The full name of this wonderful little restaurant in the heart of Lancaster’s downtown arts area is Ma(i)son, An Urban Cookery.
It’s written that way because the owners, Taylor and Leeann Mason, are playing on the French word maison, meaning home or house, and their last name — he’s the chef — to convey the notion that you’re dining, literally, in their home.
It's not a far-fetched notion. They live upstairs.
The eatery is along North Prince Street near the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design inside a redone space that can only be described as eclectic and artsy. But the place fits the menu and the stated goals of the proprietors. More on that shortly.
It is small, about 10 tables. Along one wall is a long, comfy banquette. There's an interesting (some might say oddly so) chef's table that's really a smallish counter overlooking the equally smallish, very busy and very hot kitchen. And there's a small front porch for warm weather dining, but it opens right onto noisy Prince Street, which is fine for true urban diners but maybe a tad too urban for others.
There's a mix of décor: porcelain animal heads (even a rhino) on one wall; staggered mirrors distressed white wood paneling expressing the country barn effect; modern high-up drop lighting; nice wood flooring, wood tables and chairs; and a candle at each place. Non-intrusive light jazz played in the background during my visit. A neat, well-kept unisex restroom has real towels and a slate wall on which is chalked the origin of menu items. You might find references to Tulip Tree Hill Farm in southern Lancaster County, the Wenger Farm in Lititz, the famous Groff's Farm in Bird-in-Hand or MiLi's Bakery in downtown Lancaster.
The bread, by the way, is fabulous, a combination of ciabattas and sourdough served warm with fresh salted butter and called "pain maison." And that's not pain, that's pain, the French word for bread. The only real pain is, if you ask for more, you get charged an extra $1 (which, between you and me, is worth it).
The focus at Ma(i)son is Italian- and French-inspired simple country cooking, all done with local produce and products, and all handmade. The small seasonal menu changes weekly or whenever they run out of stuff.
My experience there was delightful. The atmosphere is lovely and welcoming; the service friendly and knowledgeable. And everything I tasted, from the pain maison to the French press coffee was excellent.
This kind of dining is different from traditional Central PA fare, which too often relies on standard recipes, over-sized portions and predictable entrées. This kind of dining is different, and while it might not be for everyone, I think its appeal can only spread.
Not that its freshness and simplicity is cheap. It isn’t. Two can easily drop close to $100 even though it’s a BYOB (with a $5 corkage fee) by the time you do small plates, large plates, dessert and coffee.
But let’s look at the menu, remembering that it’s constantly changing. There are, or were, eight small plates and four large plates. The small plates run from $12 to $13; the larger plates from $26 to $28. The choices represent a delightful and unusual range.
Small plates included a grilled escarole salad with a soft-cooked farm egg and a pancetta vinaigrette; grilled wild ramps (leeks) with cured hog lardo and grilled country bread; and a hydroponic Bibb lettuce salad with shaved radish, crushed walnuts, pecorino (sheep’s milk) and black truffle vinaigrette.
Not the stuff, in other words, you’d find at the usual salad bar. Two small plates devoured at my table were handmade burrata, a fresh Italian cheese that’s silky on the outside and filled with fresh cream, served with a fig and roasted shallot jam, exceptional smoked prosciutto and extra virgin olive oil; and an amazingly simple but delicious offering of asparagus and eggs.
The former is a dish rare even in finer big-city Italian restaurants. The latter included fresh asparagus from Groff’s served with delicious, perfectly grilled polenta, a (smallish, but heavenly) soft-cooked organic chicken egg, olives and fried bread.
There was a moment I came close to ordering another serving. Large plates included lightly braised veal served with spinach and roasted turnips; “house-ground” Southern Italian meatballs cooked in white wine, served with wilted mustard greens and white polenta; and whole prawns, roasted, with garlic mustard and ramp greens.
I had a free-range Cornish game hen with grilled wild ramps and “chicken fried potatoes.” It was very good, especially the potatoes.
My dining companion had an off-menu vegetarian dish that included borlotti beans (also known as cranberry beans or French horticultural beans), grilled polenta, ramps and dandelion, all served with an amazing beet jam. Dessert included a peanut butter torte, a cheese plate, goat milk panna cotta and an olive oil and rosemary cake. We split the latter ($7). It was moist and tasty.
I think the word is spreading about Ma(i)son because it wasn’t easy getting reservations. My advice is go there, and make sure to call ahead.
230 N. Prince St.,Lancaster; 717.293.5060;
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday;
reservations a must; street parking; BYOB.
THE PHANTOM DINER HAS BEEN A LONGTIME RESTAURANT REVIEWER FOR CENTRAL PA MAGAZINE.
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