FOOD- REVIEW- Maya: Subtleties make all the difference
As explained in the editor's note earlier in this issue, this is the first of many reviews the Hook will offer, and here's a little explanation of our methods.
Our reviewer– a veteran writer, teacher, and rock and roller– writes under his real name. He pays full price for all items ordered, makes at least two visits, and– to gain an accurate perception of service and other subtleties– offers no advance warning to the restaurant.
As readers can tell from the rest of our news coverage, the Hook loves Charlottesville and believes that constructive criticism makes for not only a better food community but a better community in general. Now feast your eyes on this!--editor
Chef Christian Kelly celebrates the first anniversary of Maya (not a reference to native pre-Columbian meso- and south-Americans, but to his daughter) on May 23. Charlottesville diners have warmed to the former Clifton Inn executive chef's populist-gourmet take on southern cuisine: on two recent visits we saw few empty
We first tried Saturday dinner at 6. Jennie began with golden brown quail served with candied bacon beside a tussock of wilted pea tendrils and small nutty green fava beans and dotted with purple beet-liquid and deep orange paprika oil. This was a wonderful and well-proportioned quartet, with just enough tussock for each tender bite of quail.
My cornmeal-crusted fried oysters with house remoulade were hot and plentiful (nearly a dozen), the cornmeal batter crisp and light. They were served on a bed of wilted greens that lacked character; it seemed like a perfect place for perhaps arugula or spinach (or local watercress?), lightly dressed or seasoned. The remoulade's spicing seemed to be mostly paprika, and the flavor of mayonnaise dominated; we wished for more zip (cayenne, garlic, shallot or onion– or even fennel?).
Jennie opted for the special— pan-seared grouper with oven-dried tomatoes and capers; I chose the beef tenderloin with red wine sauce. Both were well prepared (though our hands met at the salt shaker), but the quality of the tenderloin beef far surpassed the grouper, which gave off a strong fishy smell as it was placed in front of us. Though it was well-browned and nicely presented in two medium-sized pieces, we thought it wanted stronger seasoning; perhaps a fresher cut would've done the trick.
Jennie's sides (each main course comes with a choice of two) "won": the delicious vegetable stack was built of paper-thin slices of zucchini, yellow squash and eggplant, all nicely herbed with a hint of tomato and baked as sort of ratatouille baklava. Beside this, the garlicky sautéed broccolini retained a crunch of freshness inside its lightly browned exterior.
Beside my steak I chose cheese grits and collard greens, a pairing we relished at culinary establishments high and low during the seven years we lived in Birmingham. The peppered vinegar our waiter set down just before bringing our entrees contained a mere two peppers in white vinegar. It looked good as an ornament, but as a condiment it lacked heat. Either way, the greens already seemed to have absorbed enough vinegar, and we missed bacon or some other salt-meat to add richness and salt. The grits likewise wanted body and salt. But the quality and preparation of the filet, with its 360 degrees of impeccable browning and honest red wine reduction, made amends.
We split a post-entree arugula salad, a simple mound topped with grilled asparagus (both local) lightly tossed with a deliciously simple toasted garlic vinaigrette. The crispy country ham was tasty, but the cut— chunky elongated rectangles— was difficult to pierce or balance on a fork. The ample parmesan cheese was unremarkable: soft, lacking the more complex flavor and slight crystallization of parmigiano reggiano locally available.
Dessert was another split, and another waiter's favorite: bourbon pecan pie with a nice custard— not too gelatinous, not too dry— plenty of whole pecans, and a homemade, if slightly tough crust. It was difficult to discern the flavor of bourbon. The sprig of fresh mint in the (canned?) whipped cream was a nice touch.
On our second visit, my daughter Addie and I tried Sunday brunch. The wait was short, the hostesses young and gracious, if slightly uncertain— a preppy family of four (two young daughters) just out of church were told to "wait one minute, please" three or four times; the family waffled too, claiming to be easy as to outdoor vs. indoor seating, but then moving inside after being shown to one of the overly sunny patio tables.
Both of us settled on biscuit dishes: Addie, the biscuits and gravy, and I the "redneck benedict" (our waiter's coinage: rhyme the words): country ham and poached eggs on fresh biscuit halves with hollandaise. The biscuits were light and moist, made with unbleached flour for a bit of texture and just the right size as a nest for a poached egg. The country ham in this context was much nicer than the previous meal's pellet-like salad topping, and although it was rather thickly sliced (about a quarter of an inch), it was tender through and through.
The hollandaise was delicate and well balanced. Addie's sausage biscuits offered something we'd hoped to see more of at dinner: a bit of hot spice– probably cayenne– in the delicious gravy. The heat didn't come from its basis of maple link sausage, which we tried as a side and found somewhat bland, lacking in salt, spice, and browning, and with a maple-syrup rather than a maple-wood flavoring. (The apple-wood bacon side, on the other hand, was delicious, crisp, and perfectly cooked.)
Finely chopped fresh chives added the perfect hint of zest to both the gravy and the hollandaise. As an entrée, the the eggs benedict seemed a bit lonely all by themselves on the big white plate. A touch of green, some minor culinary complication, would help raise the bar that Kelly's Southern spin on eggs benedict already sets.
His stated focus at Maya is to avoid overcomplicating things, but when he does choose a subtle spice– chives, or cinnamon sprinkled on the fresh melon at brunch– or an unusual combination (fresh fava beans and pea sprouts) it can work simple wonders.
Maya's arugula, asparagus, and ham salad.
PHOTO BY RYAN HOOVER
PHOTO BY RYAN HOOVER