Chef Ryan Kelly and his fiancée, Desiree Stone, took over the five-year-old Café Maison this past summer, purchasing the business from owner Jeff Fitzpatrick. Kelly had overseen the tiny kitchen for a year. Fitzpatrick wanted to get out of the restaurant business, and Kelly wanted the stability of owning his own place, especially after Stone gave birth to a baby in April. "Liam's birth meant I suddenly grew up and was taking things much more seriously," Kelly says.
The 30-year-old chef from Little Rock, Arkansas, had worked in plenty of restaurants (including Spago in Los Angeles and, here in town, Café Rumi and Grand Street Café) before putting his own imprint on Café Maison's menu in the spring of 2005. After he and Stone bought the restaurant in July, they briefly closed the venue to give it an interior makeover that reflected their own tastes. The walls are now the same shade as the sweet-potato soup that Kelly often features as a daily special (and a discreet dividing wall screens off the entrance to the bathroom).
The biggest change, Kelly says, was installing a gas stove in the kitchen and making better use of the confined space. He kept some of the details that Fitzpatrick instituted and neighborhood patrons love: fresh flowers on the tables, flickering votive candles, warm baguettes served with flavored butters.
"The butter changes almost every night," explained our blond-haired server, Lainie (who confessed that she'd been named after bosomy film star Lainie Kazan). She pretended not to see me cringing at the very idea of peach-honey butter, that night's spread. "I can bring regular butter if you prefer."
I did prefer. I would no more slather good bread with peachy butter than with motor oil. My friend Debbie liked the sweet stuff, though, and happily spread it on several slices. Debbie and I were dining with Marilyn on the last night of October, and we were startled to see a couple of patrons at the bar in Halloween costumes, including a green-painted bald guy who I assumed was the Jolly Green Giant until Lainie corrected me. "It's Shrek," she said.
Elsewhere at the bar, a handsome man sat nursing a drink alone, until the door flew open and a beautiful young blonde swept into his arms. They were a romantic counterpoint to the dour 60-something couple sitting at a table in bored silence not 5 feet away. "Even the most intoxicating romance turns, with age, to vinegar," I whispered to the recently divorced Debbie.
I was only cynical for a moment before my spirits were lifted by the salad that Marilyn and I proceeded to split a mound of tart apple sticks, ruby-colored beet slivers and bits of pungent blue cheese. Debbie comforted herself with a bowl of the restaurant's signature tomato-basil soup, one of the few dishes that hasn't changed since Café Maison first opened as a lunch-only bistro.
In the past five years, the room has evolved from a Gallic-style coffee shop serving a sophisticated déjeuner and really excellent Sunday brunch to a romantic dinner spot offering wine and, more recently, a full bar for those who prefer something a little more potent than Cabernet with their boeuf bourguignon.
Kelly likes to change his dinner menu frequently sometimes nightly and the fresh fish is never the same from one evening to the next. Marilyn liked the sound of that night's special: flaky halibut encrusted with crushed pistachios, topped with slices of amber pear poached in Burgundy and splashed with a reduction of red wine and balsamic vinegar. "It's very good, but there's a lot of different flavors competing for my attention," she said. "The wine reduction doesn't do a thing for the fish, just fancies it up."
So simplicity isn't Kelly's forte. Debbie loved the four plump caramelized sea scallops she'd ordered, but it took her awhile to warm up to the pile of truffle-oil-infused polenta in the center of the plate. "I didn't like it at first," she said, "but after a while, I did."
I didn't have to contend with such culinary complexity. Kelly's chicken cordon bleu hews closely to traditional versions but with better ingredients. It's not a dish I order very often, because so many restaurants prepare it so badly, but Kelly's a moist chicken breast rolled around a layer of nutty Gruyère and a sheath of Canadian bacon, then dusted with baguette crumbs lives up to the literal translation of cordon bleu: blue ribbon.
We were too full to consider dessert that night, though Lainie trilled off the possibilities admirably. That's why, on my return visit with Franklin and Lou Jane, I warned them, "Don't eat too much. We have to have dessert."
Luckily, those two aren't just Francophiles but lusty eaters, too. They polished off the plate of veal-and-pork pâté, made quick work of the bread and butter, and whipped through the salad course. Lou Jane and I wisely shared the mixed greens sided with fluffy balls of goat cheese (it's very rich), but Franklin insisted on the apple-and-beet number that I had sampled on my previous visit.
We decided to stick with the standards on Kelly's concise menu: a bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin for Franklin ("Good," he said, "but not the best cut of steak I've tasted"), pan-seared duck breast on a blanket of French lentils for Lou Jane (she liked it, but I thought the soft slices of pink duck meat were too salty). I had the hearty and luscious boeuf bourguignon the classiest beef stew in the city.
Now, about those desserts. When Café Maison first opened, the food was prepared by the talented husband-and-wife team of Scott and Gigi Cowell (who soon left to open their own excellent lunch-only restaurants, Café Europa and L'Etage). A legendary creator of pastries and desserts, Gigi Cowell would be a tough act for any chef to follow.
In this regard, Kelly isn't on his firmest footing yet. His light lemon cake isn't quite up to the perfection of Cowell's, but I liked the unexpected layer of pineapple jam in the center. Another carryover from Fitzpatrick's menu, the "crème brûlée bread pudding" (which I didn't like when I reviewed this restaurant in 2004) is even more odd now. It's neither custardy enough nor puddinglike. "It's like a big cinnamon roll," Lou Jane said, poking her fork into the flaky crust. As it turns out, Kelly isn't any more enamored of the dessert than we were. "It's not my favorite," he told me later, "but we have regular customers who throw a fit if we don't offer it."
Foolishly, we didn't order the new signature dessert, Kelly's spin on the classic French tart tatin. Friends of mine swear it's the best apple tart they've ever tasted, but Franklin wanted something with chocolate. Lainie gave a rousing description of that night's cake, supposedly "a base of chocolate brownie topped with cake and a layer of ganache and served with raspberry crème fraîche." It looked stunning, but the slab of cake was slightly dry, I never found the so-called brownie base, and the raspberry crème fraîche was a puddle of milky pink liquid. Something obviously had been lost in translation.
But that was only a semisweet disappointment. I'd return to Café Maison in a heartbeat, because Kelly has talent and ambition, and the place is warmer and friendlier now than it's ever been.
You know, like home. Café Maison