quirky charm: from the pink-handled gelato spades to the frappés (milkshakes) with your choice of flavors, I have a feeling each subsequent time that I go back, something is going to be different. I’m not sure what to expect, which is good, because that means she’s keeping things flexible.
(On a side note, I always find it odd that people complain when restaurants run out of a certain dish. You want to go to places that run out of food, which is generally a sign that it’s freshly made.)
Mary speaks little French, or English, so most of the conversation I had with her was done by mixing a a little of each…with a lot of Italian, extracting the right words and ingredients from each language, which somehow all come together like a smooth batch of her Tiramisù gelato.
When it was time to decide on which flavors I wanted, my first choice was crème à la nougatine, which brought a big smile out of her and made me assume I’d made the right choice. She pointed at a lone glass jar on the counter with crackly shards of housemade almond caramel and said those were what she used to crumble into the gelato.
After she handed my ice cream over, which was paired with chocolat extra fondant, I took a lick and immediately recognized the chocolate as Domori, which surprised her a bit since Italian chocolates aren’t well-known here. I haven’t met many chocolates I don’t like, and although all the other flavors looked interesting, in spite of my hemming and hawing at the counter, I invariably choose chocolate as one of my flavors. It’s a decision I rarely regret, and this shiny-dark chocolate gelato was no exception.
When I moved to France, I was convinced that every conversation eventually led to one of two subjects: politics or food. I leave them to discuss their politics, but it’s encouraging that places like these are not just being talked about, but also packed with locals, there to enjoy the food. Last year, I took Romain into Whole Foods in New York City, with it’s extensive grocery and take-out selection. And as we were leaving, he asked, a bit rhetorically, “Why don’t we have places like that in Paris?”
I thought about it a while and said that it wasn’t really part of their culture to have places like that. But cultures change, shift, and respond. Twenty years ago, if someone told me that chains of organic supermarkets and upscale coffee shops were going to spread across America, I would’ve said they were nuts. The gastro-bistro movement that was launched a few years back in Paris was a revelation, and now it’s normal to find wonderful inexpensive bistros serving very good food at reasonable prices dotted everywhere in the city.
We all love Paris because of its past and its rich culinary history is certainly impressive. So it’s interesting to see how these places are being added, accepted, and folded into the grand menu of offerings on the Paris food scene. I hope a lot more small places like these open, with the owners working the counter as well as in the kitchen, sourcing fresh ingredients and serving them to contented customers. These are the kinds of places I like to patronize, whether or not they’re owned by French, Italians, or Americans. Good food doesn’t have any borders and I’m glad to see these places being given such a warm welcome, and are flourishing, in Paris.
UPDATE: As of November 2012, Merce and the Muse has “changed direction” and is in the process of revamping the concept and menus, under new management.
1, rue Dupuis (3rd)
No phone or fixed hours yet
Related Links and Posts
Mary (Paris Notebook)
Mary-the Gelato Shop (Vingt)
Take That, Paris Cafe (The Atlantic)
Swamped in the Marais (Serve It Forth)
Gouymanat (Just on the corner from these two places)