Greg Baxtrom’s second restaurant Maison Yaki is not Olmsted. It doesn’t have a backyard garden. It’s not something to plan weeks in advance for, and there are no s’mores.
But it’s definitely a Greg Baxtrom restaurant. The backyard, at 626 Vanderbilt Ave. between Park and Prospect Places, is full of (inedible) plants and a pétanque court, a French outdoor game similar to bocce. There’s an indoor mushroom greenhouse, and carrots are utilized, this time for a salad with carrot ash-aged goat cheese instead of those famous crepes.
“I still very much want the restaurant to have the ethos that we’re sustainable and kind to our employees,” Baxtrom says. “We still have some of that identity, but I didn’t want it to be so much of like, ‘Ok, ok, we get it — you like to grow stuff here.’”
The restaurant is Baxtrom’s sophomore debut, and it sits directly across the street from his smash hit first restaurant Olmsted and quite literally stands in its shadows — something that Baxtrom is acutely aware of. “Of course I’m nervous,” he says. He’s had offers to open fine-dining restaurants like the ones he used to work at (Alinea, Blue Hill at Stone Barns), but he wanted to keep elements of the Olmsted formula: something more casual, without pretense.
“It’s not like I don’t get offers to open up fancy restaurants in Manhattan now,” he says. “That’s not what I want to do.”
As such, everything on the food menu at Maison Yaki is under $10. It’s a mash-up of classic French cuisine with Japanese cooking technique and ingredients. (Baxtrom spent part of his career in France and staged at yakitori restaurants in Hong Kong and Tokyo.) The majority of the menu is focused on skewers, a way to serve two-ounce portions of meat without looking “ridiculous,” he says.
There’s chicken breast with allemande sauce, lobster with Americaine sauce, asparagus with bernaise. Cold and hot appetizers run from duck rillettes with wasabi to a beef tongue sando with gribiche. Drinks are similarly low-priced, with cocktails just $9, a rarity for New York City. Head bartender Andrew Zerrip kept prices down by pre-batching draft cocktails such as a sake negroni and yuzu gin and tonic, which also allows for quicker speed and higher consistency. They’re also slightly smaller, the idea being that diners can try more than one, similar to the skewers.
With Olmsted, Baxtrom’s initial intention was to open a neighborhood restaurant, one that he anticipated doing 50 covers on a weekend night. Then accolade after accolade — restaurant of the year from Eater, Bon Appetit, Esquire, and Food & Wine; a James Beard Award nomination; three stars from Eater and two from the Times — rolled in, and the restaurant now averages 120 diners on a busy day.
It’s created a bit of a tension, one in which this place that was supposed to be for the neighborhood has turned into a destination, and it’s difficult to simply drop by. Nor is there the standard burger and salad weeknight fare on a menu more typical of so-called neighborhood restaurants; instead, Olmsted has fancy s’mores in the garden and kale crab rangoon served in sleekly branded takeout boxes. It’s also easy to spend $100 per person.
Baxtrom recognizes this dichotomy between purported mission and the reality of Olmsted’s accessibility — “Fortunately Olmsted is busy all the time. But it has this sense that it’s a bit of a ‘thing.’ You have to plan to go there,” he says — and it’s something he’s trying to correct for at Maison Yaki. At this second go round, he and business partner Max Katzenberg aim to make it easier to stop by spontaneously, holding half the restaurant for walk-ins. They hope people drop in for a beer and a game of pétanque, or a multi-hour dinner at the chef’s counter, or a draft cocktail and a snack at the bar. A meal will more likely hover around $50 per person.
At the end of the day, though, the signals are still there that Maison Yaki is not the average neighborhood bar. A dessert of Pocky sticks is made in house and comes with a chocolate dipping sauce. There’s orange wine on tap, an open kitchen, and that pétanque court out back.
Maison Yaki is step two in the legacy Baxtrom is trying to build. He says he now defines success by how he treats and retains his staff, rather than by the Michelin stars he used to chase. He’s made a concerted effort to move away from the traditionally high-pressure, abusive management style of kitchens that he was trained in. It took a while — “In the first six months [of Olmsted], I’d lose people all the time because ... I was unnecessarily being a dick,” he says — but a wake-up call from his sister helped him change.
“That was wrong and we need to learn from that. So success is now having employees that have worked for me for two years. I want to build a legacy. I want to impact the industry,” he says. “I want to be able to be someone that 20 years from now might be able to help get things like plastic bag and bottle bills passed and new legislation. I want to be influential more than just in the food and caring about one Michelin star.”
Once the restaurant is up and running, Baxtrom’s sous chef of two years Taylor Hester will lead the kitchen. Katzenberg also holds four classes or outings a week for staff, on food, wine, and service education.
“We’re trying to build a company with a fantastic culture, not grow too fast, not get too big for our britches,” Katzenberg says. “For us with running the businesses, it starts with the north star of just doing the right thing.”
Maison Yaki is open Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.