Knockout Punch

Maia takes on the Main Line and wins (for the most part).

THE SCENE: By now, it’s likely many Main Line restaurant-goers have gotten a taste of Maia, the sleek, eccentric offering from the team that brought you Nectar in Berwyn. Here, Nectar executive chef Patrick Feury has joined forces with brother Terence (Striped Bass, The Grill at the Ritz-Carlton), the modern arm of Maia’s eclectic regional fare, which also takes inspiration from Scandinavia, Alsatia and Italy’s Piedmont Mountains. Still, eccentric may be the only way to describe Maia’s prim, sophisticated market area. It aims for the palate with its displays of house-cured fish and charcuterie—which are either appetizing or unsettling, depending on your point of view.

Maia’s first floor was once the short-lived FreshGrocer and, before that, the beloved Radnor Roller Rink—a far cry from its current reincarnation as a bistro, bar, market and fine dining hub all in one. Its clean lines and sleek, organic-meets-modern combination of wood, marble, mother of pearl, steel and calculated detail make it the perfect playground for foodies, revelers, business and collegiate types, moms on the go, and anyone else who relishes sophisticated swigs and trendy mouthfuls.

My take on this slick, 22,000-square-foot gustatory mecca: Soho loft meets student union on the lower level, and a futuristic spin on Frank Lloyd Wright in and around the upstairs dining room—an overall design that deftly balances and contrasts organic and modern elements. Downstairs, the espresso bar and pastry counter is a retro-leaning classic, complete with New York-style subway tiles and contrasting grMaia's upstairs dining room.out on the walls, plus a black-and-white pinwheel pattern on the floor. Highlights of the bistro and specialty market include exposed ducts, natural and whitewashed brick, glass-encased wine barrels, an earthy color palette of tiles in various sizes, chocolate banquettes with striped armrests and backs, butter-colored seats on the bar stools, and a massive snow-white bar top.

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The swank second-floor dining space features several lounge areas (including one outside with a fire pit and market umbrellas) and a Bubinga wood “runway” of a communal table with an illuminated trough for ice running down the middle. The inviting bar has plush faux-leather stools, a Carrera marble backsplash, and a delicious-looking white Puccio onyx front (imported from Italy) with chocolate and mocha accents. As is the nature of such extravagance, all that beauty is obscured behind occupied bar stools when the place is in full swing.

Love at first sight sums up my favorite Maia visual: the colossal polished tree trunk that’s been transformed into a chic hostess station.

THE FOOD:
Like many of the area’s most inventive chefs, Terence and Patrick Feury strive to keep their modern cooking style grounded by focusing on simplicity and time-tested techniques. They start with pristine regional ingredients that stand up just fine on their own, but have the capacity to evolve into something all the more memorable with a little human intervention.

Locally sourced and resplendent with both nouvelle and rustic touches, Maia’s bistro menu aims to offer something for everyone. Meanwhile, the upscale upstairs doles out a restrained dose of culinary elitism.

Maia chef Patrick Feury prepares pickled herring.Our meal started with a sweet and savory amuse bouche of goat-cheese-filled profiteroles, decadent bites of choux pastry bursting with whipped-cream-textured herbed chèvre from West Chester’s Shellbark Hollow Farm. Tasty morsels indeed, and a nice foray into our next course, a sinful combination of citrus-cured wild striped bass, smoked tuna loin, eel and foie gras, and lobster tortellini.

We flipped over the precision-cut, citrusy strips of striped bass—delicate in texture, bold in flavor—enhanced by mysterious crispy shavings and a lively coriander and Meyer lemon jam. The tuna was served in a deep, white oblong terrine (if you’re a dish freak like me, you’ll go bonkers over Maia’s fabulous collection of cookware). When we lifted off the lid, smoke poured out like dry ice at a rock concert, revealing luscious rectangles of dark, cherry-colored tuna. The wonderful smokiness was never overpowering and worked well with the surprisingly sweet green olive puree.

The meal’s crown jewel was the barbecued eel and foie gras, insanely decadent and portioned into delicate rounds (the dish would’ve been too rich and heavy otherwise). The accompanying Lincoln Log arrangement of brioche fries was clever—and would’ve made a perfect crunchy bed had the pieces resembled the eel-and-foie’s coin shape. The sweet-tart lingonberry sauce, golden beet apple butter and crushed nuts provided a delicious contrast to the sublime creaminess of the foie. Hands down, the most memorable bites I’ve had all year.

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By contrast, the punch-less lobster tortellini was our least favorite. The chunky mirepoix was flavorful, but it seemed out of place, and the braised artichoke ragout was lackluster.
Roasted summer vegetables jarred fresh.
The thickly cut halibut came poached on the bone and served with fragola sarda (dot-shaped pasta similar in texture to couscous), guanciale (Italian pork roll made from the cheeks and jowls of hogs), veal jus and caramelized fennel. The fish begged for a pinch of fresh herbs or a streak of sauce. And while the accoutrements were lovely, other than the moist midsection, the opaque meat was overcooked. Rather than the anticipated firm forkfuls, we got mealy bites.

