Hello, as I relocate my body from Brooklyn to a muggy riverside corner in DC to the quiet arboraceous refuge of Virginia. Feels like summer.
Today’s piece is longer than usual but reflective of how I plan for this space to evolve, which is to actually give you what you signed up for! While the mediaspeak for it is “cultural critique,” I’d consider it more a mashup between “critical celebration” and “searching for how to be human.” Not the most sellable branding, but in line with technologist Xiaowei Wang critiquing critique:
“…in simply critiquing, we remain caught in the long list of binaries: Tech is dehumanizing, tech brings liberation. Tech dragged the world into the mess it’s in, tech frees it from this mess. Tech creates isolation, tech connects marginalized communities.”
Setting an editorial standard for this newsletter mildly terrifies me, but it’s a chaotic good sort of terror. I want to be ruthlessly honest while respectful of your time. It keeps us suspended between binaries, through the unruly vulnerability and evergreen fear of mediocrity.
So, for today—enjoy these thoughts I’ve accumulated after the last few years in aspirational spaces, basking in hautecore decor, and wondering where the wild went. You can also read it on my website for a prettier experience.
It's in the Buckwheat Butter
A macchiato: that is, two ounces of espresso topped off with foamed milk. For the same price, I could've gotten quadruple the volume at Starbucks or double the shots at Blue Bottle. But no. I'm staring at the receipt of upward social mobility, feeling only nonplussed about unlocking the next tier.
I'm standing in La Mercerie, the ethereal French restaurant on the corner of Howard and Mercer, helmed by chef Marie Aude-Rose and designed by architects Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch. Their client roster spans luxe to hip to corporate: the Met's British galleries, the Ace Hotel, Facebook's mess hall. This is all to say: dining at La Mercerie embodies peak Soho in decor and culinary experience—a rapturous celebration of hautecore, the chaotic neutral between camp and normcore.
I'm not paying for three ounces of muddy liquid; I'm indulging in the lush spirit of Roman and Williams Guild, the elegant home furnishings gallery that La Mercerie situates itself in. My drink is merely an accoutrement to the story that patronizing this space tells about me. For just a moment, I rent an earthly heaven where I can be rich in both cultural capital and capital capital—where I can have my rhubarb tart and eat it too. I take a bite but it tastes too pure for the reality of my palate, irretrievably dirtied after years of immersion in the trend-chasing cultural cesspool of New York City.
"Our appetite is huge. Our appetite to collect, arrange and share, with architecture, small objects, plants, foods… I think we have a generous spirit. We just want to share as much as possible, with as much people as possible," says Alesch.
This is the allure of Standefer and Alesch’s work: a sincere sentiment, unfettered by expectation to pursue the path of least resistance to highest return (read: capitalistic, far-from-artistic) endeavors. After all, Roman and Williams Guild is named after their grandparents, who perhaps watched Standefer grow up between Manhattan and Montauk, while young Alesch ran through the “hippie hills of Malibou lake.” A bountiful heritage breeds beautiful tribute.
Unsurprisingly, Roman and Williams Guild presents a compelling and comforting story to Manhattan socialites who already intuit Malibu-Montauk-chic. La Mercerie doesn't need to explain itself for being unapologetically French or teach diners how to pat artfully speckled buckwheat butter atop sourdough bread.
Unlike travel company AWAY and workspace collective The Wing—two Soho neighbors with overlapping clientele—The Guild inherits enough cultural richness to enchant consumers without need for million dollar marketing budgets.
Come, join us, and your world will be lighter, freer, more joyous.
Dine in, and you'll find it in the butter.
Still, the lucid dream feels suspicious. Walk a block down, and you'll find a parallel narrative in the Guild's previous streetside neighbor, retailer Opening Ceremony. While more hype than haute, OC augments the ethos that to be cultured is to be a certain strain of globalized. Its celebrity patrons span Rihanna to Chinese actor Sun Honglei; its Spring 2020 lookbook features chef Daniela Soto-Innes and artist Omar Apollo in striking imagery.
OC's where I purchased one of my favorite pairs of shoes, alternatively known as my taste-signaling trap. They're beautiful. They're mint, suede leather undercover dad shoes with a modern silhouette, and annoyingly the most high maintenance sneakers I own. They're not from an indie Japanese label but from a multinational corporation with a history of violating child labor laws. I get compliments on them constantly.
Whether dining in at La Mercerie or walking out in an OC fit, both function to refine your image towards the aspirational—at best, someone "fiercely confident in your heart and soul" and at worst, someone operating from lukewarm assurance in the things and relationships you possess. Probably both.
The year after it opened in 2017, La Mercerie hosted T Magazine's 2018 The Greats party, cementing its identity as a media and fashion darling, a vessel for the cultured to perform their mischievous charm.
But a one night extravaganza for The Greats means someone needs to tear down at 3am before next morning's service, at an hourly rate less than the price of a single "fringed flax linen napkin" ($18), by someone of a deeper hue than the visual median of the party participants. Never mind, it was a beautiful night for the greats.
Who's to blame? The most diverse place I've worked was the U.S. Health and Human Services, and even then there were no Cambodians. You're more likely to find them in Oakland, incarcerated, or posthumously sublimated in an indie literary magazine.
For the greats and the aspiring-greats alike, we pursue sensational experience at the expense of its side effect: the restless conflation of our performative and resting states. We keep glamorous stories on deck not in order to live but to perform our truth, sometimes genuinely, sometimes insecurely.
But the people are radiant, the flowers are exquisite, the food is bewitching, and for a night, it is well with your soul.
The barista's about to hand me my $7.08 macchiato. On second thought, he slips on an extra nonrecyclable polyethylene lined cup sleeve to shield my hand from the heat. I imagine it's part of their hospitality training, but our split second of eye contact sharpens my awareness that I'm the only non-Caucasian on the other side of the service counter. My instinct is to say no, no need for the extra sleeve, but suddenly I have no issue soiling the earth to feel like I belong. How fraught it is to be seen.
I sip on my coffee as I walk out, expecting the best damn macchiato of my life. The espresso base is rich and roasty, indeed satisfying. I like it, and I resent myself.
A moment later, it's gone, yet another paper cup tossed in yet another trash can on the garbage lined streets of Soho.
Was it good? Yes. Was it tasteful? Yes.
Was it true? Was it just?
Photos, in order of appearance: Robert Wright for The New York Times, me unintentionally for this essay, Stefan Ruiz for Opening Ceremony, Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Special thanks to Anna Wilhelm and Sarah Cooke for feedback, and to Hayden Jeong for being the buckwheat to my butter.
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From the last paid post: I mused on a Chinese saying popularized by an ad, 混不好就不回家, which roughly translates to “even if I don’t make it out there, I just won’t return home.” Yet 混不好 (the “not making it out there” part) carries a deeper connotation—a feeling of drifting, almost listlessness. A generational mood?