Sylva Senat has been waiting. Frankly, I’ve been waiting, too, for him to land on solid ground ever since he was set adrift four years ago from Tashan, where he established himself as one of the most intriguing, and perhaps most underrated, culinary talents in the city. The Haitian-born, Brooklyn-raised chef has an impressive pedigree — Jean-Georges, Aquavit, Mercer Kitchen, and Buddakan (both New York and Philly), all of which has added up to a rare combination of cosmopolitan polish and worldly mastery of exotic spice.
As a hired man, he skillfully cooked a range of styles, from modern Indian to Asian fusion, and from haute French cuisine to playful taco riffs at the Dos Tacos stand, but I have wanted to see him showcase the flavors closest to his heart at his own proper restaurant. The breezy Creole accent that still lilts at the edges of his words now also lends the warmth of Scotch bonnets and island curry to his plates. Philly needs some more hot griot (“gree-oh!”) in its world. And my first meal at Maison 208 delivered, as Senat’s updated take on the Haitian double-cooked pig classic — chunks of pork belly that have been double-smoked, braised, then crisped over “piklis” cabbage slaw tingling with chilies — was just the Caribbean pickup I needed. So were the tasty “lollipops” of turmeric yellow potato fritters, whose upscaled meat patty fillings of curried Kobe beef rose from a milky pool of truffled foam flecked with Egyptian gold dust.
But first, there was maddening barrage of fluky mishaps for the chef and his partner, builder Herb Reid III. There was the arson that burned to the ground his still-rising new restaurant building at 13th and Chancellor during the September 2015 papal visit, the fire so hot it melted the steel beams and roasted the “Sanctuary” mural being painted on the wall of the neighboring building by artist James Burns. Then there was the city Health Department truck that backed down Chancellor Street into Maison 208’s wall of windows and ripped it right off the hinges in the middle of a Friday night dinner. And then came the punks who broke in overnight and stole money from several registers — and who are still at large.
“I’ve got all their dance moves on camera, so I expect some arrests,” says the coolheaded Reid, who hasn’t let the disasters faze his calm. “I like to do life the hard way.”
It’s a talent to find the bright side amid setbacks. But that was exactly the case here as the owners used the rebuilding pause to make changes that transformed the project. They persuaded Burns and the Mural Arts Program to re-create the artwork and extend its intricate “meditation circle” of naturalistic imagery — birds, flowers, and intertwining foliage — down inside the two-story space all the way to restaurant’s ground floor. It’s now a regular stop on the local Mural Arts tours, and the lush imagery effectively animates the restaurant’s sleek modern decor of poured concrete, metal chandeliers, steel-wrapped kitchen, granite tops, and zinc bar. The reconstruction also sparked the notion to install a mural-viewing retractable glass roof over the second-floor lounge (a.k.a. “The Social”), a cushy, couch-lined space with two bars that has understandably become a major draw for 13th Street’s party district.
Maison 208 has an ambitiously progressive drink program to go with it, with creative cocktail riffs on classics involving charcoal, herbs, smoke, and kombucha, plus fun build-your-own punch bowls. There are also several dry ciders, a handful of good local beers, and an extensive wine-by-the-glass program dedicated to “natural” wines from around the world, from a well-balanced Riesling (Kalls Kabinett) to a lively Spanish blend (K-π) that showed few of the rough-edged flaws natural wines are often criticized for. The weirdly fizzy chardonnay from Upstate New York? Not so much. Even so, there’s no doubt this is a fun and adventurous new place to drink.
The only catch is that Maison 208, which also has a large bar on its first floor, feels more like a trendy lounge with interesting food than a compelling place to dine that also happens to have great cocktails. It’s an example of the ‘tweener mission many restaurants currently are trying to bridge. And though it might well be an appropriate concept for the nightlife destination of 13th Street, some of the staff seems more suited to its casual vibe than to delivering its more nuanced substance. Our first server, blowing past our deliberate lack of questions (he asked, we declined) delivered a long spiel nonetheless, detailing his own favorites, then got a little too familiar for comfort, touching a diner’s shoulder as he dropped casual f-bombs to describe an orange wine, leaving with a puff of smoke-break breath over my shoulder. He was hardly the rule for an otherwise conscientious staff. Our second meal server was the epitome of charm and professional class, but the point is that Maison isn’t always the chef showcase Senat deserves.
Not that the pragmatic Senat is stuck on presenting fine dining so much as adding thoughtful touches to familiar flavors. The lounge menu serves up a decadent pizza noir laced with black truffles. The chicken wings, slow-cooked first in duck fat to tenderness, are crisped beneath a zingy, smoked-maple chili glaze. He also makes nifty fries, sliders, and tacos for the limited upstairs menu.
But Senat’s hauter instincts still produced some of the restaurant’s most memorable dishes. The whole dorade, conceived during his star turn on a recent season of Top Chef (he finished fifth), is crisped beneath a snow-white crust of rice flour and potato starch over an herbaceous mushroom broth tanged with Banyuls vinegar. Inside, where the center bones had been expertly removed, the dewy fresh fish sparkled with a hot flicker of Caribbean cayenne. Fennel-dusted scallops come alongside salami rounds of saucisson sec and tasty fritters that were part hush puppy, part beignet.
A chilled tomato soup with edible flowers and summer melons bobbing prettily comes with a clever DIY flourish, a pipette of smoky roasted chili oil that diners add to dose the chilly soup with pepper heat. A beautifully rendered duck breast, first brined in Haitian coffee, comes with another island touch of a steamed millet cake that serves as pedestal for two unctuous slices of seared foie gras. Rosy lamb loins crusted in hazelnuts and cracked pepper edge a purple mound of whipped Okinawan sweet potatoes. Even the two entrees designated for more conservative eaters — the salmon and filet mignon — come with some smart twists: a summery pudding of Jersey corn tinged with cayenne honey and tangy tomato salad for the fish, a morel-laden mushrooms medley and a beurre blanc tart with Asian rice vinegar for the beef.
Only a few dishes let me down. An overwrought reworking of ratatouille brought a pedestal of summer produce and couscous beneath a glass dome piped full of smoke. But once the lid was lifted and the smoke drifted away like a mirage, the showy dish was too dry, with dehydrated bits of zucchini and tomatoes that were too leathery to rehydrate quickly in lemongrass broth and stand alone as a satisfying entree. Even more disappointing: a monumental 28-ounce pork shank marinated overnight in Scotch bonnets and green curry, braised for another night in veal stock and coconut milk, then dusted with herbes de Provence before leaving the kitchen was mysteriously somehow bland. The desserts were adequate, but a tarte tatin and a molten chocolate ganache cake were unimaginative, given the rest of our meals. (Hey, chef, Buddakan just called. They want their Crying Chocolate back.)
Such minor complaints, though, were few compared to my overall bright experiences at Maison 208. It may have taken longer than expected for Senat to land his own restaurant home. It may be longer still until he harnesses the best balance of this venue’s multipersonality mission. But this debut, at its most exciting with a tingle of Haitian spirit, already has been worth the wait.