For several years, restaurateurs have been turning away from the ever-rising rents on East Bay and Upper King and repurposing old light-industrial buildings on what I guess you would call Upper Upper King. I’ve been wondering if the menus would inevitably drift downward in the process, away from the old, high Charleston cuisine and toward more sturdy and reliable fare like burgers, tacos, and fried chicken.
I was especially curious about Maison, a French restaurant that recently opened in the old Pancito and Lefty space in a long, low building shared with a climbing gym. Things seem a bit stark from the sidewalk, for the exterior has a decidedly DIY vibe — outside walls painted deep blue, no signage beyond the restaurant’s minimalist logo (an “M” with a pointy top that also looks like a house) outlined in white neon tubes.
But you step through the front door into a completely different setting — an immaculate invocation of a stylish Parisian bistro. With high ceilings and lots of natural light, the room feels airy and bright. There’s a striking pewter-topped bar, and the hexagonal white and black tiles on the floor are matched by the white and black woven backs of Parisian-style bistro chairs. Large photographs of Parisian scenes — a Citroen, fountain, the Louvre Pyramid — continue the motif.
The appetizer menu is blissfully free of poutine. Instead, there’s a pate de campagne ($14), which couldn’t be any better — reddish-pink, studded with almonds, a great smoky bite from its bacon wrapper. Instead of the typical baguette, it’s accompanied by rustic sourdough from local baker Tiller Baking Company, and the bread’s chewy crumb and pleasant bits of black char makes the plate twice as delightful.
The opposite is the case with the salmon rillette ($15), which by itself is quite nice — subtle, delicate, and fragrant with fennel. When you spoon a little onto a triangle of the warm rye bread that comes alongside, though, the acrid bite of the rye punches right though the delicacy.
Burgundy escargots ($14) are served in spiraling brown and tan shells. A big dose of parsley-garlic butter renders the snails a vivid green but imparts only a muted garlic flavor. More impressive is the summer vegetable tart ($16) topped with tomato jam and a ring of thin-sliced squash and zucchini. In an unexpected twist, it’s plated like a dessert, with fromage blanc piped into little rounds and half the plate thickly dusted with what looks like cocoa powder but turns out to be black olive tapenade. The mix of savory and sweet is beguiling, especially if you assemble a single forkful with a little of the creamy cheese atop the thick, sweet tomato jam then the crisp, buttery pastry.
Maison offers plenty of other surprises. The menu selections — escargots, steak frites au poivre, coq au vin — seem at first to fall in line with traditional bistro offerings, but as the entrées arrive you realize not everything is strictly by the book.
The dry-aged duck runs an eye-popping $70, but it’s a dish for two, and quite an elaborate one at that. Each breast is seared rosy pink then sliced lengthwise and arranged to form an elongated oval, the meat sides touching and the skin running around the outside. The leg meat has been transformed into a savory crepinette, a sort of duck sausage patty laced with spices and bits of apricot. Seared until charred around around the edges, the flat disc is sliced into half moons that are placed on either end of the white plate. A mound of splendid cabbage (also well charred) anchors the center, garnished by a faux egg crafted from a dried apricot nestled in a little white cup carved from an artichoke. It’s a delightful plate.
That duck is the creation of Vandy Vanderwarker, who was formerly chef de cuisine at The Ordinary before stepping out with bartender Will Love to open Maison. He brings to his new kitchen the same focus on deep, intense flavors that characterizes The Ordinary, and also a playful eye.
Take the monkfish chop ($40). It’s a thick wedge of fish, and since the monkfish tail oddly has no smaller bones hanging off its cylindrical spine, you can carve right into it like a pork chop. Seared a golden brown on top, the fish’s smooth, buttery bite is offset by the crunch of sliced almonds generously sprinkled on top. Sliced yellow and green pole beans in a tangy brown-butter sauce round out the main plate, and in an echo of rice and gravy at Sunday dinner, there’s an accompanying dish of pilaf and a little pitcher of butter sauce goosed with chicken drippings.
Equally creative is the coq au vin ($30). Traditionally a cold weather dish, Vanderwarker has completely deconstructed it, and lightened it up, too. The chicken is marinated in red wine for a full 10 days and braised until tender, then the meat is pulled from the bone and blended with roasted ramps. The result is a hefty, compressed patty of shredded and intensely-flavored chicken with little strips of green running through it, glazed a deep mahogany with reduced cooking liquid. It’s surrounded by broccolini, roasted carrots, and a thin pool of that dark sauce, along with some delicious pink radishes, their spicy bite tempered by a slow braising in butter.
(As a note, by my second visit, the coq au vin had been replaced by a non-deconstructed roasted chicken. I suppose there isn’t room for two chicken entrees on a single menu, but one can hope for its return.)
There’s much more to like about Maison, like spot-on wine suggestions from the friendly but professional servers plus a slate of cocktails that feature the oft-ignored cognac (the Parisian Negroni with cognac instead of gin is particularly tasty.). Ultimately, though, it’s the food that seals the deal.
At Maison, it seems, Vanderwarker and team have staked out their culinary boundaries — traditional French bistro fare — then really knuckled down to see what they can do inside those limits. Dry aging duck, marinating chicken for days on end, shredding and enriching and reconstituting meat — they’re all ways of enhancing and intensifying flavors, and it really shows on the plate.
That extra effort makes Maison a welcome addition to the evolving Charleston scene. With Leon’s, Melfi’s, Little Jack’s, Graft, and now Maison all within a block of each other, the little stretch of King between Congress and I streets is shaping up to be quite a hot spot.