Thursday, June 5, 2008

Much More than a Burger and a Beer at Maia in Villanova

Set in a rather antiseptically upscale strip mall and corporate office complex, Maia, the dining and food court megaplex that opened just three weeks ago in the center of Villanova, isn’t much to look at from the outside. Inside, though, there’s something for just about everyone. At least that seems to be the idea as conceived by chefs/owners/brothers Patrick and Terence Feury, along with their partners and investors in a bevy of pan-culinary suburban Philadelphia outposts that, in addition to Feury outpost Nectar, includes Basil, Cin Cin, Tango and Yangming.

The sheer scale at Maia is daunting. 22,000 square feet of showroom floor – the space was previously a briefly lived Fresh Grocer supermarket – allow for numerous subdivisions. Front and left, there’s a white tiled coffee, pastry and juice bar, seemingly tailored to the suburban mom on the move. Behind that is the large bar and lounge area – all brick and dark, right down to the parquet flooring – the site of both an apparently bustling weekend bar scene and of Maia’s full service but casual dining area. Beyond that yet, at rear and center, is an open kitchen clad in polished stainless steel. According to our delightfully helpful server, it’s just a fraction of Maia’s absolutely cavernous, luxe kitchen space.

Once past the gauntlet of hostesses in the entrance foyer, the right side of Maia’s ground floor is site to the market portion of the business as well as to its most casual dining space, more cafeteria than café. One entire wall is lined with refrigerated beverage cases, displaying an extremely deep selection of bottled beers. Following along the walls, from right to left, front to rear, there’s another coffee bar, more pastry, a charcuterie counter and, finally, the market’s prepared food selections, displayed in glass cases which run the length of the back wall, eventually converging with the open kitchen area.

And that’s just the ground floor. There’s a full second floor as well, home to Maia’s more formal, fine dining room.

The upside to all that space is the obvious opportunity it provides for diversity, even if it carries with it a certain lack of focus. The downside is an economy of scale in which the scale may just prove too large for the possibility of economic success. Time will tell, I suppose.

In any event, I’m getting well ahead of myself. I stopped into Maia recently for Sunday brunch with my wife and some friends. Stemming from our casual meal, this post was really just supposed to be an installment of A Burger and a Beer. So, on to the food.

In the Feury brothers’ own words, their menu draws on "the rich culinary traditions of Scandinavia, Alsace and the abundance of natural resources afforded by the East Coast's fertile soils." Their “bistro brunch” menu is peppered with Alsatian classics like choucroute, tarte flambé and a charcuterie platter. They take their place alongside a cured fish smörgåsbord and grilled Norwegian salmon, anchored by a balance of dishes that draw equally from French bistro and American café standards.

I started with something that showcases the restaurant’s attachment to the buy local phenomenon. Their “Bistro Salad” is an undeniably fresh assortment of arugula, radiccihio and red mustard greens, topped with a few candied walnuts and crumbled goat cheese from local Shellbark Hollow Farm. This may sound ridiculous but it was the best salad I’ve had in ages. Quality ingredients helped it along but what made it for me was the perfectly balanced, deeply flavorful citrus shallot vinaigrette.

The Maia Burger fell a little short of the standard-setting salad. The house ground, dry aged sirloin was intensely beefy. But somewhere between our order and the kitchen, the medium-rare test was failed. I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt on this occasion, as I think the mistake may have been in communication rather than entirely in the cook’s hands. Nonetheless, what arrived was a perfectly shaped (almost too much so) patty that had been cooked into completely gray submission. Choosing such a lean cut for a burger may make that a hard error to avoid. Luckily, the burger, like the salad, was clearly made from prime raw materials. Along with a generous topping of melted Pennsylvania Noble Cheddar, the quality of beef helped keep the burger flavorful in spite of its overcooked state. A welcome spark of heat was delivered from an unexpected quarter – the firm, black pepper potato roll on which the Maia Burger is served.

In addition to the aforementioned tremendous selection of beers in bottle, Maia also pours a solid lineup on draft. Choices are listed by style followed by brewery, name, location and alcohol information. Standouts on the current list include locals like Troegs Pale Ale and Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, and Belgians such as Grimbergen Dubbel and Géants “Goliath.” I whet my whistle with a crisp, refreshing Kölsch from Gaffel, a brewery in Köln, Germany, and then settled into a pint of Founders’ “Centennial” American IPA to accompany my burger. The list of wines available by the glass is a touch less exciting but does include a few reliable choices such as Weingut Huber’s Grüner Veltliner “Hugo” and the Crémant d’Alsace Rosé of Lucien Albrecht. Prices, running anywhere between 2x to 3x markups, are moderate relative to the oft outrageous PA scale.

It will take at least another half-dozen trips to Maia to really come to grips with all it has to offer. The temptation level is certainly there. Heck, even the ham and Gruyere sandwich in their to-go case looked damn good. I just hope there’s enough community demand to justify and support Maia’s huge scope.

Maia Restaurant and Market
789 East Lancaster Avenue
Suite 150
Villanova, PA 19085
Maia on Urbanspoon
Subsequent visits:


Florida Jim said...

I live with a vegetarian - and I do not complain about this because she is the very best cook I have ever encountered. But I read something like this and I admit to having a yen.
PA is just a little too far . . .
Best, Jim

David McDuff said...

Welcome, Jim. It's good to see you here.

We're in the same boat, as my wife is also vegetarian. While I dug into my burger, she was working on the veggie omelet of the day. She's also a great cook.

David McDuff said...

Apparently, at least one reader didn't think too highly of my write-up of Maia. S/he wrote via e-mail rather than leaving a comment so I thought I'd share it here:

"David-Thanks for posting our press release and trying to make it look like some vague insight on your part. We really appreciate your efforts. I hope some people were dumb enough to buy it. Love ya, Maia"
- signed Sam Iam,

Thanks for your feedback, "Sam."

JSL@Palate said...

That burger looks a little scary, jauntily perched as it is..! The salad pic is great, looks like half a veggie patch in there!

David McDuff said...


Jaunty and scary, no less. I must admit, I found the perfect hockey puck shape of the burger to be a bit disconcerting.

E said...

Hi David,

I recently made the trek out to Maia and had some hits and misses in terms of the menu as well. I ordered the burger, which they over-cooked, but the homemade rosemary hamburger bun it was served on was so phenomenal, I didn't even care! I also thought everything should be about 3 bucks cheaper than it was, but I suppose that's what eating out by the main line will do to my wallet.

David McDuff said...

Howdy E,

It's good to see you 'round these parts. I didn't find the pricing to be out of line given the ambitions of the place, especially as there's really nothing to compare it to on the Main Line. There certainly are comparable dishes at lower prices available in Philly, though generally not in spots as high-toned in decor/ambiance as Maia.

The timing of your comment couldn't be better, as a write-up of a revisit to Maia (dinner in the bistro section) is due up here in the next day or two.

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