Loved It, Hated It: Maude’s Liquor Bar
By Caitlin Klein in Food on Jan 26, 2011 7:00PM
Roger: I loved it.
Caitlin: I flippin’ hate this place.
Find out why, and if you’ve been to Maude’s, weigh in!
Roger: With its reclaimed furniture and fixtures, brasserie bar and tiling, oversized curio cabinet and dashes of subterranean chic, Maude’s Liquor Bar reaches back to a bygone time yet feels refreshingly cool, if not toeing the line of too-hipness. The bar in particular is a beauty, with a long, sumptuous marble counter and shelf upon shelf of glittering bottle porn. On breaks between people watching, feasting your eyes on the space itself is equally satisfying.
Caitlin: You’ve got to be kidding me. Maude’s is too dark, the music is too loud, and it didn’t fool me with its “I’m not trying to be chic” vibe. You are trying, my dear Maude, and it shows. Simply pulling tracks off Wes Anderson movie soundtracks and blasting them out of your speakers does not make you cool. A bunch of mismatched light fixtures? Oh, how original. A stark curio cabinet holding nothing but two candles and an animal skull? You’re so shocking and edgy. The clientele also seemed ill at ease - most were spending more time looking at the other people in the room rather than enjoying the company of their table, and laughing just a little too loud for me to believe that anything was actually funny. Most of it made me roll my eyes, although I will agree with my comrade Roger, the marble bar is pretty great.
Roger: The cocktail list at Maude’s is broken down into three main categories: sparkling and stirred cocktails, and a handful of “smashes.” (What’s a smash, you ask? It’s a very old style of cocktail, typically featuring a base spirit, citrus juice, a sweet syrup or muddled fruit, mint or other herbs, and crushed ice.) If you’re prowling for strong drink, head straight to the stirred selections; the Bijou, Sazerac and Old Fashioned will sort you out in ways the others can’t. Our Old Fashioned was expertly balanced, with subtle notes of citrus fruit standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the dry, caramel-laced spice of a good rye. (Its sweetness also came in handy amid our meal’s hearty, savory dishes.)
The Whiskey Smash, while terribly pretty to look at, lacked a certain heft of flavor a raison d’être, as the countrymen would say. This could be attributed to the generous helping of crushed ice crowding our tumbler. Conversely, the Smokey Violet Smash - underpinned as it is with peaty Laphroaig scotch from Islay - pulls off a dazzling feat of adeptly balanced flavors; the smoke of the scotch is pacified by floral and juniper kisses from the Crème de Violet and Ransom Old Tom Gin. It’s the shining light of the cocktail list. By contrast, the St. Germain Fizz was tasty and refreshing, but not unlike how a can of Sunkist is tasty and refreshing.
Caitlin: This may be the one saving grace of Maude’s - the cocktails are fantastic. I’ll defer to Roger’s descriptions to whet your whistle, as he is our #1 liquor expert around here. The bartenders were reasonably quick with our drink requests, considering how much work goes into each cocktail. I will say that for a cocktail bar, the menu is a little thin. Here’s hoping they beef it up, or make periodic changes. I can only drink so many Smokey Violet Smashes at $11 each before you bore and/or bankrupt me.
Roger: The food menu at Maude’s is a flirting poem of enticements. Must be all the French peppered throughout. Reading over the raw shellfish, comforting Gallic classics and creative reinterpretations, you feel like everything’s a sure thing. Which, for the most part, is true. These are rich and rustic dishes made with superior, well-sourced ingredients - peasant deluxe, if you will.
Our party settled on the French Onion Fondue, Cassoulet, Pork Belly and Blackened Brussels Spouts. (Dishes are intended for sharing.) The fondue is essentially a brothless French onion soup, served inside-out. A hunk of crusty country bread arrives aside a well-broiled duvet of Gruyere over a bed of golden caramelized onions. The onions registered on the sweet side, but slathering the hearty bread with a sizable dollop of warm fondue was intensely satisfying, not to mention richly delicious. Ham, spicy sausage, creamy white beans, carrots and toasted chunks of bread gave each bite of cassoulet its own unique character. The deep bench of textures kept me coming back for more. The pork belly, while interestingly prepared with a bed of apple-spiked red cabbage, didn’t pack quite so much depth of flavor. That said, I couldn’t get enough of the zesty charred Brussels sprouts dressed with lemon and Parmesan cheese; in fact, I’d love to see even more char on those sprouts - the smokier, the better.
Caitlin: Maude’s food menu is intended for sharing, and I’m glad we did. The French Onion Fondue was heavy and oily, and better suited for a Superbowl appetizer than a night out on Randolph. It was topped with a gruyere so mild it could be confused for melted mozzarella. If you say you’re giving me gruyere, give it to me salty, nutty, and complex. I suspect that someone saved a few bucks by buying a younger gruyere at a cheaper price, and the whole dish suffered as a result. The cassoulet was meh - good garlic sausage, but disappointingly mushy.
What truly offended me was the pork belly. I love pork belly. I will eat it anywhere, any time. However, Maude’s made two fatal mistakes: one, it was woefully underseasoned. Two, the belly was grilled. This in itself is not a pork belly sin, but the preparation left the pork with absolutely no variation in texture. No crisped edges and very little char. It was a soggy slab of hot, unseasoned, fatty pork belly over a soft bed of overcooked cabbage and apple. No, merci beaucoup, I will not have it again.
Roger: Maude’s is brand new, busy and full of people who are hardly eager to leave. Understandably, you may end up waiting for a table even if you have a reservation. (We sat about 40 minutes after our reservation time.) I expect those kinks will likely be worked out in time. Otherwise, the service at Maude’s was just right - friendly, attentive and knowledgeable.
Caitlin: This is perhaps the most distasteful thing about Maude’s. To me, good service really makes or breaks a place, and Maude’s set the tone for me to have a bad night. We had a 9pm reservation, and were made to wait 40 minutes (on a Thursday!) without an explanation and without much of an apology (the hostess casually called, “sor-ry!” over her shoulder while pointing us to our table, which had neither napkins nor silverware ready). Our server was condescending and flippant, often calling us “dude,” “man,” and “bro.” Sorry, my friend, I am neither a dude, a man, nor your bro. He failed to make any meaningful recommendations from the food menu or the wine list, even when prompted, and we are left wondering if restaurateurs are just hiring any tattoo-armed, leather-wristcuff-wearing joker who comes in off the street these days.
Roger: By tapping a vein of sophisticated Parisian cool, Maude's makes traditional rustic fare feel sexy and new without sacrificing its comforting roots. I see myself going back to try other dishes, and to keep tabs on the developments behind the bar.
Caitlin: I may be back to Maude’s for a cocktail or two, but only on an off night during off hours. I highly doubt it though - Maude’s is trying so hard to be voguish it makes me cringe. Get back to the basics. Re-focus on the quality of the food. Hire some new staff and train them. Without these things, I just don’t see Maude’s surviving the Randolph street scene for more than a few years, because the see-and-be-seen crowd will inevitably get bored and go elsewhere.
Maude's Liquor Bar is at 840 W. Randolph.