Maison Premiere

Absinthe and oysters, the old way.

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SOUTHSIDE WILLIAMSBURG—If you’re the type who doesn’t drink alone, Maison Premiere is the place to break your own rule. Despite its home near one of Bedford Avenue’s busiest corners, this three-year-old absinthe house and oyster bar—a bewitching period piece based on New Orleans–style speakeasies—is one of those rare places where you can make believe you’re back in the 19th century drinking away l’heure verte.

But the real reason to go by your lonesome is that a solo spell at Maison Premiere’s horseshoe-shaped bar provides a chance to admire the perfect details of what could be the city’s best classic cocktail bar.

Indeed the space is a study of tarnished sterling silver, scratched marble and old wood that all looks as though it weathered the deadly tropical storm that wrecked the Crescent City in 1856. Co-owner Krystof Zizka says many customers wrongly insist the dusty green barroom itself has been there for at least a century. That’s because every nook and cranny of the place, created by Zizka and his friend and business partner Joshua Boissy, plays the part: the creak of the yellow pine floorboards brought up from Louisiana; the wooden pull handles hanging from the tanks of the bathrooms’ vintage toilets; the copper oyster tubs holding Virginia’s Shooting Point Salts or Conway Cups from Prince Edward Island, which get served up on towers spilling over with crushed ice, crab claws and fat pink shrimp.

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Even the staff, nattily dressed in pre-Industrial-era garb, makes the place feel like the entire set of Boardwalk Empire just wandered south from their Greenpoint studios. (The show has filmed on the premises.)

Of course there’s also the old-fangled ceremony in the making of your drink: the precise twists-of-the-wrist of your barkeep, his crisply ironed shirtsleeves kept tidy with neatly placed armbands as he dusts the crushed cap of ice in your Magnum Opus Julep with a flurry of caraway seeds. Served in a sturdy footed glass, this pale pink blend of bourbon, dry vermouth, rosemary syrup and grapefruit bitters becomes the adult version of a sundae.

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Barbacks, meanwhile, might pull a pint of Maison Premiere’s Oyster Stout #1— made by Long Island’s Barrier Brewery with shells shucked from Maison’s famous $1 happy hour oysters—or set up an absinthe drip under the Napoleon-topped water fountain. It’s modeled after the one at Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street, except here the plumbing still works.

Yet what’s more impressive than Maison Premiere’s decor or even its success—Esquire named it one of the country’s top bars seemingly minutes after it opened—is that it didn’t arrive from culinary consultants or deep-pocketed investors. Instead, it was made from scratch by two local restaurateurs who’d grown tired of everybody else making it big.

Zizka and Boissy also helm Le Barricou, a seven-year-old French bistro over on Grand Street near Union Avenue that you haven’t heard of unless you live in the neighborhood. Le Barricou was Boissy’s first baby: He was waiting tables in Manhattan and living upstairs when owner Jean-Pierre Marquet, who also runs the Court Street bakery Le Marquet Patisserie, offered him co-ownership of the struggling new restaurant if he’d agree to run it. Boissy bought in and brought on Zizka, whom he knew from work. Together they hunted down appropriate antiques in Bushwick thrift stores, reworking the menu to be one of the early adopters of La Frieda beef and La Colombe coffee.

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But as nearly every new restaurant and bar opening in the neighborhood—Fette Sau, Dressler, Huckleberry Bar, Walter Foods—drew cool-seekers from Manhattan, Le Barricou never even got a real review. So the pair decided crafting a new restaurant might earn them some attention. That it would become the country’s “official absinthe bar,” as Boissy puts it, was an idea that came during 2008 trip with Marquet to France. They fell hard for an old-school Parisian pastis house with a horseshoe bar and met a Loire Valley distiller named Ted Breaux, whose Lucid brand had just become the first absinthe legally imported into the States in nearly a century.

Inspired, Zizka and Boissy scored a surprisingly good lease for an abandoned flat fronting Bedford Avenue, traveled to New Orleans, and did even more antiquing. Without much money—they began constructing the bar during the low point of the economic slowdown—they worked slowly, distressing wood by hand with help from beverage manager Maxwell Britten, a respected city drinksman they lured from Freeman’s. Oysters, surprisingly, were added late in the game once Zizka realized how much he and Boissy loved trips to Manhattan’s Aquagrill, while the dress-up clothing came after they realized they should match the decor. (In fact, admits Boissy, before Maison Premiere opened, “I didn’t even own a suit.”)

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And while Maison Premiere still offers more than two dozen brands of absinthe, today the bar is just as well known for its bivalves. Each afternoon nearly three dozen varieties of painstakingly sourced East Coast oysters are tucked into the ice at the raw bar, where primly folded napkins await the customers queuing up to score the dollar shucks—there are usually more than a dozen types from which to choose—that make Maison Premiere’s happy hour one of the very best in the city, at least for discerning fans of Crassostrea virginica.

A year ago they added a haute moderne dinner menu, featuring complex crudos, New Jersey branzino poached in vermouth-spiked broth or Nova Scotia lobster claws paired with coconut-curry potatoes delivered with Per Se–like precision from a flurry of well-trained servers. The tiny underground kitchen is run by Alain Ducasse–trained chef Lisa Giffen, who matches the spirit of the establishment—and Britten’s bracing absinthe-centric cocktail menu—with remarkable aplomb.

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It is, of course, still a lot more 21st-century Williamsburg than New Orleans or Paris circa 1807. But it hardly matters: Maison Premiere is just as transporting, and maybe more so.

“This is kind of like our own version of a place and time,” explains Britten of the carefully crafted world around him, “that definitely doesn’t exist in real life.”

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Think these photos are gorgeous? We’ve got even more absinthe glamour shots here.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.