The story of how a restaurant can change, keep its soul and find a new voice.
“Do you want to buy my restaurant?”
“We didn’t think about it,” says Juste Zidelyte. “We just said yes right away.”
Tim Ma opened Maple Ave Restaurant in 2009 on the main strip in Vienna, and this little shack with 10 tables is still standing, albeit with new owners and a slowly evolving menu.
“The location is usually a death wish for any business,” wrote one reader on the insider-y food message board Don Rockwell almost a decade ago. And yet this shoebox survives, with almost zero effort in interior design in a time when restaurants win awards for decorating walls with air plants and serving food on one-of-a-kind ceramics.
The food has always clashed with its surroundings: funky, inspired dishes mixing heritage with modern American trends and drab purplish-gray walls covered in unobtrusive abstract art.
And yet when Tim Ma offered Ricardo Teves, the general manager of the restaurant, and Zidelyte, then a sous chef at Ma’s now-shuttered Arlington restaurant Water & Wall, the opportunity to buy it, the couple said yes.
They kept the famed wings, with heat from Korean chili paste, funk from oyster sauce and absolute luxury from a heavy-handed slathering in creme fraiche. I’ve eaten them on plenty of visits over the years and tried to understand the difference on a recent visit. Were they as decadent as I remembered? Was the skin as crispy and the meat as juicy?
When the exchange of ownership occurred in early 2015, most of the kitchen staff remained. Zidelyte, 31, says the food stayed true to the original recipes. What changed, says Zidelyte, “is how people perceived us.” And as a first-time executive chef and owner, she says, “I wasn’t sure if people wanted to buy what we cook.”
I understand her sentiment. Her dishes are bold. A lone octopus tentacle—soft, meaty, salty, charred, textbook—curls over halved fingerling potatoes, mingling with snappy green beans. Next door: a hunk of cross-hatched pork belly, crispy and melting; a swirl of a pimenton sauce; a boiled egg; whole olives. The kitchen nicknamed this dish “porktopus.” The juxtaposition is fascinating and odd, two strong players, like Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, complementing each other instead of clashing.
With no formal kitchen training, Zidelyte lives without rules. She grew up in Lithuania, helping on her grandmother’s family farm, eating a meat-and-potato diet. She didn’t know sushi existed. Lithuania was a closed country then, so her family missed the impact of global flavors. But she knew the world. With a degree in geography, she arrived in the U.S. at 19.
Though hesitant to get into the restaurant industry because of its insane workload and even more strenuous hours (she waited tables during college), she sent her resume around but never got any bites.
“I had a weird name I guess,” jokes Zidelyte, sounding a lot like the former president.
Ma was the first person to hire her. “I think you can tell when a person is ready to do anything,” Zidelyte says. She worked at Maple Ave as an unpaid intern and a sous chef then as a sous chef at Water & Wall, and then she and her boyfriend bought Maple Ave when Ma decided he could no longer focus on the Vienna restaurant while opening the sandwich shop Chase the Submarine (also in Vienna) and his splashy D.C. restaurant, Kyirisan, which last year earned a Bib Gourmand nod in the Michelin Guide.
What made Maple Ave such an interesting place was the intimacy in the menu. Ma’s Chinese heritage played a role, as did his classic French training, as well as his life as an ordinary American kid. What Zidelyte had to do when taking over the restaurant was keep the regulars but also maintain the truth behind the list of dishes. In a space with no dazzle, the food has to do all the work.
And then there’s pork confit steak, a string of words I’ve never seen together. After a week of brining, seven hours in the oven and a day in the fridge, this pork butt turns into a steak thanks to a quick sear. But that’s not the bonkers part. The pork sits on top of a brown butter sweet potato puree that is rich but also sweet, cut with a bright and herby chimichurri. On top of the pork is a chilled, sour eggplant caponata; to the side are fingerlings. It’s hard to understand the combination and how it all came together. Zidelyte gives credit to her collaborative kitchen and Teves’ Argentine upbringing for the addition of the South American condiment. The dish is all over the place in textures, temperatures and seasonality, but maybe that is why it’s so thought-provoking, enough to forgive the slightly tough meat.
Easier to understand is the braised beef cheek with a demi-glace that is rich and piquant and creamy semolina that could pass for mashed potatoes. Golden beets add a pop of sweetness to a dish heavy for summer but so good that it might not matter.
Lighter is the arctic char cooked so the skin is crisp and the flesh is tender. It balances on green-tinted spätzle, which itself is emerged in a smoky tomato sauce managing to let the fish stand out. House gnocchi piled onto a plate with asparagus, peas and a pesto sauce, while done just so, feels lackluster against the more unusual dishes on the table that night.
With no pastry chef, the desserts are uncomplicated, though turning bread into a brownie makes for interesting table conversation because wait, is there a baguette in my chocolate? Zidelyte soaks leftover bread in a ganache and uses that instead of flour in a typical brownie recipe. The end result is fudgy, a little bready, but mostly chocolaty. Gifford’s vanilla ice cream completes the picture.
What is a Lithuanian honey layer cake? Teves, my server one night, described it as a cross between tiramisu and a ginger snap, and he is dead right. It’s tender and reverberating with all of those blaring and warm wintertime spices, and it’s light and sweet and the kind of fuss-free dessert that makes ordering something at the end of a meal feel like a good idea instead of a button-popping mistake. Often servers don’t know how to describe a dish more than elaborating what’s already on the menu. Maybe because it’s Teves’ girlfriend of five years who’s in the kitchen? Maybe because Maple Ave has finally changed? Maybe because, says Zidelyte, “now I can say that it’s mine.”
Maple Ave Restaurant
147 Maple Ave. W., Vienna
Open for lunch during the week, brunch on the weekends and dinner daily
Appetizers: $9-$14; Entrees: $19-$29