Maia Review: Your Table Is (Finally) Ready

It was three years in the making. Now can Villanova’s Maia eclipse its own hype?

The hype, the glam, the fancy drinks — these should all be overtures to an unforgettable meal. The menu is mostly seafood, a celebrated specialty of Terence Feury’s. Servers present the bill of fare with a sermon about the kitchen’s obsession with local ingredients. (The chefs delivered a similar homily when I interviewed them.) But the salmon hails from Norway. The oysters? British Columbia. The prawns? ­Guatemala. The lamb? Colorado. The steak? Arizona. Even most of the ­mushrooms — a bumper crop for farmers in nearby Kennett Square — are flown in from Montana. While much of the menu does feature local ingredients, that’s a lot of food miles for a place so preachy on the subject.

Digging into those long-awaited first bites at Maia, you’ll find that some appetizers don’t quite meet the lofty standard suggested by the hype. The smoked tuna loin with kohlrabi slaw prolongs the suspense with its plating. The fish awaits the diner under a ceramic cloche. When this is lifted by the server, a fragrant cloud of hickory smoke issues forth. The spectacle is more memorable than the food itself, a meaty but nondescript tuna slice and nest of bland, cabbage-y kohlrabi ribbons. Another starter features barbecue-sauce-glazed eel slices and creamy rounds of foie gras. It’s plated with brioche toast and apple butter, but the subtle acid from the apple is too dull to cut the sweetness here.

A few entrées also promise more than they deliver. The $36 poached lobster is a diminutive dish, with a small portion of meat bathed in a blah brown-­butter hollandaise. A petite lobster and sunchoke pie (absent much actual lobster) occupies the opposite corner of a mostly empty plate. A New York strip is cooked perfectly and delivers big, beefy flavor, but the accompanying “24-hour cooked” short ribs are dry considering that such a low-and-slow preparation usually yields meltingly tender and moist meat.

But other dishes boast balanced flavors and show off the masterful technique for which the Feury chefs are both well known. An appetizer of lobster tortellini combines toothsome homemade pasta with sweet lobster meat in a brothy sauce made slightly nutty by braised artichokes and tart with preserved lemon. American red snapper, a wild fish whose season — and tenure on the menu — lasts a mere 10 days, is enhanced by piquant shards of house-made chorizo and tender rings of oil-poached calamari confit. The right combination of plates suggests that Maia was worth salivating over for almost three years.

Anticipation and buzz are mixed blessings for any new restaurant. The casual downstairs bistro, where prices and expectations are ­lower, escapes these slings and arrows. The food is both creative and comforting: a hulking pastrami sandwich; an unpretentious take on choucroute that offers veal, ­turkey and pork wursts on a bed of sauerkraut, with a side of mini hot-dog rolls; fresh agnolotti pasta with chanterelles; house-made ­charcuterie.

This menu, too, is the brainchild of the brothers Feury. They express a whimsy in these dishes that’s lacking upstairs. The bistro, centered by a convivial bar, is breezily casual — though the few unfortunate tables adjacent to the market offer all the atmosphere of a Wegmans food court.

Villanovans have waited much longer than three years for a restaurant this good in their neighborhood. It never had to be local. No one asked for it to be a coffee shop on top of everything else. If Maia recognizes this, it will find devoted regulars right in its backyard.