It's billed as a Parisian-style dive bar with food, but that seems to cheapen the planning apparent in every detail at Maude's Liquor Bar, the new project from Brendan Sodikoff (Gilt Bar, Lettuce Entertain You, Per Se, the French Laundry) and executive chef Jeff Pikus (Gilt Bar, Alinea). It feels more like a New York brasserie than anything else—I was constantly reminded of Balthazar. And while the concept, a modern American homage to Paris, is nothing new, Maude's take on it is fresh and smart.
The former V.I.C.E. space has been renovated into a gorgeous first-floor dining room anchored by a marble bar. Leather couches serve as banquettes that line the mirrored brick walls; candlelight diffuses through glassware, while overhead amber light reflects off stainless steel and white tile. An almost bare antique curio cabinet blocks out any views of the West Randolph corridor. The sunken, inky-plush second-floor bar is even more removed from the outside world.
Drawing its influence in part from the bistro, in part from the brasserie, the menu features charcuterie (foie gras torchon, duck rillettes), braises (short rib bourguignon, coq au vin), and classics like French onion fondue. All of the dishes are plated for sharing, and while there's more than one way to build a meal from the list of offerings, every evening at Maude's should start with raw oysters from le bar a huitres. One variety from each coast is offered nightly—maybe creamy, deep-cupped Shibumi oysters from the Puget Sound or silken, sweet Conway Royals from Prince Edward Island—all opened with care and overflowing with oyster liquor.
The seafood towers are festive, but do tend to block the view across the table—I found myself ducking between the spokes of the stand to see my companions. The Grand Plateaux includes a dozen each of the Kumamoto and Conway Royal oysters, as well as ample portions of bay scallops, mussels, clams, and shrimp cocktail—a steal at $70. For another $45, we could have added king crab legs and lobster hand-picked by purveyor Ingrid Bengis.
Pikus is a master conceiver of dishes, exemplified by his version of a traditional cassoulet. The classic stew of larded beans studded with pork parts, duck confit, and garlic sausages and baked in deep clay pot is difficult to translate to an a la carte dinner portion for one, but Maude's version is a layer of creamy yet toothsome beans and bits of savory meat spooned into a shallow casserole, topped with fresh bread crumbs, and broiled until the top is golden and craggy.
Fans of Gilt Bar will recognize the roasted marrow bones with red-onion jam and grilled bread, the bones cleaved lengthwise to afford uniform roasting and easy access. Other carryovers are cones of exemplary pomme frites made from Kennebec potatoes fried in lard and an excellent steak tartare topped with a slow-cooked egg yolk.
Nowadays everyone is a charcuterist, a skill that takes years to master. But tasting Maude's foie gras torchon should be a prerequisite for anyone thinking of putting patés or terrines on their menu. A light sprinkling of quatres 'epices coats the edge of a stout cylinder of cured and poached foie gras—more substantial than a mousse, but lighter than butter when served at the right temperature. Less appealing were the duck rillettes, whose whipped duck-lardo layer had melted into a semitranslucent slick on top of a pretty boring tub o' potted meat.
There's no filler on this menu—no throwaway dishes meant to satisfy a restricted diet, no pandering to the squeamish. The salads are fresh and seasonal but gilded with cheese and pork. A surprising slaw of shaved radish, root vegetable, celery, fennel, and red cabbage is dressed in a sharp vinaigrette and dotted with punches of Bleu d'Auvergne cheese and toasted walnuts. Bitter frisee is tossed in mustard vinaigrette and frisked with a soft-boiled egg (not poached!) and strips of grilled, smoked pork belly—a tweak of the classic Lyonnaise.
Daily specials in broad categories like cheese, fish, and sausage round out the brief menu, along with some hearty stews and a limited number of steaks. Besides the delicious blackened brussels sprouts (the vegetal equivalent of a black-and-blue steak), the only side dishes are based on the humble combination of potatoes and fat: potato puree, crispy house-fried chips, and pommes frites so good they need to be mentioned twice.
The cocktail program was a disappointment given our high expectations. The signature smash—floral, icy, and sweet—might have come off better in less wintry conditions. But even house cocktails bitter by nature strayed sweet. Champagne, beer, and wine from the well-curated list seem better suited for the menu anyway.
Initially Maude's offered only a creme brulee for dessert, but it's recently added the option of Valrhona Manjari, a fruity chocolate from Madagascar, chopped coarsely and served on a plate—exactly the right thing to nibble while drinking Metropolis French press coffee and sipping a nightcap.
Service is seamless and refreshingly free from many of the affectations currently plaguing the industry. And despite early reports of overbooking and slow pacing, I experienced equally excellent attention during an early Wednesday-evening visit and at 11 PM on a packed Saturday night.