Before its February opening, the oyster house and cocktail bar was heralded as another old-timey themed spot. True enough, designers John and Kevin McCormick have evoked an old, New Orleans-style oyster bar with beautiful design details, and the menu reflects a love for the best of NOLA's cocktail culture. But Maison is not a humorless experiment in cocktail-history simulation, nor is it a Disney-fied take on the theme. With its fantastic mixed drinks and simple style, Maison Premiere is marvelous.
Maison rocks a mossy palette throughout its spare space, from the worn exterior, to the peeling walls, to the bathrooms' swinging saloon doors. The dark wooden bar is the centerpiece, with seating all around and a few tables in the back.
The staff is impeccably dressed in black and white, or well-tailored suits, and shuckers wear white paper hats and long, clean aprons. There's a warm formality to the service, with everyone smiling easily and answering questions cheerfully (though late in the evening, when the place is packed and noisy, you might have to holler a little).
Beverage director Maxwell Britten has put together a dreamy menu with a focus on absinthe. There are currently 19 to taste traditionally, with a sugar cube, and water from a slow, cold drip—Maison's absinthe drip is a custom marble monument that slowly streams chilled water through its brass faucets.
There's a great selection of by-the-glass rye, bourbon, rum, and amari. Brandies of all sorts include Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and some American apple brandy. There's also a small selection of Champagne, beer, and organic and biodynamic wine (with brief, helpful tasting notes).
But you're here for the cocktails, no? On a first date, you could ask for one Absinthe Frappe ($12), put it in the middle and each take a straw. This is Pernod's absinthe mixed with sugar, water, and crushed ice, and it hits with the deep, mouth-numbing sweetness that might prime a French teenager for her first kiss. The drink knows it's cute, too: it arrives in a tall, milkshake-like glass, on a doily, on a saucer.
A more serious absinthe cocktail, the Opal ($11), is reminiscent of a Julep, with creme de menthe mixed into the base and served with a mint sprig over crushed ice. (The oysters arrive on the same type of ice—small, hailstone-like pellets that are easy to crunch.) As the weather gets warmer, I imagine this one will taste even better.
You might not guess it from the description, but the Carondelet ($10) is dry and grown up as can be: a lovely, well-balanced gin cocktail made with citrus, honey and salt.
This fabulous rye cocktail, á la Louisianne ($10), is a boozy beauty, served in a shallow coupe, and garnished with a tiny brandied cherry on a toothpick. Order it.
It would be a shame to end this review without pointing out the quiet shucker who was working on a recent Monday afternoon. Along with my dining partner—himself a New York State oyster-shucking champion—I admired his handiwork. Two dozen oysters deep, I saw only clean, unchipped shells, full of briny liqueur, the meat swept clean from the shell (in all but one instance) and the oysters' delicate shapes always intact. The Fishers Island and Salt Pond bites paired really well with drinks, though the intensely mineral oysters might fare better with a glass of wine.
As reported earlier, the best time to go (for $1 oysters) is between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. And in general, the afternoon is a great time to stop by: It's quiet enough to hear the blues tunes and you're more likely to find a table or a few chairs at the bar.