On the road to unexpectedness
Maple Ave serves up tasty surprises
By Candy Sagon
Sunday, March 11, 2012
It's "the restaurant in the old Anita's building" to those who have lived in Vienna a long time, while to the rest of us it's just the tiny, terrific Maple Ave Restaurant.
The nine-table place, painted a chocolate brown and plunked precariously near the street between a car wash and an auto repair shop, reminds me of a magician's hat: rather unassuming, until the illusionist yanks out some startlingly big surprise.
Chef-owner Tim Ma, general manager (and Ma's fiancee) Joey Hernandez and sous-chef Nyi Nyi Myint do just that. Their eclectic menu features small plates and regular entrees - many Asian-inspired, but several not - and each one contains some little unexpected jolt.
That modest lemon grass chicken? You've never had chicken tenders like these, served with a crunchy Brussels sprout salad and enlivened with a citrusy, gingery sauce.
Seared scallops? Yeah, a lot of places do them, but not with coconut Acquerello risotto and basil ice cream. Okay, the basil ice cream really isn't needed, but still, what a hat trick.
Plus, don't overlook those little self-effacing chicken meatballs. They're not really meatballs at all; more like moist, chicken patties that'll give you a thwack to the head with their piquillo peppers and chili lime sauce. They come with sauteed greens and irresistible crispy, roasted potato wedges.
And, like most of the dishes on the menu, the meatballs have a good story behind them. "We had an 'Iron Chef'-type competition at Whole Foods, and we won with that dish," Ma says. The humble patties blew away the competition because of a special ingredient - truffle oil - that makes them super-tender and flavorful, the chef reveals.
Ma says they try to rotate in two new dishes on the menu each week for a couple of reasons: "It's fun" for his four cooks; and it keeps the customers, many of them regulars, from getting bored.
He also has a sneaky way of adding items you wouldn't expect to the restaurant's dishes.
On the brunch menu is a plate of eggs and caramelized kimchi, a dish that Ma loves to eat at home. The scrambled eggs, velvety and flecked with green scallions and cubes of Chinese sausage, also come with a slice of grilled ... well, what the heck is that?
My husband and I debated. He thought it was some kind of pate. I thought it tasted suspiciously like a famous pork product that comes in a can, but that couldn't be right, could it?
It could. Yes, says Ma, it's a slice of grilled Spam. "It's a very Asian thing to do, and no one expects it at a place like ours."
He adds: "Asian people throw Spam on rice and vegetables all the time. Every morning, when I made eggs and kimchi for myself, I'd throw on some grilled Spam, so I decided to do it for the restaurant. We try not to take ourselves too seriously."
In a more traditional vein, Ma and his staff make a killer Moroccan-spiced chicken leg quarter with pearl couscous and roasted seasonal vegetables drizzled with a saffron creme fraiche. The dish is redolent with cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, and, of course, there's a story behind how it was created.
"We were asked to do a special dinner for [best-selling novelist and Vienna resident] David Baldacci. The book was set in Morocco, so we came up with this chicken, and it was so well-received, we left it on the menu," Ma says.
Also extremely popular: beer-braised beef cheeks. This deep, complex, long-simmered dish is perhaps the only reason to endure the dank days of winter.
Ma braises beef from Maine's Pineland Farms in Sri Lankan beer, which he says has a heavier, chocolaty flavor that goes well with the rich meat. Added to the beer are allspice, star anise, cinnamon and finely diced vegetables. The cheeks cook slowly, then rest for a day in the braising liquid.
Then, because he can't afford the expensive sous-vide machines used by big-time chefs, Ma improvises. "We put the meat in Ziploc bags and immerse them in the circulator," which gently bathes them in water kept at a constant temperature. "It's the secret to their incredible tenderness," he says.
Ma's sense of play is also behind the menu's inclusion of fried chicken and waffles. That's normally a favorite dish of mine, but I'm not enamored with the stone-ground whole wheat breading on the chicken leg. It's a little thick and heavy to my (Southern) taste.
On the other hand, I love the whole grilled bronzini, a Mediterranean sea bass that comes with a mound of onion-fried rice that is simply addictive. It's a little tangy, a little sweet, a little ... I can't quite put my finger on it.
"It's a complicated sauce," Ma says. He uses fish sauce, lime, vinegar, sugar, onion and other (complicated) things. Whatever. It's great.
As for dessert, a tiny restaurant such as this can't afford a pastry chef, but that means that if one of the cooks has a wild idea for a dessert, he or she can make it happen.
Which explains the Girl Scout cookie-flavored truffles. And the Salvadoran-style bread pudding made with crumbled bread - not chunks - mixed with brandy and cream to produce a much finer, lighter texture than typical bread pudding.
The yuzu lime pie is a diminutive tart with a citrusy Key lime pie-like filling, topped with a swirl of house-made marshmallow. Ma and Hernandez came up with the idea before the restaurant opened, and it has proved to be a keeper.
Maple Ave's two servers are friendly, efficient and knowledgeable. They also make sure diners understand that this is a small restaurant, and the tables need to turn. Both times we came in for dinner around 6 p.m., and we were politely informed that there was a party coming in for our table at 8 p.m.
It's a nice way of reminding us not to dawdle, and making sure no one else is kept waiting.