Even if you didn’t lead the life of a wisecracking comic in late-1950s New York City, or haven’t binge-watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s made-for-TV depiction of the same, you can pretty well guess the part that the deli played in it. The deli was where industry insiders went to swap gossip, eat familiar foods and pal around with servers who knew they wanted their corned beef sliced lean and chocolate phosphate extra sweet.
I found myself in a deli state of mind at Maison, the new nighttime bistro that’s taken over into the boxy upper King building where Pancito & Lefty once lived, in part because I was avidly tucking into a standout salmon rillettes. Maison bills itself as a French restaurant, but doesn’t shy away from the appetizing counter connotations of smoked fish. The muscular salmon, coarsely chopped and lightened by lemon juice, is scattered with “everything spice” and served with slices of dark rye. If that salad was spread over the bread and presented with a pickle, I would have been sold on that, too.
Still, the lox holla alone probably wouldn’t have made me consider the overlaps between Maison now and Carnegie Deli then. Maybe it helped that Glenn Miller was on the sound system. But mostly, it was the crowd that sparked the notion.
Owned by Vandy Vanderwarker, former chef de cuisine at The Ordinary, and Will Love, who bartended at Fish for five years before joining him there, Maison is about the closest thing the Charleston food scene has to a workplace canteen. Granted, Maison’s offerings are significantly more chichi than what’s on the average office cafeteria menu (or what mid-century shtick artists called supper.) But for a number of young Charlestonians with disposable income, lemon-caper sauce and duck meat count as on-the-clock fare.
It’s remarkable how many diners at Maison attack delicate dishes such as steak tartare in a fashion that can only be described as chowing. For patrons who’ve worked in a restaurant where Vanderwarker or one of his disciples was stationed in the kitchen, a foie gras torchon can taste like family meal. It’s all very chummy, and I’d bet a Kennedy half-dollar that when the limelight’s drifted away from Charleston, food-and-bev vets will reminisce about the days when they drank good French wine at Maison.
In short, if there’s a restaurant on your resume, you’ve probably already been to Maison. The question is what’s in it for everyone else.
There are two significant consequences to the connectedness quotient at Maison. First, the good: The culinary community’s respect for Vanderwarker and Love has helped them attract top-notch talent. The front-of-house staff is completely at ease, and adept at making customers feel that way, too.
Over the course of three visits, servers repeatedly demonstrated skills that are on the verge of local obsolescence, such as unobtrusively clearing plates at the right time and knowing which wine to pair with asparagus. With so many insiders about, I didn’t have a shred of anonymity at Maison — one of the bartenders informed me that my contact lenses had been mistakenly delivered to his brother’s house — but I have faith that the service staff isn’t saving up its abilities for critic visits.
Second, the not-so-good: Friends like to have a good time when they get together. And if you’ve already snuck a peek at the informational box accompanying this column, you know where I’m going. Maison can get ferociously loud. The best antidote is a lovely patio to the north of the dining room, but if those few tables are taken, you’re liable to get rattled in a tightly configured booth.
Or you might end up in one of the woven-back chairs, chosen in accordance with the dining room’s charming black-and-white design scheme. The décor is understated, but the tiled floor and photographic prints make clear that the restaurant intends to be classy and casual at once.
The philosophy behind the food is much the same, although it’s somewhat difficult to discern its driving force. It’s not accurate to dismiss Vanderwarker’s dishes as derivative, because he was largely responsible for the dishes at The Ordinary, which they track unswervingly. You can’t fault a guy for knowing his style and sticking to it, especially when it’s so graceful; nobody’s going to tell Mike Trout to change his swing.
To put it another way, this is a rap on human nature, not the restaurant. Anyone who has ever daydreamed about stepping out from under a boss has likely thought about the dramatically different ways in which he or she would do things. If it’s a tad deflating for those wistful types to discover that isn’t Vanderwarker’s storyline, diners can at least take heart in the very good food he’s making.
A meal might start with what amounts to a fetching ham-framed asparagus bouquet, a vernal assemblage of bias-cut asparagus slices, artichoke heart wedges, English peas and little yellow flowers, dressed in olive oil and dappled with mild mayonnaise. Or if you prefer your greens constrained by buttery pastry instead of pork, a tart packed with caramelized onions is dolloped with whipped goat cheese and an on-point English pea puree.
Color is central to Maison’s most memorable dishes, with the lily-pad green of the puree reappearing in the maws of snail shells. In this case, the hue is wrought by the parsley in the compound butter, which flatters the escargot beautifully. Another shellfish starter that literally shines is a bourride, featuring opened mussels lapped by a saffron-stained white wine broth, thickened with a potato-strengthened aioli.
Entrees aren’t necessarily richer than the appetizers, but the unrelenting heaviness of the sauces becomes more apparent two courses in. And all too often, the sauces are applied with so much exuberance that the careful cooking of the meat or fish is completely obscured. The au poivre on a steak frites, for instance, is satisfyingly peppery, but the dish is closer in spirit to gravy fries than what a Parisian would expect to encounter in a neighborhood brasserie. (It’s also a shame the fries weren’t a few degrees warmer.)
Then again, it’s comfort food, from the earthy pate at the beginning to the nutty filled choux pastry at the end. These are not dishes to advance the Charleston food scene, but they’re understandably welcomed by those within it. And considering how hard they’re working to create a kind of golden era, they deserve it.