All words: Farrah Skeiky
All photos: Stephanie Breijo
It sounds like a scene out of a summertime rom-com, doesn’t it? An ambitious young couple, defiant of their families’ wishes, abandon the life they’ve always known to chase their dreams in the big city. They’re just barely scraping by, when one day the inevitable good news/bad news conversation arises.
“I have something to tell you.”
“So do I. You first.”
“We’re going to be bankrupt in a few days. What was your thing?”
This time, it’s not out of a movie. As of right now, no one is playing Tim Ma and his wife Joey Hernandez on the big screen. Maple Ave, the couple’s first venture, was about to go under when a surprise review from the Washington Post turned things around dramatically. Up until that point, Ma had been playing it safe with a sandwich-heavy menu as he attempted to please as much of the demographic as he could. The couple had poured their savings into the place, and family had personally and physically helped them set up shop. When Ma realized that things might not work out in his flavor, he threw out the old menu and started cranking out the kind of dishes he’d want to eat. The chances of a Post writer visiting while he was in the middle of a delicious culinary mental breakdown? Alright, yes, straight out of a romantic comedy.
That was a little over two years ago. In late 2013, Water & Wall was born as an answer to all remaining Maple Ave-related questions. The ambiance of both remains the same: casual and comfortable. Water & Wall is simply Maple Ave’s upscale little sister, in decor and menu. New fans of Maple Ave wanted the same quality meal but at somewhere that wasn’t referred to as “the restaurant in the old Anita’s building,” somewhere that had more ample seating. Water & Wall is that place.
Don’t mistake either establishment for a fusion spot. Both offer American dining with Asian influences, a subtle homage to Ma and Hernandez’s American dream come true. Ma knows better than to glaze half the menu in soy sauce or toss it all into a wok. He studied at the French Culinary Institute, and paired this with an externship at David Chang’s Momofuku Ko. While the influences are subtle, the flavors are far from subdued. A great example is the Short Rib Hash, which is made mesmerizing with an Asian churri featuring sesame oil, Thai basil and rice wine vinegar. A shift in spices as simple as that completely transforms a dish and almost makes you forget about the beautiful egg yolk running down the dish.
Another highlight of brunch service, which only started at Water & Wall about a month ago, was the egg loaf. The loaf consists of scrambled eggs, spam, rice, and kimchi. The Asian influence in this dish is a little more pronounced, but not pungent as one expects when kimchi is involved. The combined flavors and textures– soft, crunchy, pickled, tangy, savory — work harmoniously when in most cases they’d overwhelm each other. Most of the brunch menu here shares items with Maple Ave, but the short rib hash and seasonal specialties are not among them.
We were treated to some of the first soft shell crabs of the season here, too. So fresh that they were apparently still kicking a good while after their lungs were cut open. Served over a bed of flavorful peppers and vegetables and fried and spiced impeccably, this was not a dish with which one played the “Are You Sure You Don’t Want The Last Bite?” game. Somehow, some way, Ma and chef chef Nyi Nyi Myint have found a way to transform something the mid-Atlantic has enjoyed for ages into an opus of their own.
Particularly impressive is Ma’s knack for showing diners how to enjoy elements they didn’t think they would. The okra in the shrimp and grits is far from the slimy, mushy unknown texture that unfamiliar diners anticipate. It’s a pleasant and thoughtful addition to a dish already made exceptional by venison sausage from Chateau Royal in Hudson Valley. And for some, like myself, Bloody Mary’s just aren’t their thing. Water & Wall has three varieties: A Bloody Mary with vodka, a Bloody Brew with beer, and a Bloody Red with house red wine. At least one of them will make a believer of you, but if you still aren’t sold, there are cucumber bellinis and pineapple mimosas to be sipped.
If you don’t think you’ve got room for dessert, you’re only doing a great disservice to yourself. Any one of the four is decadent on its own, but all four in one sitting is ambitious, or perhaps gluttonous, or perhaps both. We went for it and had no regrets. Regret is not a word to be associated with lemon panna cotta served with pistachio biscotti and orange blossom syrup, or chocolate bread pudding topped with horchata ice cream. The french press coffee service is an impressive and appreciated touch after such a decadent affair.
Water & Wall is an intersection of many things literal and figurative. It’s the intersection where Ma & Hernandez lived in New York, the intersection of soft and dark design elements incorporate in the bar and dining areas, the intersection of French culinary training with a family history of Asian cuisine– it’s the intersection of the kind of life Ma’s family used to have in the restaurant business and the kind of life he wanted for himself, separate from dreams and expectations set by others. It’s a celebration of the love and success he shares with Hernandez, and that comes across clearly in every plate.