REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
Craig Wilson may some day occupy a spot on the Mount Rushmore of culinary talent and innovation.
While there seems to be a never-ending profusion of Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants and gastropubs, Craig has created a concept that is exciting and may even be unique in the Delaware Valley.
With his long-ago Harriton High School classmate Eric Weinstein, a psychologist, they have leased the former Chabaa Thai space at 4371 Main St. in Manayunk (Chabaa Thai has relocated to 4255 Main St.) and reopened it as Maya J, which is a big bowl of wonderful, in February of this year. (In early August they also opened Gigi Italian Bistro, a BYOB, at 4357 Main St., replacing a crepe shop.)
For more than 25 years Wilson has cooked and studied throughout the U.S., Asia and Europe, and his menu at Maya J reflects his peripatetic journeys. (His wife, Jaqi Au, is from Hong Kong.) His motto is “Source locally, cook globally.” Eating here is a corporeal experience, straight shots to the soul.
Wilson, who worked at Manayunk restaurants in his younger days such as Zesty’s, Derek’s and The U.S. Hotel, has developed a “global small-plates” bar-restaurant that really does stand out in a crowded restaurant scene. “I’m older, wiser, less crazy,” Wilson explained,
Our server/hostess, Gina Parker, strongly recommended the tuna poke ($13), and I agree wholeheartedly. A spicier version of the more familiar tuna tartare, this has been called “the hamburger of Hawaii” because it is ubiquitous at family gatherings there. The raw tuna appeared to have been whisked together with a soy-sesame marinade, and the flavor and texture were divine.
I am not that adventurous an eater. I like to eat alphabet soup alphabetically, for example, but Maya J’s global cuisine is too enticing to pass up. Three other dishes that had us ooh-ing and aah-ing were the sautéed eggplant with red sauce, feta cheese and homemade olive tapenade ($9), falafel and grilled naan, pickled onion, tahini sauce and toasted pumpkin seeds ($11) and kale salad with hummus, caramelized onions and a dreamy creamy cashew dressing ($10).
Nothing on the entire menu is more than $15, and even though all the dishes are called “small plates,” they are really quite ample. We had to push ourselves (for your sake, gentle reader) to eat more than two of these so-called small plates each.
Drink-wise, a green lotus mojito ($11) had way too much cucumber for me. It overwhelmed the taste of the run and mint syrup, but I loved the Main Street mule ($11), a twist on the classic Moscow mule, which is made with vodka. This version is made with gin, but the ginger beer is still there, which gives it a delightful kick. There is a limited wine list, several other cocktails that sound interesting and a blackboard list of craft beers.
There are a few tables on the first floor and a great looking bar with distressed wood and nine chairs. With a few people at the bar, the noise can get really loud, as can the background music. There is much more seating upstairs, room for about 70 patrons in all, and a few sidewalk tables as well.
Interestingly, if you look up Maya J on yelp.com, one of the first reviews you will see is from Marla H., who writes, “To top off a 5-star menu, Maya J also happens to be a great neighbor. I live right next door, and recently I was struggling to get a very heavy shelf out of my car … Chef Wilson and another man I presume works at the restaurant generously asked me if I needed a hand and in less than 10 minutes helped me get the shelf out. He probably didn’t realize that his random act of kindness had such an impact, but cheers to Maya J and its staff. Good food made by good people.”
Parking is always an issue in Manayunk since it is almost impossible to find a space on Main Street, but there are two large parking lots, one just one black away from Maya J and one on Green Lane near Main, with kiosk-type machines. It is just $5 for the entire evening, but do not forget to bring that many quarters with you just in case.
For more information, call 267-297-8961 or visit www.mayajrestaurant.com.