147 W. Maple Ave.
Vienna, VA 22180
CUISINE International, Modern American
PRICE $$ ($13-$20)
HOURS Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
NVM AWARDS Best Restaurant 2011
Best Restaurant 2012
NEARBY METRO None
By Warren Rojas
It’s really easy to run out of space on these small tables,” one server sheepishly jokes while struggling to clear away extraneous menus and place settings in time to drop off our battery of dishes before they tumbled from his grasp.
Maple Ave chef/owner Tim Ma can certainly relate.
The one-time engineer cum French Culinary Institute grad bucked the advice of friends and family who warned him against launching his small plate-themed project in late 2009.
He’s been rewarded with a cadre of local followers who regularly file into the oddly shaped and tightly knit location—serviced by nine tables up front, with four more tucked away in the far rear—yet remains frustrated by his inability to properly capitalize on the rising popularity.
“It’s tough to make money here,” the recession-defying restaurateur grouses—though he clearly appreciates his unique predicament. “We’re lucky that we do need more space,” Ma offers.
The main dining room could have been assembled by someone attempting to illustrate the definition of “cozy,” its sage walls adorned with local art (most of it on loan from the neighboring Soundry) while bare wooden tables and chairs are reconfigured at will to accommodate whoever strolls through the front door.
What the location lacks in aesthetic charm the kitchen more than makes up for in culinary artistry.
Ma and his trusted companions, sous chef Nyi Nyi Myint, a Burmese native who spent some time behind the burners at Busaba Eathai while in the UK and is rumored to have cooked for Britain’s royal family, and Nick Seo, a Culinary Institute of America grad who Ma maintains does “a little bit of everything,” are as non-traditional as you can get. The rag-tag trio embraces daring and surprise in lieu of the familiar or formulaic, mining their personal experiences to help compose each carefully orchestrated—and occasionally jarring—dish.
Their carte has run the gamut from caramelized okra drizzled with Thai chili sauce to foie gras-stuffed figs wrapped in duck prosciutto to a sandwich of pulled Polyface pork capped with pickled slaw to a sublime torte sporting alternating tiers of chocolate mousse, homemade peanut butter, chopped pretzels and roasted peanuts. Not to mention the fun they had—think: spicy fried cauliflower, sous vide tuna salad sandwiches and bulgogi banh mi—on their short-lived food truck, Maple Avenue Express (on hiatus until further notice).
“Foie gras and funnel cake don’t [usually] go on the same menu. But somehow, it works,” Ma suggests.
And for the most part, he is right.
A southern standby goes international in a shrimp-and-grits makeover that includes spice-crusted jumbo shrimp, their puffy white flesh studded with freshly cracked black pepper, piquillo peppers-laced grains and crumbly, blueberry-spiked venison sausage.
Surplus pork jowl (a benefit/consequence of getting chummy with local pork baron Steve Baker) was alternately too fatty or tough, proving jerky-like along its thinnest expanses but more luxuriant where the piggy stored its generous padding. A pile of cinnamon-sprinkled, slow-cooked apples offers some TLC to the seared jowl.
Bulgogi lettuce wraps, the pork soaked through with orange juice, ginger ale and soy, a la Ma’s mother’s recipe, teeters on the verge of cloying—until bedecked in the caramelized kimchee salvaged from the aforementioned pork jowl platter. The pickled cabbage kicks in just enough sour to cut through the marinade and cements the Korean-ness of the dish.
Melted cheddar seeps into every thirsty crevice of a panko-crusted chicken sandwich that delivers a cocksure, bread-backed crunch that gives way to a juicy-to-the-core breast. Briny pickle chips, truffle mayo and a buttery roll round out the sandwich experience, with herb-flecked fries contributing salt and starch to the dining equation.
A quartet of deep-fried, chocolate-filled dumplings is too cute to deny—at first. Each palm-sized pastry is lightly bubbled on the outside and oozes bittersweet ganache when pierced, eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs” from those who’ve been raised in the era of the omnipresent lava cake. But just a few bites in, I was already wondering why the obviously experimental kitchen didn’t choose to unite the dumplings and side dish of plain vanilla ice cream (dumplings a la mode?). Or perhaps drizzle them with dulce de leche or honey (sopapilla-style) or something?
The sugar-dusted funnel cake, on the other hand, is an undisputed winner. Each mound of fried knottiness— think: giant apple fritters pumped up with helium—slice easily, revealing an extra fluffy, wonderfully flaky interior that you’d swear would go airborne if separated from your fork. The very vanilla bean-y ice cream adds just the right touch of the exotic to the classic carnival fare.
Ma’s passion for creative cooking is matched only by his commitment to sustainable dining. Even though he’s not entirely convinced that the evangelism is worth all the headaches.
“These products don’t come cheap. And the time investment is kind of ridiculous,” he says of the energy he’s expended scouting out regional producers like Polyface Farm and Tuscarora Organic Grower Cooperative.
“Do people come in for that? I think most people don’t. But those who do know [how to] appreciate it and thank us for it,” he says. “The moment you say Polyface … the locavores perk up.”
Still, Ma seems optimistic.
At press time, he was seriously weighing his expansion plans/relocation options.
Ma pointed to the recently shuttered Panjshir II spot right down the road in Vienna as an ideal location, but suggests that the financials haven’t yet lined up to claim that specific parcel. So he’s also scouting locations in Falls Church and near Virginia Square.
If determination alone were enough, I suspect we’d be seeing Maple Ave 2.0 much sooner rather than later.
But until reality catches up to his ambition, Ma will wait. And plan.
Perhaps he’ll go a tad tonier the next time around. Just don’t expect anything too fancy.
“We’d want to make it a little more fine dining than it is here. But not so we couldn’t put a funnel cake on the menu,” Ma predicts