From the earliest whispers back in 2005, Maia sounded like an overly ambitious proposition: a high-end restaurant, plus a casual bistro, plus a prepared-foods market, plus a cafe. But if any chefs were up to such a challenge, it would be Maia’s masterminds, brothers Patrick and Terence Feury. Terence helmed the stove at Striped Bass in its glory days, while Patrick cooked at New York City’s storied Le Cirque. Main Line residents, yearning for another spot like Patrick’s wildly successful Nectar, started counting down to their first taste of Maia.
After even-longer-than-usual delays, Maia was widely expected to open in the fall of 2007. But architectural and design issues kept the place shuttered an additional six months. Nonstop press mentions held Maia in the limelight; the restaurant earned a New York Times mention a full eight months before anyone had tasted its food.
In spite of all the pre-opening fanfare, Maia’s May 2008 launch was subdued. The restaurant, just off Route 30 in Villanova, sits in a newly minted strip mall, where it shares a brick facade with an office-supply joint and a gym. From the parking lot, only the sign on the building distinguishes it from the adjacent big-box stores. It definitely doesn’t have the curb appeal of the most eagerly anticipated restaurant in Main Line history.
Diners enter the upscale restaurant through a back entrance, but once you’re inside, there’s a reassuringly ornate knotted wood sculpture serving as a hostess stand. Luxe details dominate the lounge area, which is outfitted with snazzy banquettes and glossy tables. A sheet of polished Italian marble provides the bar’s backdrop, and a dramatic communal table runs the length of the room, its surface bisected by a glistening bed of ice waiting to chill raw-bar orders. The main dining room sets a slightly subtler scene, though drama drips from a large cluster of cinnamon-hued stalactites. The spendy style, at least, is consistent with the buildup.
Once seated, you’re presented with a cocktail list and pressed for a drink order before you get a look at the dinner menu — an issue for those who want to pair a glass of wine with their first course. Cocktail lovers can’t miss with the fresh limoncello margarita or the peach-elderflower martini.
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.