Maison Yaki, chef Greg Baxtrom’s Prospect Heights French yakitori restaurant, is directly across the street from his first restaurant, the avant garde, Michelin-starred, vegetable-forward Olmsted. So Baxtrom was familiar with the space long before it was his. It had been a dive bar, and “not even a fun dive bar,” he says. “The space is a little narrower and a little darker than Olmsted,” the chef remembers. “And when it became available, I immediately wanted it.”
But what to do with it? Baxtrom was pacing back and forth in Olmsted’s vegetable garden when he had a lightbulb moment: French food, but on a stick. He wanted to create something “equally or more affordable than Olmsted, but with the same quality. And I personally love French food,” he added. Baxtrom lived in France for several months and has traveled there often since. He went to a classical French culinary school and loves bistro-style spots like Montreal’s L'Express and Paris’s (now closed) Café Constant. (Maison Yaki’s floor, a colorful mosaic of tiles, is modeled after Café Constant’s.)
And the small, slightly dark spot reminded him of the buzz of yakitori and ramen places north of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. Often called Piss Alley, it’s a neighborhood where customers pull up a stool and dig into something cheap, flavorful, and soul-satisfying.
The idea came to Baxtrom all at once — he’d combine two of his favorite things. Maison Yaki was born. The restaurant’s name means “house of yakitori,” and while it makes perfect sense to Baxtrom, the concept requires some explaining.
“I was trying to prove a point. I didn’t want to make overpriced nonsense.”
Baxtrom thrives off subverting expectations. His résumé reads like a World’s Best Restaurants list — Alinea, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Per Se among them. When he opened Olmsted in 2016, “everyone thought I was going to open a big, expensive, fancy restaurant,” the chef remembers. His vision was different. “I was trying to prove a point. I didn’t want to make overpriced nonsense.” What he did want, and went on to create, was a seasonal neighborhood restaurant that’s both excellent and welcoming.
Maison Yaki shares that warm, comfortable vibe. The place smells of charcoal, roasting mushrooms, and grilling meat. The palm-sized menu features skewers of duck a l’orange, lamb merguez with harissa, and shishito peppers. There are 16 taps where guests can choose from wine, sake, beer, and house cocktails straight from the tap.
On Maison Yaki’s Caviar menu, you can order some of these heady concoctions, like the smooth Sake Negroni or the herbal, earthy Tarragon Margarita. The dishes show off Japanese flavors and French technique. Their Super Crunch Fried Chicken is a sandwich — a pillowy sesame seed bun bursting with fried chicken, Japanese barbecue sauce, and napa cabbage slaw. A cauliflower okonomiyaki pancake is studded with hazelnuts and topped with creamy yuzu kosho aioli. Aged duck rillette with pickled ginger is ideal for spreading on fresh bread from Evi’s Backerei, a sister bakery that’s attached to a new restaurant in his burgeoning empire, Patti Ann’s, which serves nostalgic Midwestern comfort food. A Patti Ann’s Pinto Potato Bread bun plays a crucial role in Maison Yaki’s MY Burger; other supporting roles include yuzu kosho mayo, beefsteak tomato, and melty raclette cheese.
Maison Yaki (as well as Olmstead and Patti Ann’s) is on Vanderbilt Avenue, the main artery that runs through Prospect Heights, where most businesses are independently owned. “The Palestinian family who owns Foodtown is our landlord at Olmsted,” said Baxtrom. “We get Asian pears every year for Christmas from the sweet family who owns the dry cleaner.” Baxtrom has made himself and his food an integral part of the neighborhood he loves.