Frog Legs, Pigeon, & $1 Oysters: Maison Premiere’s Chef Lisa Giffen Leads The Way

On the south end of Bedford Ave., a line is forming. Every weekday at 3:30pm, crowds are making their quiet shuffle to the Grand St. corner, where they await their aphrodisiac fix at a price that can’t be cheaper: $1 oysters from Maison Premiere.

"There’s a line outside right now," says Lisa Giffen, Maison’s executive chef. "We begin each week with towers of oysters, and it’s shocking how quickly it’s all eaten."

At Maison, seafood is the star of the show – and at the happy hour alone – from 4pm to 7pm every weekday – 20 kinds of oysters are for the slurping at a price that’s less than a box of paper clips. The oysters are so highly regarded (and respected), they require their own car ride when they’re picked up from the airport five times a week. 

But bivalves aren’t the only ones attracting attention at the old-world New Orleans and hotel lobby-inspired spot. Ever since Lisa joined the team a year ago, she’s transformed Maison – which has its own brass absinthe fountain –  from a seafood and absinthe den, to a full-on restaurant with a large-plate menu, packed with pigeon, frog legs, black cod, and rabbit.

"We found that people really wanted to eat here after they drank at the bar, so we made sure to meet that demand," Lisa says. "Our Tasting Menu is our biggest hit."

The Tasting Menu – a five-course, $95 meal – begins with a tower of raw oysters, and ends with a sprawling, dessert finale of spiced rhubarb shortcake bites, cheesecake, rum baba, and madelines.

"Fifty percent of the people who get the Tasting Menu come back for it a second time," Lisa says. "I swear, it’s the dessert array."

But of greater surprise is Lisa’s own path to leading the kitchen of Maison. Her first job after college was doing sales for Sharpie markers.

"I started moonlighting in kitchens on the side and did a program at ICE," she says. "Finally, I realized I spent more time cooking than I did doing the work I was paid to do, so I made the move. But learning to manage a team of people – from the porter who washes the dishes that the food goes on, to the guy who peels onions all day long – have followed me since."

And while Lisa wrangles the kitchen staff downstairs, the waiters and bartenders tend to the guests upstairs who, on occasion, get engaged, celebrate anniversaries, and break-up at the bar and in the outside garden.

But at a place serving mostly oysters, expect mostly romance.

"Oysters are an aphrodiasc," says Lisa. "But alcohol is, too."

Lisa Giffen

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I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco: Classic Drinks in the City by the Bay

“I’m always drunk in San Francisco,” goes the 1962 standard, a favorite of Bay Area crooners. “I always stay out of my mind. But if you’ve been to San Francisco, they say that things like this go on all the time.” Truer words have never been belted. From the whiff of marijuana on every corner to the famously booze-infused Bay to Breakers, to the partying in the streets of the Castro, San Francisco earns its moniker as Fog City for more than just the weather.

However, while a good deal of this imbibing isn’t the most discerning in nature, those with a palate for a finely concocted cocktail would do well to park their bar stools in the City by the Bay. “San Francisco is one of the best, if not the best, cocktail cities in the world,” says Jeff Hollinger.” Them’s fighting words, but Hollinger has the pedigree to back up the claim.

Author of The Art of the Bar: Cocktails Inspired the Classics, Hollinger helped create one of the nation’s most esteemed cocktail programs at San Francisco’s Absinthe–home for another few weeks of Top Chef favorite Jamie Lauren–by serving up inventive, ingredient-driven cocktails. While he loves pushing the envelope (he’s recently been experimenting with mushroom-infused beverages), Hollinger’s real love is the classic cocktail. Such drinks have staying power, he says, because they “fall in the realm of simplicity.” He compares them to comfort food, explaining that these are the drinks that you’d pair with that infamous dying meal. His choices? A perfectly roasted chicken and a Manhattan. So taken is Hollinger with the classic cocktail that last December he stepped down at Absinthe to open a sister property, the Comstock Saloon, which he’ll run with Jonny Raglin, another Absinthe bar alum. Hollinger and Raglin have converted the massive San Francisco Brewing Company space into a bar and restaurant reminiscent of a turn-of-the century saloon. Slated to open May 20, Comstock will feature ragtime jazz piano, seafood cocktails and potted meats and a drinks menu finely focused on the old standards. “It’s almost as simple as you can get,” he says of the cocktails that will consist almost entirely of martinis, Manhattans, and negronis. “We’re getting away from trying to reinvent the wheel.”

And while he admits that San Francisco has a reputation for more culinary-inspired drinks, he insists that Comstock is part of a backlash against the perception that, unlike New Yorkers, San Franciscans don’t drink the classics. Below some other key Bay Area beverages that he’d include in his cocktail primer.

