The success of Maison Premiere isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s visited it — which, if you live in New York City, is nearly everyone. On a Friday night when temperatures dip to decidedly non-tropical temperatures, the Williamsburg institution is positively bustling with folks–neighborhood regulars, bridge-and-tunnelers, tourists, and your occasional movie star–seeking out the spot’s oysters and New Orleans– and Parisian-tinged cocktails. The wait for a seat is more than an hour, and eager visitors smile, shrug, and agree. No problem.
That’s no small feat, especially in a day and age when dime-a-dozen joints waving the craft-cocktail banner sprout up like Starbucks and even the fast-casual establishment across the street has an ice program. After four years, the people still want their oysters, their absinthe (blanche or verte), their hurricanes and table-side martini service.
All that could serve as evidence for why, for the second year in a row, Maison Premiere’s bar program has been nominated for a James Beard Award (in a category only slightly younger than the place itself). It’s an award Manhattan establishments have taken home twice now since its inception, and some might say a win for Maison could go a long way toward cementing the Brooklyn spot’s legacy in the world of cocktailing.
“None of [Maison Premiere’s early staff], like, had any reputation going into this, really–we were pretty rookie,” notes Maison Premiere head barman Will Elliott. That’s not the case now. What began as a relatively small oyster-and-absinthe bar has become a major career stop for some of New York City’s finest to ever work behind the stick.
That includes Jillian Vose, who went on to serve as head bartender at the Death & Co. and now manages at Tales of the Cocktail favorite The Dead Rabbit, and Natasha David, co-owner and head bartender at LES’s Nitecap and a former consultant to places like Brooklyn’s Sunshine Co. Maison Premiere alumni have also moved on to notable spots like Milk & Honey, while some have parlayed their experience there into representing celebrated brands like Lillet.
While that “generation,” as Elliott calls it, has come and gone, Maison Premiere maintains some of its founding tenets: “One thing that we really wanted to bring to the cocktail scene was a sense of emphasis on non-stuffy hospitality,” Elliott says. “Which to us kind of seemed foreign at that point in Brooklyn; there seemed to be a very sort of, you know, too-cool-for-school kind of attitude in a lot of cocktail environments … But we definitely, right out of the box, knew we didn’t want to participate in the [asshole bartender] cliché.”
That also means paying attention to “all those little things” and understanding that top-notch bartending doesn’t begin and end with knowing how to properly shake, say, a daiquiri. “You have to be able to represent everything behind the bar,” he says. As such, Maison employees undergo intensive bar training and rigorous continuing education, which includes learning the ins and outs of at least 225 spirits in constant rotation, along with 30 different oysters.
Now, add to that the substantial dinner menu. Over the last two years, the Bedford Avenue destination has transitioned from an absinthe-and-oysters spot to a full-blown restaurant, with chef Lisa Giffen manning the helm. The New York Times has called her fare “impressionistic” and “lovely,” and her appointment as executive chef has earned the joint press from the Village Voice, Eater, and Grub Street, among others. “We have a kitchen that has a very high standard,” says Elliott, noting that’s likely helped Maison distinguish itself from other cocktail bars. “We’ve really pushed each other, I feel like. I’m very close to [chef Giffen], and I think we both influence each other a lot.” That symbiotic relationship has naturally led to a cocktail menu that’s more nuanced and better-matched to the kitchen’s seafood-focused fare.
That’s not to say there aren’t still those stand-alone showstoppers, like the elaborately garnished Maison Sherry Cobbler, that bring patrons through the door. “People come here and they know that they’re going to get something extraordinary and kind of over the top but still full of substance,” Elliott says, noting that some guests have come from as far as Paris and Japan.
“People are, like, asking to take your picture,” Elliott says. “It’s really sweet, heartfelt, and crazy, and it just so happens to be because we’ve done some Japanese magazines and stuff.”
For now, that–you know, the other side of the world–is where Maison Premiere’s global reach ends. While Elliott says they’ve received repeated offers to expand internationally, owners Joshua Boissy and Krystof Zizka have simply set their sights on North Williamsburg, where they will open a restaurant in the former Lokal space. Chef Giffen will also helm the menu there, with plans to open the joint in late summer.
At the moment, though, it seems some of the Maison staff are looking no further than Chicago, where on Monday, May 4, the winners of this year’s James Beard Awards are announced. “I plan on partying really hard,” Elliott laughs.
Maison Premiere, 298 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg