Water & Wall starts a timid—but delicious—path in Arlington.
Words by Stefanie Gans Photos by Jonathan Timmes
There are hugs and cheek kisses upon arrival between a group of well-dressed, chatty young men. “I loooooove Maple Ave,” says one, stretching the verb to the limits of its elasticity.
“Where is Maple Ave?” another asks. “In Vienna, in the middle of strip mall …” the first one explains, as they walk past floor-to-ceiling steel mesh curtains, moving from the bar area to the long, rectangular dining room of Maple Ave Restaurant’s little sister, Water & Wall, the new quarry for the dining sophisticate.
The Arlington restaurant is the second concept for couple Tim Ma (chef) and Joey Hernandez (director of operations), a place with three times the amount of seats and much closer to the city whose food it more resembles. The space feels grown-up, minimal but stylized, with organic cotton arching over light fixtures, making it look like umbrellas hanging above. The sophistication contrasts with the shoebox that is Maple Ave, where Ma holds elaborate tasting dinners in the back of the building in what looks like an unadorned garage. But it’s also where to find the most fun food in Northern Virginia.
Water & Wall, which opened in November, is so far a timid—but still delicious—step behind the more adventurous Maple Ave.
This gradual introduction to its new neighbors is part of Ma’s plan. “It was a comfort level thing. Those were the things we knew,” says Ma about the many dishes that appear on both restaurant menus, including: wings slathered with Korean red chili paste and crème fraiche; coins of fried okra; shrimp and grits with sausage; and chicken liver pâté. But by mid-January, Ma understood the kitchen. He knew where to cook the protein, where to plate, where to sauce. It was a calculation in variables. The menu was the constant. He knew how the wings cook and how the wings should taste. He needed to understand the moving parts of the new kitchen and keep the dish dependent variable. Two months later, it was time, he says, to “let it grow up on its own.” Now the kitchen is the constant and the menu changes.
A new restaurant in a new town, deserves its own identity. “Finding our signature here will be a challenge,” says Ma, as he starts abandoning the almost-identical items.
But, the grits are still masterfully creamy, as is the indulgent chicken liver pâté with duck prosciutto.
The bouillabaisse, loaded with lemongrass, ginger, Thai chilis and fish sauce turns the classic fish stew into something new again. Collaborating in the kitchen with Ma is Nyi Nyi Myint—a native of Burma and a London-trained chef— who, upon moving to the area for his wife’s job (a television reporter for a Burmese station)—knocked on Maple Ave’s door for work. Ma calls him “my right hand” and he now helms Maple Ave as Ma drives Water & Wall. The bouillabaisse is Myint’s and it captivates our attention, from the gorgeous red broth with plump mussels and bouncy shrimp to the elevation of heat. For added texture and sourness, Myint boils leftover green papaya root (from the pork belly salad) to join with tomatoes.
The leg of duck confit is a little dry, but with shiny, crisp skin. Fried Brussels sprouts tossed in an aioli invoking a creamed effect stays bright from streaks of cider gastrique. Braised beef cheeks pass the cut-with-a-fork test and a pan seared drum, a flaky white fish, plays the steady bass to the sweet sounds of squash puree and the standout guitar solo of pickled cabbage.
The drink program is under the care of general manager Nick Seo, who works the floor in bold-colored sweaters, slim pants and, one night, cheetah print smoking slippers. A cocktail he seemed especially proud of—and my favorite—is Olivette, where bartenders shake oil, vodka and lemon juice for a full two minutes to emulsify the drink, which arrives smooth and creamy. But drink fast—it will eventually separate.
The apple tart is the most rewarding of the three desserts with a simple, tender crust, slim strips of apple and a cinnamon-brown sugar crumble. A chefy touch of cinnamon semifreddo slowly melts into the baked sweet.
Hanger steak “far and away outsells everything,” says Ma. The platter of rosy slices is straightforward, save for the Asian spin on the Argentine chimichurri sauce, bringing pizzazz and hinting at Ma’s creativity.
In the winters of 2009 and 2010, Ma says it “was a dark time. It was terrible” at Maple Ave. Ma and his wife almost closed the restaurant. It was then that Ma decided to stop preparing safe dishes; He no longer wanted to cook steak and burgers. “When we were about to go out of business, we were like, ‘Fuck all of you and we’re just gonna cook this shit.’” Ma, together with Myint, introduced offal and Asian-influenced dishes. Now, says Ma, after years gaining the trust of Maple Ave diners, “we could cook our shoe and put it on a plate and someone would be like, ‘This is fine.’” Ma laughs at the line. He laughs to show his love for the community in Vienna, in the restaurant that he and Hernandez built themselves.
As for this safe, but best-selling steak at Water & Wall, “It makes me kinda sad,” says Ma.
Water & Wall
The specials are where Ma uses his more interesting cuts of meat, like a recent dish of oxtail with pappardelle and black garlic.
Appetizers: $9 – 12; Entree: $19 – 25
Dinner daily; brunch on the weekend.
3811 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington; waterandwall.com