The roasted wild striped bass suffered a similar, if drier, fate. But it was saved by a stuffing of roasted garlic, golden raisins and parsley ver jus (pan sauce), and a lip-smacking roasted root glaze. The combination of sweet, caramelized flavors against typically moist chunks of bass is a good one. A little less time in the oven should benefit this dish.

It took us a few bites to fully appreciate the hefty Tasting of Lamb—sausage, leg confit salad and a crimson chop. The latter was quite rare, but our bravery was rewarded with refined, juicy bites as tender as prime rib. The sausage was interesting, but a little dehydrated and no challenger to the savory leg confit. Another Maia entrée of note, the yellowfin tuna arrived in supple chunks, herb-grilled rare and served with an interesting array of sweet and salty trimmings.

A half dozen bites of a cool, creamy mint chocolate ice cream sandwich and lemon raspberry trifle removed any remaining space between my stomach and the table—and sent me waddling home in a serious food coma, aided by a port nightcap.

THE EXPERIENCE: Generally speaking, I’m skeptical of anything that’s had the sort of advanced hype Maia has enjoyed. Call me a cynic, but great expectations are often just that. Getting to Maia—and eating there—took me a few weeks. And when I did finally go, I toted a block of trepidation on my shoulders. For numerous reasons—not least of which its close proximity to my house—I wanted the experience to be a good one. No, not just good—really good. Trendy and cool, but grounded.

I chose to take in Maia for the first time from a seat at the bar, which I quickly learned isn’t all that easy to come by on most Saturday nights. My ribeye and frites (wonderfully unfussy and crispy) left a solid first impression, as did the dynamic bar scene and overall urban vibe.
An assortment of house-made meats.A second bar dinner proved even more satisfying, particularly when I discovered the calamari—lightly coated, thick and sublimely tender rings mixed with crispy onion and jalapeño slices. I even had a beer that night—not my usual drink of choice. But I’d been smitten by the draft-and-bottle selection assembled by sommelier Melissa Monasoff in the bistro and the marketplace, where there’s an extremely deep inventory of bottled craft beers with all sorts of fun names and birthplaces. (If you haven’t tried the bar’s signature wheat-beer mojito yet, prepare for a brand-new craving.)

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My only complaint is that, while there seems to be ample bartenders, there’s also a perceptible state of confusion as to who’s serving who, which makes for a bit of a wait when trying to order.

When I finally dined upstairs, the service was airtight, although I’d been warned to expect the opposite. I actually asked our server how things were going, and in a refreshing display of candor, she came clean about what the staff thought they were doing well and where they saw room for improvement. Thumbs up to her and the rest of the staff for their unpretentious approach and for daring to acknowledge negative buzz. A little bit of constructive criticism—and the wherewithal to adapt when necessary—can go a long way.

THE SKINNY: I’m not sure exactly when Scott Morrison first hatched the plan for a multi-concept restaurant the likes of which the Main Line has never seen, but I do know that I was spellbound by his musings on the subject—which, when we spoke more than a year ago, veered in about seven different directions. Naturally, I had a zillion questions, and when he finally got to the denouemThe first-floor marketplace/bistro area.ent, he had a huge grin on his face. “When I tell people about this, they look at me like I’m crazy,” Morrison said at the time. “I can tell you get it.”

And I do.

I’ve heard and read several comments regarding Maia’s lack of focus. And while I understand this point of view, I delight in the ambitions of its creators. As much as you go to a restaurant for the food, you also return for its comforts. You have the option of eating what some would term a “fancy” meal, or nibbling on calamari or pizza while taking in the game du jour. I like that I can pop in for an espresso and a croissant, peruse the beer and charcuterie selections, and ogle at the nifty cookware, tableware, micro-garnishes and sandwich embellishments. Even without the food, the space is perfect for procrastinating and people watching.

My hope for Maia is that the market offerings—in particular, its take-away lunch and dinner items—will expand and become a bit more down-to-earth. After all, eclectic and eccentric are great qualities, but man (or woman) can’t live on rabbit terrine, duck prosciutto and curried herring alone—especially when you’re stuck eating lunch at your computer. Barbecued eel and foie gras … Now that’s a different story.


DETAILS
Location: 789 E. Lancaster Ave., Villanova; (610) 527-4888, tastemaia.com
Cuisine: In the marketplace and bistro: an eclectic and rustic mix of soups, sandwiches and salads; gastro pub fare such as steamed mussels, charcuterie and smoked fish offerings, and steak frites. Upstairs: strong focus on East Coast seafood.
Price: $14-$27 for bistro entrées; $22-$38 upstairs.
Attire: Casual, classic Main Line chic.
Atmosphere: Neighborhood feel.
Hours: Call for hours.
Extras: Private dining, catering, superb takeout beer selection, outdoor seating with fire pits.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!