The Ginger Rogers and the Sacred Heart at Absinthe. Naturally, Hollinger starts at his former bar, which he says is still going strong, run by “cocktail geeks” like himself. Because it’s his old stomping grounds, Hollinger allows Absinthe two classics. The Ginger Rogers, created by Hollinger’s predecessor Marco Dionysus, is a mojito-like concoction of gin, ginger beer and mint and has been on the bar’s menu since day one, proving its classic potential by becoming a staple of the twelve-year old program. The Sacred Heart earns its spot in Hollinger’s pantheon because it was Absinthe’s first cocktail to include its namesake liquid when the green fairy was legalized. Unlike other absinthe-based beverages, this one is subtle and layered, combining with pomegranate infused tequila, limoncello, and a splash of lemon-lime juice.

The Manhattan at Bix. Classic in every sense of the word, this supper club, a city favorite since 1988, is tucked away on tiny alley in Jackson Square. The space immediately sends you back to the glamour of the speakeasy with waiters and bartenders in captain’s coats and a menu that highlights oysters, steak tartare, and a classic Cobb. “When I walk into Bix,” says Hollinger, “I immediately want to drink a whisky cocktail.” He usually goes for the Bix Manhattan, made with Maker’s Mark Bourbon and Carpano Sweet Vermouth. But it’s not the precise jiggering or a perfect shake that garners Hollinger’s praise. “The shape of the glass,” he says swooning over the curvy, delicate vessel into which the red-hued liquid is poured. “It’s a sexy glass.”

The Margarita at Tommy’s. When asked why the margarita at Tommy’s, a family owned Mexican stalwart in the Inner Richmond district, makes his list, Hollinger shakes his head and laughs. “It keeps me from drinking too many shots of tequila with Julio,” says Hollinger of the temptations of bar master Julio Bermejo’s world-class selection of tequilas. But Julio’s famous margarita, which has been mimicked around the world, isn’t just a less potent distraction from the hard stuff. “Julio reinvented the margarita,” explains Hollinger. “No cointreau. Just agave, tequila and lime juice.” And boy is there ever lime juice. Sitting at the bar, patrons are treated to a show, as bar backs, powerfully wielding manual juicers, work their way through seemingly endless crates of limes, to create an explosion of citrus in every glass.

The Sazerac at The Alembic. Part of Hollinger’s love for The Alembic stems from the awesome playlist constantly on rotation at this paean to American whiskey. “They play Nashville Pussy so loud you can’t even think,” he murmurs in awe. “That’s my dream.” Hollinger also praises the humble creativity shown behind the bar. “It’s a whiskey bar, but it’s not trying to make a big deal about it,” he says. “It’s simple and inventive.” Co-owner and mixologist Daniel Hyatt’s ballsiness extends past his willingness to blast lewd psycho-billy tunes. The Alembic incorporated absinthe into its signature Sazerac before the ban on the green fairy was lifted, an act that earns the New Orleans inspired cocktail a place on Hollinger’s list.

The Irish Coffee at Buena Vista. “It’s the only thing they do,” says Hollinger of the Irish coffees poured in this almost century old bar. In an unabashedly touristy part of town, with the sounds of cable cars rattling past and a view of Fisherman’s Wharf across the street, Bay Area visitors pull up seats at the long bar and watch as practiced bar tenders pour countless rounds of Tullamore whiskey, hot coffee and cream into the waiting rows of glass mugs.

White Manhattan at Nopa. Although Hollinger believes that the days of the sexy, uber-constructed cocktail may be numbered, he has faith that Neyah White, the man behind the bar at San Francisco hot-spot NOPA will persevere. When White is tending bar, Hollinger opts for bartender’s choice, sipping whatever concoction of house-made ingredients and selection of unaged white whiskies that White cares to make. But Hollinger calls NOPA’s White Manhattan, made with white whiskey, Dolin blanc, Benedictine, and orange bitters, “a simple stroke of genius.” “When I tasted it,” he says, “I thought, of course, why the hell wouldn’t you?”

And at the end of the day, er, night, it’s that sense of predetermined perfection that makes a classic and keeps it so.

San Francisco: Top 10 Eggs Not for Breakfast

Absinthe (Hayes Valley) – While they’re only available at brunch, Absinthe’s deviled eggs are anything but traditional breakfast fare. Looking deceptively familiar with a dollop of egg yolk swirled into perfectly hard boiled whites, Top Chef alumna Jamie Lauren belies expectations by topping the potluck favorite with salty smoked trout, and as if that weren’t enough, a sprinkling of another kind of egg — osetra caviar. ● The Alembic (The Haight) – Known for its cocktails, Alembic divides its drink menu into “old school” classics and “new school” elixirs like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, which marries strawberry puree with whiskey, vermouth, and a dash of Tabasco. Libations like these require bold but not overpowering bar bites to accentuate the flavors of the fresh ingredients, and an order of pickled quail eggs fits the bill. These gorgeous pink orbs of briny lusciousness are smooth and rich, with the perfect amount of salty punch to whet your palate for another drink.

