The great charm of chef Tim Ma’s Maple Ave Restaurant is that it’s so incongruous. Fine dining in a space that used to house a doughnut shop? With a quirky, globetrotting menu (shrimp ’n’ grits, Moroccan chicken, mochi) that usually is an indication of a chef who lacks confidence? Somehow it works.
With this, Ma’s second restaurant, you sense the strain of expectation. The space, in a Virginia Square office building, is as cold as Maple Ave is cozy; you feel as if you’re sitting in some hotel dining room in Any City, USA. And the cooking is less exuberant than at Maple Ave, with portions that suggest an operation nervously monitoring its bottom line.
A shrimp ’n’ grits that could survive in New Orleans and Korean-inspired chicken wings have been reprised, but Ma has taken a more ambitious route this time. A duck confit sports rich meat, but the skin could be crisper; a pile of fried Brussels sprouts comes dressed in a too-sweet aïoli.
A variation on porchetta made with lamb illustrates the gap between the kind of restaurant Water & Wall wishes to be and the kind of place it is. It was pure comfort, but what Ma was aiming for was a dish whose every complex bite demands a long sip of red wine.
Desserts are a showpiece at Maple Ave, but here I’d pass. The mochi, flown in from Hawaii, are more gluey than chewy. The most remarkable thing about the chocolate bread pudding is its puny portion.
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.