First Impressions: Maison Kayser

Maison Kayser Tribeca banquetteWalking into Maison Kayser‘s new Tribeca outpost can be a shock, inducing strong feelings of nostalgia for the Harrison, a neighborhood institution in that location for 14 years. And yet the space is among the aspects that Maison Kayser gets right. Carving up the room with interior walls proved smart, creating a new sense of intimacy and buffering the dining area from the takeout counter.

Maison Kayser Tribeca counterWith grab-and-go containers labeled “le quinoa” and “la caesar” and servers in Breton shirts, suspenders, and ankle-length aprons, the Frenchiness brings to mind Le District in Brookfield Place. But where Le District went for an industrial, contemporary vibe, Maison Kayser mines more soigné territory. There’s molding on the walls, orange and tan banquettes, a tile floor, bentwood chairs, marble tabletops on cast-iron bases, Duralex glassware, and framed vintage Elle covers and French postcards (not that kind, alas). The place is pretty, especially when the big doors are opened onto Greenwich Street.

Prettiness demands perfection, however, because anything not pretty is like a speck of grit in your eye. If I spend $27 (before tip) on a green salad and a tartine (open-faced sandwich) at lunch in the dining room, I don’t think a cloth napkin is out of the question. Laminated menus and preprinted tip options (18% and 20%) on the receipt are just tacky. And the service, while cheerful, lacks polish—which only jars all the more with the prissy Francophilia. When I sat down for lunch at noon on Friday, the server immediately asked if I wanted to order a coffee. Later, when I asked the counterperson for a baguette, she asked if I wanted a coffee, too. (“Is it free?” No. “Then I don’t want it.”) Were they upselling me, pushing high-margin coffee as part of an aggressive growth plan? I wondered whether qualified servers are more likely to work someplace where people spend more—i.e., on booze, which Maison Kayser says it will not serve.

This is the company’s seventh location in New York City, with an eighth opening soon; so far, the others are in the Flatiron and points north, neighborhoods not known for third-wave coffee and artisanal pastry. Tribeca is different, for now, in that we have many top-notch cafés (Kaffe 1668, La Colombe, The Smile Newsstand, Gotan…) and the estimable Arcade Bakery. I don’t know about you, but the aforementioned establishments have made me a complete snob when it comes to espresso and French pastry and bread. I can’t drink that burned espresso that comes from automatic machines—when I see the machine-y foam on a macchiato, I know I’m in trouble. And I’m not wasting my calories on a croissant that looks OK but is essentially a bun on the inside, or a dense baguette with no crackle. A lot of people have strong affection for the Maison Kayser brand, so perhaps it’s better elsewhere and will improve with time. Or perhaps comparing it to Arcade Bakery is unfair, and the better yardstick is Le Pain Quotidien, which could be Maison Kaiser’s bobo cousin.

All of that being said, there were bright spots beyond the appealing room. The fig and chèvre tartine at my sit-down lunch was delicious, with figs that were actually ripe; the mesclun salad, while dainty, was appealingly fresh. And the big winner might be the prepared foods. For a different lunch (on a different day), I tried “le riz sauvage d’ete,” or wild rice with barley and mixed vegetables, and the Tunisien sandwich. The salad was decent enough that I’ll try the other options. And the sandwich—tuna zested up with olives, capers, carrots, jalapeño, mustard dressing, and harissa—was good by any measure, and what’s more, it was a terrific value. There are not many places around here to get a worthwhile premade sandwich.

Maison Kayser is at 355 Greenwich (at Harrison);

Maison Kayser Tribeca facadeMaison Kayser Tribeca front roomMaison Kayser Tribeca croissantMaison Kayser Tribeca saladMaison Kayser Tribeca fig tartineMaison Kaysrer Tribeca pastriesMaison Kayser Tribeca dessertsMaison Kayser Tribeca prepared foodsMaison Kayser Tribeca Tunisien sandwichMaison Kayser Tribeca riz sauvage deteMaison Kayser Tribeca baguetteMaison Kayser French presidentsRecent New Kid on the Block / First Impressions articles:
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  1. Maison Kayser has long been the favorite of our French-American household, so we were excited for its (early?) opening and no longer having to make out-of-the-way trips for our daily bread. (Pain Quotidian was never considered). But despite one’s preferences, Arcade is a tough comparison for those of us who work uptown given their limited hours, and in NYC there’s no under-estimating convenience!