Sea Salt (Berkeley) – Sea Salt is known for using sustainable seafood in its fresh interpretations of old classics, with a menu that includes ahi tuna sliders and a vodka-laden oyster shooter. No devilled egg in this fish joint would be complete without an ocean delicacy involved, so Sea Salt has taken an oversized duck egg and topped it with a generous helping of Spanish anchovy, creating a happy marriage of land and sea. The little mermaid should be so lucky. ● Flour & Water (Mission) – Buzz continues to build around the crispy Neapolitan pies and housemade pastas at the uber-popular Flour & Water, but before launching into a carb fest, it’s always good to have a little salad. Lucky for the hedonistic among you, one of the best “salads” at F&W is a warm potato and lamb’s tongue salad, served with a poached egg and salsa verde. So feel no compunction about cutting into that perfectly cooked egg and allowing its runny yolk to spill onto the tender lamb and salty potatoes because after all, you’re being good and having salad first. ● MarketBar (Financial District) – Takes three of San Francisco’s most common culinary characteristics, swirls them all together, and stuffs them in a deviled egg. Representing the City by the Bay’s seafood savvy, a little Dungeness crab has been added into the mix. The area’s gastronomic French influence makes its appearance in the form of a rich aioli. And lest the emulsion have too strong a Francophile bent, it’s been seasoned with a nice helping of Mexican ancho chili. The three come together to form a truly San Franciscan take on a perfect eggy appetizer. ● Aziza (Richmond District) – Basteeya, a fragrant blend of minced chicken, almond and saffron stuffed into a flaky filo, is a destination dish at chef Mourad Lahlou’s temple to Moroccan flavors. But before biting into the tender puff pastry, try putting an end to the old chicken and egg question by beginning your meal with one of the best of Lahlou’s rich starters — a hen egg with the North African spice mix charmoula and a side of crispy beans. ● Samovar Tea Lounge (The Castro) – This bastion of relaxation pays homage to the tea rituals of many great chai-centric societies, including a classic English service, a Moorish medley, and a Chinese tea tasting. If your hot beverage mood is steering you to Russia with love, then the house-blend black tea goes brilliantly with Samovar’s devilled eggs, which takes the traditional Ruskie whole wheat blini topped with caviar and egg yolk and inverts it, instead stuffing the egg with caviar and serving alongside wheat crackers. ● Rose’s Café (Cow Hollow) – Given Rose’s rotating menu, you may or may not be able to begin your al fresco lunch at this California-Italian favorite with a bruschetta topped with a savory mushroom ragu and a poached egg. Pity. But not to worry, those in need of brain food can always add an organic egg to any of Rose’s thin crust pizzas. ● Bix (North Beach) – Fancy schmancy supper club Bix is so hip to the non-breakfast egg trend that it has ovum on offer for lunch and dinner. For the midday meal, prove that you’re a card-carrying member of the smart set by ordering the baby iceberg shrimp Louis (don’t you just love a salad with a first name), which comes with avocado, a farm egg, cherry tomatoes, and capers. In the evening, tap your toes to jazz while sampling the most elegant eggs in town — these little devils are stuffed with truffles. ● Chez Maman (Potrero Hill) – No list of eggs for dinner would be complete without mention of one of the dishes that started it all: the French classic, frisée salad with bacon, poached egg, and vinaigrette. The version at le tres petit café Chez Maman, is a perfect representation of this French salad and is a testament to the fact that the incredible edible egg was always meant for life after 11am.

Industry Insiders: Peter Schaf, Agent Absintheur

Described by cutting edge food writer Louisa Chu as “the epicenter of the global absinthe revival”, Peter Schaf is as far removed from an absinthe fueled maniac as one could expect. Discreet, self-effacing, and polite, Schaf is a major player in the absinthe renaissance. An obsessive collector, scholar, and consultant to some of the best absintheurs in the world, Schaf is the dark horse of an industry that is all too often characterized by false perceptions and charlatans looking to make money off of the misunderstood and legendary literary tipple.

