Maia is many things, indeed - and that's just the ground floor. The upstairs portion alone could have been an event for the local eating scene, with a sprawling fine-dining room for two star chefs, brothers Patrick and Terence Feury, to conjure one of the area's most thrilling new contemporary seafood menus.
Up here, the "smoked" tuna sashimi is actually still smoking when it comes to the table in a bowl of swirling hickory mist. The big prawns have two heads. And succulent lobster comes in myriad masterful ways - gently steeped in butter over fresh peas and wild mushrooms; wrapped in herbed tortellini beneath preserved lemon and artichokes; roasted beneath a truffled froth over white asparagus and purple potatoes. Even the pre-meal freebies - warm little gougeres puffs filled with Shellbark Farms goat cheese - were memorable.
And yet, this complex is far bigger than any one part. This is fine dining big-box style, with 20,000 square feet and nearly 400 seats in all. So Maia's many proprietors, including the Feurys, Nectar owners Scott Morrison and Michael Wei, Northeast sausage-meister Walter Rieker, and landlord-partners Richard Caruso and Jerry Holtz, are hedging their $8 million bet with the multi-concept approach.
It may very well be more ambition than a place hidden in the obscure back parking lot of a suburban strip mall can sustain. But people have been coming by the hundreds. And the commitment to excellence in every aspect - from the compulsively house-crafted ingredients to the drinks, service, and design - is simply stunning on this scope.
New York-based designer Studio A did a stellar job carving the massive space into distinct and attractive zones. True, the noise levels are atrocious. But a range of handsome wood accents - logs framed behind glass, a wooden dowel sculpture dangling from the ceiling, a maitre d' stand hewn from a stump of 500-year-old burled walnut - lend the rooms a warm organic feel alongside the glowing onyx bar and mother-of-pearl banquet-room doors.
Sommelier Melissa Monosoff has assembled an impressively rounded collection of drinks, with a deep list of beers, spirits and creative cocktails (like the refreshing wheat-beer mojito); 26 wines by the glass; and more than 200 bottles.
Monosoff, who doubles as a perky spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, can sometimes chat a table to distraction. But our exchanges led to exciting discoveries, like an electric Austrian dry riesling from Prager ($65), a deep Super Tuscan red from Altesino ($12 a glass), and a versatile South African chenin blanc from Forrester ($9 a glass.)
Our equally chatty but charming server, Abigail, coaxed us into the scallops with her own yarn about noted fishmonger Tony McCarthy hand-plucking the mollusks from boats in Viking Village on Long Beach Island. We weren't disappointed. Those beautifully seared ivory rounds, set beside a lemony timbale of peekytoe crab, were a testament to pristine ingredients.
I'd expect nothing less from the pedigreed Feury brothers - Patrick, a vet of Le Cirque, Susanna Foo and Nectar (which he still co-owns), and Terence, who helmed Striped Bass after a stint at Le Bernardin.
Their eye for quality touches every aspect of Maia, from the house-made charcuterie and smoked salmon to the hearty, affordable menu that feeds the bistro, including juicy burgers with sharp local cheddar and amazingly crisp frites, thin Alsatian cheese tartes scattered with sweet onions and house-smoked ham, and the freshly made mozzarella on Maia's delicate-crusted pizzas. My only real disappointment at a downstairs lunch (aside from bland agnolotti) was the kobe pastrami, which tasted more like smoked roast beef than a pepper-crusted pink deli indulgence.
It is upstairs, though, where Maia hits its culinary mark, with a breadth of wit, technique and vivid flavors that make it a true successor to (now shuttered) Striped Bass as our modern seafood mecca.
That smoked tuna starter was a knockout, the hickory tang focusing the sweetness of raw fish against the piquance of a silky green-olive puree. But there were many other winners. A checkerboard mosaic of raw salmon, yellowtail and tuna was scattered with celery salt and glittery cubes of tart citrus gelee. Creamy coins of hazelnut-crusted foie gras came shingled with sweet warm rounds of barbecued eel. The meltingly soft double-headed prawn (actually two crustaceans joined at the tail with meat glue) reposed over a mound of creamy leeks.
There were equally stunning entrees, like the T-bone of poached halibut over fregola sarda filled with fennel and house-cured guanciale, or the crispy snapper with basiled summer beans and tender rings of oil-poached calamari threaded with chorizo slivers.
A spectacular triptych of lamb - succulent roasted chops, morsels of tangy leg confit tossed in salad, a round of Morroccan-spiced Merguez sausage - gives carnivores something to crave, too. A deconstructed ribeye, on the other hand, would have been tastier with its fatty parts back on.
Pastry chef Julie Waters didn't ease up for dessert. There was gingery cold strawberry soup scattered with candied pistachios. Fluffy mint-chocolate cake topped with minted semifreddo was crowned with a sheer chocolate crisp studded with salty pretzels. Warm semolina pudding balanced flowering kumquats and grapefruit sorbet. Chocolate tart shells oozed with creamy caramel centers. Vanilla cream gushed from tiny brioche beignets called bamboloni - a finishing wink to Patrick Feury's long-ago chef stint at Avenue B.
Yes, Maia is many things, as much a nod to the collective experiences of its talented team as it is a mega-size gamble to alter the landscape of Main Line dining. It even comes with a map. But so far, all paths lead to destinations well fed.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.