By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Visually at least, Mayya lives up to vaunted expectations. Pale beige sandblasted trees are elevated above the entranceway to what is really two restaurants -- a 120-seat formal dining room to the right, and a 160-seat café serving less elaborate, more typically Mexican fare to the left. There's colorlessness on both sides: The ceilings, floors, chairs, and tables are black (the last of these covered with white linen in the chic section); the walls, some adorned with black-and-white photos, are gray; and chrome, concrete, and stainless steel highlights dot the i's and cross the t's of the voluminous space. It's a strikingly stark look that has too much going on to feel cold. Ceilings soar over two levels of comfortable seating, glass walls look out on to a sullen stretch of Lincoln Road, an open kitchen emits seductively savory aromas, and two bars (one toward the rear of the café, one upstairs) warm things further with extensive selections of aged tequilas. Flowers on each tabletop provide splashes of color.
But for those with eyes for substantial sustenance, Mayya will likely be less intriguing than its history and setting.
First to the café. An appetizer of three assorted tacos was skimpier than a pepper picker's paycheck. Steamy moist circles of corn masa, which made up the shells, were terrific, but when I opened one to put back a small nugget of spicy pork that had fallen out, I found just two teeny rings of pickled red onion inside. The other two tacos, containing carnitas and chicken with pineapple, were extremely flavorful but no more generous. I realize that the quality of the food here is far superior to, say, the 99-cent chalupas sold around the corner at you-know-where, but the way they parsimoniously parcel out ingredients at Mayya you'd think you were attending a truffle tasting.
The chicken quesadilla was slightly more substantial, shredded dark chicken meat and not-quite-melted white cheese folded inside a dry flour tortilla -- nothing special, though the dish of charred tomatoes and ground ancho chilies served on the side was awesome. Other tortilla-based starters come rolled, filled, or topped with traditional accompaniments such as beef, refried beans, chorizo, peppers, avocado, and cheese. Main courses include free-range chicken in mole poblano and coriander-crusted salmon with pork tamale, but savvy diners will order the platter for two of carnitas, carne asada, or cochinita pibil. Each contains sixteen ounces of zestily marinated meat, with tortillas and condiments, for $24; it also works as a solid starter for any size group, as you can order the meat by the pound.
On to the chic section. The à la carte selections (two soups, a trio each of appetizers and main courses, and four desserts) here change daily, and also spin off into a nine-item tasting menu for $85 per person; for $99 you can dine at a chef's table in the kitchen. Restaurant items are hautier, not heartier, than those in the café. A bowl of garlic soup ($12) contained no more than a cup's worth of rich chicken egg-drop broth with olive oil, shredded cheese, two petite croutons, and a garlic taste that was difficult to detect. I prefer the way they serve it in Mexico and Spain, with an unbroken, softly poached egg, so the diner may break it through the soup himself.
A starter of foie gras, stuffed piquillo pepper with pickled beets, and coriander and morita (piquant dried pepper) sauce was artfully presented with bright red, purple, and green colors in the center of a white rectangular plate. It featured a sweet and absolutely brilliant blend of flavors, though the foie gras was a domino-size sliver, and the amount of food on the plate inadequate at any price, let alone $19.
Whole roasted rosadito (similar to the French rouget, or red mullet) was a much more gratifying appetizer ($16), the sweet delicate flakes of the fresh fish harmonized with wild mushrooms and a spicy black-bean sauce. A main course of three thick, impeccably cooked diver scallops on a mound of French lentils ($34) came sauced with a cumin reduction that hardly registered, surprising given the potency of this spice, but it was delectable nonetheless. Two tender (but too thin) disks of melt-in-your-mouth beef tenderloin ($39) was likewise delicious, plated with sautéed cactus (green bean texture, green pepper taste), a kick-ass guajillo chili sauce (slightly tart and smoky), and a layered torta of tortilla, potato, and ground chorizo that was, to no great surprise, teensy and tasty.
Pastry chef Leslie Swager, another Trotter vet, composes sensual and sensible pairings of flavors such as warm quince soup with buttermilk sorbet, and poached pear with goat cheese ice cream ($9). The sweet Seckel pear was faultlessly prepared and bathed in an ambrosial reduction sauce of Riesling wine, star anise and cloves. But the verbal description, "stuffed with a goat cheese and mascarpone mixture," was greatly overstated: Merely a speck of cream was lodged in the base of the fruit; the goat cheese ice cream, perhaps two tablespoons' worth, melted rapidly on the large plate. Another dessert, "chocolate tamale," was a more literal translation than I had expected -- the little brownie-size rectangle of barely sweetened chocolate cake was chock full of cornmeal and baked in a corn husk. Clever concept and nice presentation, but it tasted awful and had a dry, crumbly texture that could hardly be moistened with the same minuscule droplet of ice cream, this time chocolate, as accompanied the pear.
The long and short of the story: Room is pleasant, much of the food excellent, the service usually sharp, but the pricing (and did I mention miniportions?) precludes this from being more than an "occasion" restaurant for those with finite credit card limits. I don't take issue with the philosophy of quality over quantity, but Mayya has clearly carried this idea too far. Besides, it's so '80s to charge outrageous prices for teeny amounts of food. In the late '90s you're supposed to charge outrageous prices for moderate servings.