Point of Origin: My brother came to my wedding in Marseille in 1999 and asked me to find some absinthe for him, as he had tasted some on a deep-sea fishing trip and found it interesting. I found a Spanish mail-order liquor supplier on the web and while surfing around, discovered the already growing, mostly American underground absinthe enthusiast community on a forum at feeverte.net. From there, I made virtual online acquaintances from around the world, several whom I would eventually meet in person, some becoming friends and a few, business partners. What attracts you to absinthe? The history and legends, the myriad of fascinating antique objects, the complex and varying tastes of a well-made absinthe. Absinthe appeals to my lifelong antique-collecting/treasure hunting inclinations along with my desire to taste and experience unusual foods and drinks. The public seems to have perceive a stigma when thinking of absinthe. What are your thoughts on this? Where do you think it comes from? Ask any French person about absinthe and virtually 100% of the time you will get one of two responses: “It’s illegal, yes?” and “Doesn’t that make you crazy?” It took 50 years to ban absinthe in France (1915) after the first anti-absinthe literature of the 19th century appeared. That battle produced a great deal of negative press which made it over to the USA, where absinthe was banned even before France (1912) as a “precaution” to protect Americans from the degradation of society that it had caused in France.

Years later (1988), absinthe was officially “defined” by decree in France as a protective measure; our research uncovered that this also effectively legalized real absinthe, but no one seemed to notice or care commercially until over 10 years later. The recent “re-legalization” of absinthe in the USA (2007) is due to a similar reason: It was banned without the American government providing any specific definition as to what ingredients made a liquor named absinthe actually become absinthe. Through legal pressure, the government was convinced to declare specifics, thus opening the door for modern absinthes in the USA. Unfortunately, modern profiteers, with no clear understanding about what true absinthe actually is, are selling poorly made substitutes, using the same false “hallucinogenic” myths that caused absinthe to be banned as a “drug” in the first place!

Side Hustle: I wander flea markets when I need to clear my head and feed my treasure-hunting tendencies, keeping an eye out for that rare antique absinthe spoon, glass, document, or what not. I was once an avid scuba diver in another life, and miss it. I am a self-professed “wine dick,” much to the distress of friends who might accidentally get themselves into a technical discussion while drinking wine with me. Favorite Hangs: Actually, I am always at work, and never at work. Isn’t that the definition of an ideal job? My idea of playing is always having a sample of absinthe or some odd liquor or wine for someone to try. I recently received a “key” for the secretive PDT in New York City. I prefer a calm setting to unwind — this is my idea of the ideal lounge, and Jim’s cocktails are simply perfect. Too bad it’s an ocean away. That said, I always bring absinthe drinkers to the unique Cantada II bar in Paris (even though I don’t exactly blend in with the crowd). Mickey’s choice of absinthe is the best in Paris outside of my apartment. Alfred Jarry and Rimbaud would have appreciated the décor and ambiance. Known Associates: Who have you collaborated with, etc. during the course of your powerful ascent to glory? Glory, power?! I’d just like to be there when it happens! I provided T.A. Breaux his commercial start by setting him up in 2003 to make the Jade absinthe line in a distillery in the Loire Valley; this would eventually lead to efforts that helped lift the ban in the USA. Absinthe historian and antique booze-hunter David Nathan-Maister and I have collaborated on the small-batch Roquette absinthes made at the Emile Pernot (with a “T”) distillery in Pontarlier, France. I have contributed much to his exceptional absinthe collection and research, including a groundbreaking lab study debunking drug-like claims given to historic absinthes. David, Ted, and I were featured in a 2006 New Yorker article by Jack Turner, which I feel was strongly instrumental in the renewed interest in absinthe in the USA.

I arranged much of the 2004 absinthe episode of Kevin Brauch’s Thirsty Traveler TV series and was featured on the 2005 pilot of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations series; he had his first taste of “vintage” absinthe from one of my antique bottles here in Paris. That would eventually lead to a 2007 episode for Gourmet Magazine’s “Diary of a Foodie,” where my Pontarlier absinthe projects were recorded by Louisa Chu, the charming chef-vagabond of Chicago. I recently had the pleasure of supplying absinthe to the talented Jim Meehan of PDT, the best mixologist I have had the privilege of imbibing with. However, most of my efforts and associations have remained low-key, and I’m not that comfortable with self-promotion. Projections: The potential for making a world-class absinthe in the USA is as high as making great wine, and I guess that has worked out pretty well. Distilling absinthe is possible almost anywhere in the world, but only if you have the right equipment, along with well-sourced plant ingredients from the best terroirs and, of course, a solid foundation of traditional techniques and protocols. I think the artisan food and drink movement in the States has created an interesting environment for high-quality absinthe production. Once well-made absinthes become better appreciated in the USA, France might once again embrace them, and I look forward to the time when absinthe will be regarded once again as a world-class spirit.

What are you doing tonight? My daughter is now on school holiday with her grandparents in Marseille, so I plan to meet my wife for Korean near the Opera. That is, after I try to work off excesses from my recent American trips at my gym L’Usine, one place that definitely doesn’t see me near enough. I will finish the evening in front of the computer, working on what I hope will be a useful handbook for the modern absintheur.