    My one comment on comparison to Le District (perhaps unfairly, as we haven’t returned to Le District since its opening weekend): at least all the servers we’ve encountered so far at MK Tribeca either speak French, or have learned the key French menu items. (Our visit to the boulangerie counter at LD met with a woman who was very confused by our order for a baguette–she literally handed us small rolls–and also didn’t understand what the Poulet sandwich ordered by another customer was although the menu referred to it as such.)

    Finally, I will note that in the 5 minutes I was at MK on my initial visit Friday afternoon (all thanks to TC’s broadcast of the opening), I saw two people struggle slightly with the step up into the to-go area: one woman with a walker, and one woman with a stroller. Not sure if there is a more accessible entrance on the other side (though the fairly tight set up of the space would seem to discourage strollers in any event).

    And yes, I will stick to Kaffe 1668 for my coffee and espresso needs.

  2. Good luck to a new business in Tribeca – especially in light of all the empty, shut down businesses on Greenwich Street recently due to a terrible upsurge in rent demands.

    If the issues above are corrected, I’m sure MK will become a mainstay especially for those looking for light fare. However, I looked at their menu from their other establishments and wrote to them 3 times (and on their facebook page) about the inclusion of Foie Gras on their menu. This happens to be one of the cruelest ways to prepare food in the world. Please look it up so I don’t have to post it here. They ignored my three emails; along with the others sent by other Tribecan neighbors. It’s time to grow up and expand consciousness. If a certain food is so cruel that a creature has to greatly suffer its short and horrible life, then it’s time to stop the practice. Well, that’s how I feel. Does being cosmopolitan and trendy make one immune to compassion? I desperately hope not. I’m checking now to see if it’s still on the menu. If so, c’est la vie — I will find my pastries elsewhere.

  3. Understand the humanity to animal concerns but French cuisine without fois gras? Impossible! Almost like asking them to drop la beurre as well….

    • Rohin – I hear what you are saying, but there comes a time where humanity should evolve to a higher level. There was a time in our neighborhood when oysters were the most popular food here and throughout New York. Rich or poor – it was all about the oysters. Telling people to chill out a bit about the oysters would have prevented what happened next. We used up all the oysters in the Hudson and for almost 100 years, there haven’t been any. The Hudson became polluted and until about 10 years ago, it was really dangerous to get that water on you. After much work in cleaning up the Hudson (Thanks Pete Seeger, et. al)…. they are now putting them back into the Hudson. It’s what kept the waters clean. People’s need to eat them created a big problem with the Hudson. Heeding the warning probably would have changed that – and kept the food source. Things happen; things change.People need to change especially in light of the times.

      I give our French friends a little more credit. Much of our cuisine methods are based on French culinary skills. It’s not just based on fois gras. As a matter of fact, my cousin who is a pediatrician once saw the family eating chicken liver… “When you realize what the liver does for the body, you may not want to eat it.” That was the last time I ever ate liver. But thanks for response.

  4. I don’t want to live in a world without foie gras !

  5. I think MK is a good addition to the neighborhood. I went the other day with my daughter. When they saw I had a stroller, the hostess immediately came to the door and helped me in with it – even though my daughter was walking next to me so it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to get the stroller inside myself. We bought a few things and my daughter took her cookie out of the bag. As we were breaking it in half, part fell on the floor. The people behind the counter saw this and offered us a replacement right away. I was pleasantly surprised. Happy to have a business like this in the neighborhood even though I do miss The Harrison.

  6. Completely underwhelmed. Vibe is upscale Parisian McDonald’s. Ignored by staff. Actually had to ask for service. $5 fine an iced tea?!?! Nope. Won’t be going back anytime soon.

  7. Two months in, Maison Kaysar seems like a doomed restaurant. Or perhaps just needs more attention to detail. Yesterday several light fixtures were either without a globe or had burned out bulbs, the takeout food looked sloppily prepared, and the staff seemed untrained (were unable to provide details about menu items, did not refill water glasses). On top of that, the food was subpar: my Americano was too bitter to drink, and the club sandwich was soggy and mostly bread with a sliver of chicken, a single piece of iceberg lettuce, and minimal tomato. I had high hopes based on good experiences at the Columbus Circle Maison Kaysar (even the furniture there seems to be of higher quality), but the Tribeca location was a big disappointment. It makes Le Pain Quotidien look like Bouley!

  8. Well, I wouldn’t have guessed it given their busy foot traffic, but Maison Kayser appears to have closed. Passed by earlier today and it was shuttered with no products in the display cases, and the Tribeca location has been scrubbed from their website:

    Can you confirm if this is true, and find out why they closed (usual lease renewal, or something else?)? Although technically it’s a chain and I know there are others elsewhere in the city, this feels like a huge loss to the neighborhood. :(