After three years of preparation, everything better be perfect.
Mixed with a bit of anticipation and lots of relief, that’s the general sentiment of the crew behind Maison 208. The restaurant — on the site of the former Letto Deli, in the middle of the Gayborhood’s buzzing 13th Street strip — was first announced back in summer 2014. It generated excitement because the location had sat sagging and vacant for years, and also because of the chef attached: Sylva Senat, whose NYC-honed fine-dining talents last impressed at the now-shuttered Tashan at Broad and Catherine.
Then came the fire. The old deli had been razed, and just when the frame of the new building was nearly complete, an arsonist struck. The entire structure went up in flames, causing more than $1 million in damages.
But disappointment did not derail the project. Senat spent his time helping open Dos Tacos at 15th and Sansom and then competing on season 14 of Bravo’s Top Chef, while proprietor Herb Reid and operations director Stephen Yaeger pushed on — and set about improving upon their original plans.
Among the bonuses the delay allowed:
- A four-story custom mural with a swirling bird-inspired theme
- China, flatware and glassware collections that pull from the finest manufacturers in the world
- Outfitting of the semi-open kitchen with the very latest equipment
- An extensive, all-organic wine list
- The design of three separate bar areas
- Acquisition and installation of Philly’s first-ever retractable roof (it cost six figures to install)
And now, they’re finally ready to launch. The restaurant is already serving drinks and bar bites in the second floor lounge, in soft-open mode, while full dinner service begins Wednesday.
Despite all the fancy accoutrements, the Maison 208 team maintains they want it to be thought of as a neighborhood restaurant — “We want people to eat here three times a week, not once in a while.” Good news for us, because the food and drink, as gorgeous and well-thought out as they are, are priced to make that easy.
Here’s a look at some of what to expect when you visit.
Black Hog Pork Shank
Senat sources the highest quality Berkshire pork — known as Korubuta, from the same region of Japan that gives us Kobe beef — then bathes the meat overnight with a coconut milk marinade. After that, it’s braised for eight hours at low heat, which turns the meat into soft, sweet candy. Plus, all the fat is rendered out of the skin, leaving it as a crispy self-made condiment. Served with natural jus and haricot verts, this hunk goes for just $26, all told.
Lest vegetarians think Senat is all about meat, check out the effort he puts into this dish. First, a melange de legumes — eggplant, zucchini, carrot and squash — is diced and sauteed with spices. It’s then packed into a terrine between zucchini slices, and wrapped with dehydrated vegetables. To serve, additional house-dried herbs are arranged on top and the whole thing is bathed tableside in a lemongrass-tomato broth. You even get to select a special knife to dig in. It’s more food than it looks like, and runs $14.
Seafood lovers, rejoice: Senat has mastered the art of the French filet, which pulls each and every bone from a fish while leaving the rest of the body intact. A dredge through a “secret crust” and a quick, nine-minute pan fry creates an ultra-crisp exterior and sweet, flaky meat. It’s all bathed in a rich tomato broth and surrounded by herb-enhanced heirloom tomatoes and fingerling potatoes. One of the priciest items on the menu at $36, it’s plenty to share (though you won’t want to).
Island Beef Lollipops
Senat grew up in Brooklyn, but he’s originally from Haiti, and here he channels the beef patties of his native island into an over-the-top appetizer. A mix of yukon and sweet potatoes are made into a dough and molded around a Kobe beef-curry center. The whole thing is dipped in panko and deep fried, then set atop a truffle foam. On the plate? “Gold,” aka puffed rice pearls coated in gold dust. Five of these puppies are yours for $9.
If you’re used to truffle oil and haven’t really experienced the real deal, this mini pizza — available both upstairs and in the dining room — will have you catching your breath. A puree of fresh summer truffles is generously spread across the thin, housemade dough, then baked with fontina cheese. To enliven each bite, a mini salad of frisee, watermelon radish and three-citrus dressing is laid in the center. This one’s $15, to account for those expensive mushrooms.
Ops director Yaeger is the man behind the cocktail list. His “Gin & Terrarium,” which sees the juniper spirit served beneath a glass bowl surrounded by a cornucopia of garnishes, has been getting plenty of Instagram attention, but other drinks are also worth highlighting. For this one, he scoured Philly’s vintage shops and plucked 30 different cups and saucers, so no two are alike. What’s in the center is as restorative as any tea: Chamomile-infused Straw Boys vodka (from Ireland) with echinacea and ginseng ($12).
Unlike some “green” cocktails, this one doesn’t hit you over the head with a healthy taste, but is just herbal enough to match its hue. Green chartreuse helps bring it there, mixed with N gin (from Spain) and a sweet pea and cucumber puree ($12).
Yaeger created this drink because it’s what he personally loves, but it’s apparently selling like hotcakes, despite the high-ticket tag (currently $23, get in at that price while you can). Lagavulin 16 Year scotch provides a supple base for the combo of house-smoked vermouth, housemade tobacco bitters, smoked brandied amarena cherries and a finishing bath in a globe of actual tobacco smoke. You also get an actual miniature cigar, sourced from Cappelli Bros. Cigar Co. right across the street (where you’ll have to go if you want to smoke it).
The upstairs bars and retractable roof will get most of the attention, but the downstairs dining room is plenty attractive, too. Seating there begins June 21, and reservations are available online.