Oh my, Maia! You know you’re in good hands when your restaurant has a mission statement: “To be a food and beverage driven community gathering place accessible to all walks of life and to provide the utmost in positive human service interaction. To be active in the not-for-profit world and benefit our global community.” Sweet.
Located in Villanova, Maia actually has a few missions. I almost feel like a late-night Ronco ad when I tell people about it. (“It’s a restaurant, it’s a market, it’s a bar! But wait … there’s more!”) Maia is tucked away in a large building hidden behind a small strip mall housing a Kinko’s and Sharkey’s Cuts for Kids. Wedged in next to a Staples office-supply store, it would be easy to overlook and that would be a shame, because Maia is quite fabulous.
Designed by top decorators Studio A, it is a sophisticated study in natural beauty. The restaurant is tall, dark and handsome and beautifully attired with lots of lovely little surprises at each turn. Each area has its own unique character, from the small two-seat tables, private but facing out so you can watch the foibles of your fellow man, to the 20-foot communal table sparkling with a glowing ice trough in the center of the main room, to the intimate booths lining the east wall of the restaurant. But it all ties together. Texture is the key, with varied woods, brick and marble — one room is even lined with mother of pearl. The whole place is dark and sensuous with splashes of red to add a little fire. And behind all that is a tribute to Mother Earth.
Chef and co-owner Patrick Feury said he was very conscious about the history of the materials used in creating Maia. “We searched for wood that was already felled. In the foyer, we have a large tree stump that is used as the hostess desk. We found a dead Bubinga tree in Africa and brought in the whole tree. We used it for the common table and some of the tables in the bistro downstairs. We used everything. On the bar itself there are small pieces of wood that come from a tree found in the bottom of Lake Superior. There used to be a logging route there and a lot of the logs were lost underwater, we found a company that’s retrieving and using the lost wood. It’s amazing: It’s completely petrified so we didn’t have to do anything to it. The wood has its own texture. It’s one of my favorite things in here.”
My dinner companion was late (Mom …) and I was starving, so I got a jump-start with the crispy bass sliders ($5.95). Perfection! Served on a rosemary potato-bread roll with a chili aioli, the sliders were a delicate and delectable combination: The bread was pillow-soft but grilled to a light crunch; the bass was also flaky and delicate on the inside and, as the name of the dish implies, crispy on the outside. The aioli gave it a little kick.
I also received a handsome little basket of homemade breads served with olive oil and butter. I love having choices …
For an appetizer, we went with the roasted foie gras (market price), which was pan-roasted and plated with a sun-dried cherry gastrique, candied walnuts and Branch Creek Farm micro greens. The foie gras was as light as cotton candy with that same melt-in-your-mouth quality.
We also sampled the lobster pumpkin bisque ($8.50). I know I’m corny, but the showman in me always enjoys it when the soup is served with just herbs and accoutrements in the bottom of the bowl as it is filled with a flourish at the table. The bisque was smooth and creamy with healthy bites of tender lobster.
My dining companion also ordered the oysters (market price). I’m not a raw-oyster person, so I left her to slurp it up on her own. Though I think she was disappointed she didn’t find a pearl, she gave them two thumbs up.
For my entrée, I chose the braised lamb shank ($24.95). The lamb was served with creamy polenta and cipollini onions and goat cheese brought in straight from Shellbark Hollow Farm. Feury was raised in a farming family: His father ran a cattle farm in Limerick, Ireland, and his grandmother a dairy farm. It taught him a respect for animals that translates into his cooking and means that he develops relationships with the farmers who supply his food. The freshness of the ingredients was evident in the taste.
Dining companion/mother had the grilled filet mignon ($33). This was a mouth-watering cut of steak served with potato gratin and caramelized Brussels sprouts. The filet was grilled flawlessly but the sprouts were a little chewy.
The portions at Maia were balanced: not so large that you were bursting at the seams but still eating because it was so good and hating yourself afterward, and not so small that you had to break out the magnifying glass to find it. As Goldilocks once said, “Just right.”
Throughout dinner, to keep in step with the sophisticated elegance of the room, I sipped a green apple fig martini ($11.50), vodka mixed with fresh spiced apple and fig puree along with a dash of apple corn schnapps. I usually switch to wine with dinner, but this was so tasty I didn’t want to give it up.
Afterward, I took a moment to speak to Feury.
PGN: The holidays were just here: Do you cook for the family? PF: Yes, I cook at home a lot. I do the holiday meals, I really enjoy cooking. I started out in a butcher shop as a pot washer and moved my way up, though I actually originally went to school for design. I went to community college in Monmouth County, N.J., and then went to New York to study at Parsons School of Design. My favorite designer was Milton Glaser and I got to study under him for a while; he’s the one who suggested that I follow my heart as a restaurateur. It’s been a great adventure. I’ve worked in Peacock Alley in the Waldorf-Astoria, I was the sous-chef at Le Cirque and worked and studied in France, which really gave me a sense of how I wanted to run a restaurant. There was a real connection to the land there and the purveyors of the foods you worked with. I’ve had a chance to do that here and at Nectar in Berwyn. Our menu is ingredient-driven. They’re either local or the best we can find. For example, our micro greens are from a farm in Bucks County. They’re very unique and don’t deliver. We actually have to drive there and pick them up. We have a person assigned to collect fresh food from a number of farms. We get our oysters from a couple right here in Radnor who have a farm in New Brunswick. We get our cheese locally but we won’t limit ourselves to that. I believe in getting the best. If there’s a French cheese I want to bring in, I won’t hesitate to do that, but for the most part we stay local. We use organic breads. For me the most important thing is food itself, which often is dictated by the seasons. Most of the foods served at Maia are done in-house: The smoked salmon is smoked and meats are cured and dried in-house, the breads and pastas are made from scratch on the premises. We do serious food but we also try to keep the menu fun with things like sliders and our Maia burger. I want this to be a place where people can enjoy themselves.
And at Maia there are plenty of ways to enjoy yourself. In addition to the chic full-scale restaurant upstairs, Maia boasts a bar downstairs complete with large-screen TVs and a larger selection of craft beers, with more than 250 varieties from around the world. Live music can be heard on Wednesday nights.
In the bistro, you can enjoy the same quality of food as upstairs with offerings for breakfast, from fresh-baked croissants to a lobster omelet; lunch, from organic salads to hot-dog sliders; and dinner, from Lancaster chicken pot pie to Chesapeake Bay crab cakes and brunch on the weekends. Or just relax at the espresso, tea and pastry bar or, if you’re really in a hurry, just grab something from the marketplace.
For those of you brave enough to venture out of the Gayborhood or even, gasp, out of the city, to the land of the suburbs, Maia is worth the trip. Actually, it’s not really that far. I’m from Radnor (well, I’m actually from the mean streets of Passaic, N.J. — think Newark — before we did a Jeffersons’ “moving on up” and found ourselves in the land of welcome wagons and the Devon Horseshow). On a good night, it only took me 15-20 minutes to zip up 476 and onto 76 to get into the city. Now it takes that long to get across Philly on the 48 bus.
So do yourself a favor and check out Maia. Make it a special trip or let it be a pit stop on the way to the King of Prussia mall. And when you check out the Web site, take a peek at the dress code. There’s only one mandate — “with style.” I think we can handle that …
If you go Maia 789 E. Lancaster Ave. Villanova (610) 527-4888 www.tastemaia.com