Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Maple Ave

147 Maple Avenue West
Vienna, VA  22180
703.319.2177
www.mapleaverestaurant.com
Maple Ave on Urbanspoon

"Confit, whatever that is...." is just one of the things I overheard from a group of colorfully loud older women having lunch at Maple Ave.  That statement, to me, sums up the contradiction that is Maple Ave.  On one hand, it serves wonderfully flavorful and diverse food, which we'll get to later, that uses inspiration and technique from several different sources.  On the other hand, it looks and feels like a diner and is located pretty far from DC on a heavy trafficked street full of strip malls in Vienna, VA.  It's a commitment to get out there and I worry that the people with easy access to Maple Ave may not fully appreciate what a gem they really have (whatever that is...).


I've been excited to go and try out Maple Ave for a few months now ever since I read Todd Kliman's Chat in April because something just seemed so appealing from the review and when I looked it up online, there was one dish with Spam so I was hooked.   So, today, I was at a doctor's appointment and chatting with the physician's assistant, who happened to be from Vienna, and I mentioned Maple Ave.  She had seen it before but didn't know much about it but said that restaurants rarely last at that location because the traffic was so bad.  That sealed it or at least gave me an excuse to go and try it out for lunch.  Yes, I know it probably won't be shutting down anytime soon but why take that chance!?!?

I took Route 66 out to Vienna and the stories about traffic around Maple Ave were spot on.  It's sandwiched between a brushless car wash and a Jiffy Lube with strip malls stretching down both sides of the street.  Maple Avenue is a four lane narrow two way street that was bumper to bumper at around lunchtime on a weekday so I can only imagine how busy it gets during rush hour.  It's tough to figure out where to turn in for parking and after turning into BOTH the brushless car wash and the Jiffy Lube, I finally found Maple Ave's narrow parking lot.

One of the quaint side effects of the traffic and confusion was that one of the Book Club Betties from the table across the way was lost.  They asked the waiter/host to try and give her directions but he had a hard time making out where she was exactly.  The chef, Tim Ma, had to come out into the dining room to talk her through how to get to the restaurant which I thought was a genuinely nice thing and very cool thing to do.  She eventually made it to the place as their table was debating whether or not Del Ray Cafe was French or not (it is).  Even if the food was awful (which was far from the case), the experience was already a memorable one and I wish these ladies were in every dining room I eat in.

So, yeah, the food.  As the signage at the restaurants says, it's "eclectic american cuisine" and it sure does live up to that.  On their online menu, there's a dish called a Braised Pork Belly Rice Bowl (pork belly!! Again!!) that included seared Spam which I was pretty excited to try since I love Spam.  It's a Filipino thing. Don't judge. They unfortunately (or fortunately since I will have to go back when it gets back on the menu) did not have it on the menu on this particular day.  Unintentionally, I went all seafood for my meal by starting off with the Suki Yaki Shrimp for an app and then the Butter Poached Scallops for my entree.

The Suki Yaki shrimp is jumbo tiger shrimp with a coconut sweet/sour sauce with coconut slices.  For some reason, I had visions of deep fried shrimp with a coconut dipping sauce like you'd find at a Red Lobster.  I'm not entirely sure why I thought it would come out as some cheesy chain food dish but I'm happy that it didn't and my taste buds were exponentially more happy at what did come out.  From what I can tell, the shrimp was tossed with a creamy sweet and sour (though more sweet than sour) sauce with slices (more like slivers) of tender coconut.  It was served with a cup of plain white rice which I really appreciated since I've basically had a cup of rice with about 90% of all home cooked meals in my life and its a really good vehicle for soaking up the creamy goodness of the sauce.  I can't overstate the amount of flavor packed into this dish.  The shrimp came through cleanly even though doused with the sauce and the depth of the sauce with sweet coconut and crunchy greens (they had the texture of bean sprouts but were green) came in waves as you kept tasting one element after another.  I would have been happy to just order another one of these and call it a day.

I ordered the Butter Poached Scallops for my entree which was served with a rosemary potato puree, jowl hash with caramelized onions, french beans (like a string bean) and fresh tarragon with a champagne sauce smothering the hash and puree.  I'm told that champagne sauce and scallops is a traditionally simple French dish but this was far from being just a simple dish.  But before I describe more of it, I couldn't help but overhearing the waiter/host describe this dish to the Sisterhood of the Other Table.  He was talking about the jowl hash making hand gestures running along the side of his face to describe the cheek of the pig which wasn't quite sinking in until he said, "it's very much like bacon" and then all was clear and life was good.  Just goes to show that bacon is everything.  The scallops were cooked perfectly tender and were fresh and lush.  I really like the french beans and fresh tarragon but felt that they were a bit of a distraction only because the puree and jowl hash were amazing.  The long strips of jowl were crispy and are really very much like bacon and the champagne sauce in the puree was an elevated form of gravy and mash for me.  The rich denseness of these ingredients made a great contrast to the freshness of the scallops and the greens.  And again, the flavors kept coming in waves in this well composed, well thought out dish.

For a dessert, I got a french press of their Cubano coffee which as bitter and strong and everything you'd want in a cup of coffee and homemade carnival funnel cake with french vanilla ice cream.  I like the whimsical nature of the dish and funnel cake always evokes memories of going to Ocean City, MD in the summertime.  What can I say? It was deep fried dough sprinkled with confectioner's sugar served with tasty vanilla ice cream.  It's a guilty, sweet, crunchy dessert which I finished in about a minute.  It didn't have the same feel as the first two dishes but only because those set the bar pretty high.  I wouldn't hesitate to order this again but I don't find it as memorable as my first two courses.

I'm thankful for the exuberance and quirkiness of the wonderful ladies in the dining room for making me smile at their enthusiasm for food regardless if they knew what it was or not.  They made sure that the experience would be positive regardless.  Luckily, and I should have played the lottery perhaps, the food turned out to be all that it was promised to be.  I don't know why Maple Ave is located where it is as it seems like a difficult location with all the congestion and space looks to be built from an old diner.  Regardless, while at first it seemed like quite a haul to get out there when I first got interested in Maple Ave, I will now definitely go out of my why to make it there as often as I can.

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