As is his habit at the tiny Maple Ave Restaurant in Vienna, where eggs have been scrambled with caramelized kimchi and Chinese sausage, chef Tim Ma slips a pleasant surprise into almost every dish at the new Water & Wall in Arlington.
Kale salad is on the verge of becoming a modern American cliche. Even so, I find myself lingering over the first course at Ma’s second restaurant. The hearty greens are arranged with dabs of goat cheese and glossy nuts, as well as apples and pears that are sweet from more than just their natural juices. My fork keeps returning to the fruit as I try to identify the enhancers. Clove? Cardamom? Nutmeg? The gang’s all there. The chef later tells me the spices from the candied nuts rub off on the apples and pears — and that more of the same fruits are pureed into the vinaigrette that makes the salad special.
While Water & Wall shares some of the values of its older sibling, the fresh face is no mirror image. For starters, Maple Ave is a shoebox with a mere nine tables, a dream opened with a credit card. The new dining room replaces Pines of Florence.
Water & Wall represents the intersection of the streets near which Ma, 35, lived in New York when he went to the French Culinary Institute, from which he graduated in 2008. (His externship was six months at Momofuku Ko, the darling of critics created by the acclaimed David Chang.)
Water & Wall’s name echoes in its design. “Water” is represented by painted vertical stripes in bronze and metallic green; “wall” is underscored with see-through metal curtains separating the bar from the dining area. Off the main dining room are several semi-circular dark-red “mafia” booths (Ma’s description). The spare scene is illuminated overhead with cloud-like lights in cotton shades.
The secret of many home cooks is the head chef’s explanation for the depth of flavor in some of his dishes: Fish sauce, complex and nutty, elevates fried chicken wings, fried okra and bouillabaisse at Water & Wall.
Chicken is a delicious strategy here, by the way. Two appetizers are based on the bird. One is a liver pât ésweet with onions, bold with garlic and spirited with Maker’s Mark. The lush mix is spread on crostini with ribbons of duck prosciutto and offered with pickled red pepper relish. (The chef likes sweet and heat in his food.)
A second way to enjoy chicken is via the Burmese salad, where shredded poultry, scallions and fresh red Thai chilies are tossed with turmeric oil. Credit for that star turn goes to Ma’s right-hand man, chef Nyi Nyi Myint, a Burmese native who assists the chief at both restaurants.
Ma’s duck confit would elicit joie de vivre in a bistro in Paris. It helps that the dish starts with a pedigree (the duck is from the Hudson Valley) and a juniper cure. The skin crackles when your teeth make contact with it, and the rich meat proves a worthy successor. Deep-fried Brussels sprouts slicked with truffle aioli and tossed with fresh black radishes and shallots make a swell support for the bird. Veal sweetbreads are worth crossing the Potomac for, too. The organ meat teases the tongue with cayenne, smoked paprika and cinnamon; crisp fried kale alongside lends a pleasing crunch to the composition.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better, says Ma, who owns both restaurants with his fiancee, Joey Hernandez. His kitchen at Water & Wall is more spacious and outfitted with newer equipment, he says, but more space and a longer menu mean more prep time and fewer flourishes on the plates. His treatments, often Eastern in persuasion, are nevertheless winning. Hanger steak, for instance, is shored up with smashed skin-on potatoes and a mound of beer-braised collard greens. An Asian riff on Argentine chimichurri, ignited with red Thai chilies, punches up the main course of grilled, sliced beef. A robust seafood stew is sharpened with lemon grass.
Not every chef can pull off savory ice cream, and I’ll confess I raised an eyebrow as I went into a small plate of seared scallops flanked with bacon ice cream. That eyebrow came down after a taste of the creamy, faintly smoky scoop, however.
Risotto thick with sweet potatoes and veined with pecans is a pleasant vegetarian alternative. In the aforementioned company, the main course is also subdued.
Desserts, prepared at Maple Ave, are usually two choices, one night a cookie plate and Japanese mochi, dense and elastic little rice cakes filled with ice cream. Neither selection is so good that you should hold off asking for the check.
Not every dish soars at Water & Wall, but enough do. This is, for the most part, cooking with a refreshing point of view, food that stands slightly apart from the pack.
Why Arlington? “It’s not Clarendon. It’s not Ballston,” Ma says later in a telephone interview. “It’s a quiet part of Arlington — what Vienna is, in general.” Pause. “It’s also one step closer to the city.”
I can’t tell if the chef is smiling when he says that, but I know this diner is.
3811 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington. 703-294-4949. waterandwall.
5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to
10 p.m. Friday
5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICES: Appetizers $8 to $12, main courses $20 to $25.
Must speak with raised voice.