Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Maia Revisited

My first visit to Maia left me with a sense of the place’s huge potential. That sense, though, was commingled with apprehension as to whether that potential could actually be realized given the daunting scope of the Feury brothers’ new establishment in Villanova, PA. Fine dining room, bistro, market, coffee shop, cafeteria, bakery and bar, all wrapped into one… the likelihood of identity crisis seems more probability than possibility. But based on a mostly positive experience during our first visit for Sunday brunch several weeks back, I didn’t hesitate to return for a second look. This time we opted for dinner. Being in a casual mood, my companions and I again selected the bistro in favor of the more formal upstairs dining room.

The bistro and bar area at Maia.

Things were surprisingly hopping for a Tuesday night in suburbia, particularly at the bar. The combination of low lighting, slightly clubby music and a there-to-be-seen crowd made for a much different atmosphere than on that sunny, quiet Sunday afternoon. We weren’t there to make the Main Line scene, though. We were there to dig a little deeper into the menu. And I was especially keen to explore some of the Alsace-influenced aspects of the menu.

Alsatian Tarte Flambé: Caramelized Onions, Black Forest Ham, Gruyère and Crème Fraîche
Maia’s take on the Alsatian classic, tarte flambé, would rise a quick step up in credibility if it were rectangular, as the traditions of the dish stipulate. Instead, it arrives on a round tray, looking, with its squeeze-bottle squiggles of crème fraîche, more like something from California Pizza Kitchen than from a bistro in Colmar. Its flavor, at least, lands solidly in between. In an ideal rendition, I’d look for a flakier crust, a rougher cut to the onions and a smokier high note from the ham. But as bar food, essentially what this is destined to be, it makes for a reasonable accompaniment to a glass of pilsner or Crémant d’Alsace, and it’s large enough to be shared.

If it's made to look cute, is it really choucroute?

Choucroute: Knockwurst, Bratwurst, Frankfurter, Poppy Seed Roll, Whole Grain Mustard, Relish, Sauerkraut
My first thought when my main course for the evening hit the table was, “Oh, how cute.” Before that first thought had time to finish, though, I was struck with a second: “But wait, choucroute’s not supposed to be cute.” I’m a choucroute lover. I’ve written about it here before. It’s probably the single dish most strongly associated with the culinary traditions of Alsace. The choucroute at Maia has most of the right stuff – an assortment of sausages, sauerkraut and a little extra pork fat for good measure – but lacks at least three ingredients I think of as traditional and key: potatoes, whole black peppercorns and juniper berries.

The overall flavor of Maia’s interpretation is certainly pleasing enough but, as with the tarte flambé, it lacks an edge of brightness. The inclusion of those missing ingredients, along with a firmer snap to the pickled cabbage and a greater diversity in the textural range of the sausages, would go a long way to kicking things up a notch. Even if the cute little crock pots in which the dish is served are maintained, I’d have to question the presence of the poppyseed rolls on the plate. I’m all for a hunk of crusty bread with which to soak up choucroute’s juices, but these little rolls seem to suggest you’re being served a plate of sausage sliders rather than a hearty platter of choucroute garnie. Maybe tradition just isn’t the point, as it seems to have been eschewed here in favor of contemporary cute.

Bambalonis: Cream Filled Beignets, Vanilla Sugar, Lingonberry Sauce
Menu design, especially in the context of language and description, can be a high art form. One of the influencing factors of that art is that a dish can sometimes sound so attractive that one forgets to think about what it actually is. Beignets, for instance, have a certain romantic association. One can’t help but think of a café in Paris or of certain famous eateries in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Adding lingonberries to the mix just throws on a layer of Nordic mystique. Add that all up and it becomes way too easy to overlook the fact that “cream filled beignets, vanilla sugar and lingonberry sauce” is just a fancy way of saying “jelly donuts.” These were damn tasty but, sure enough, tasted just like what they are. Little jelly donuts. Very good, very expensive little jelly donuts.

I suppose I should call the folks at Maia to find out whether it’s their intention to offer traditional Alsatian dishes or simply to reflect a slight Alsatian influence. For that matter, I should ask whether they intend to create a food driven experience or to focus first and foremost on making a splash. Given the interpretation of the classics on Maia’s menu and the bar scene driven feel of the bistro, I can only assume their answer would be weighted toward the latter in both cases, whether or not they’d want to admit it.

Noble concepts, certainly, but shouldn't a restaurant's mission put food first?

Maia Restaurant and Market
789 East Lancaster Avenue
Villanova, PA 19085 [map]
Maia on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,
This review, while extraordinarily well-written and well-argued, begs the question: "but on a blog?" It might seem contradictory to laud so informative a piece while questioning its viability in that forum. Duff, you know me. Whether it's the music criticism I write or articles on Fr. and It. lit, I worry about the audience. Who's reading it? Nevertheless,
this reader enjoyed the precision of the reviews. If I lived in suburbia, I'd definitely check out Maia simply on the strength of your words. Hey, guess what, that's what you were trying to do, right?!
Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio

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