Chef Tim Ma shares how he risked everything in search of the American dream. Eun Yang reports for our News4 Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month special.
By Tom Sietsema, Published: December 3
Water & Wall, where creative meets delicious.
The secret of many home cooks is the head chef’s explanation for the depth of flavor in some of his dishes: Fish sauce, complex and nutty, elevates fried chicken wings, fried okra and bouillabaisse at Water & Wall.
Chicken is a delicious strategy here, by the way. Two appetizers are based on the bird. One is a liver pât ésweet with onions, bold with garlic and spirited with Maker’s Mark. The lush mix is spread on crostini with ribbons of duck prosciutto and offered with pickled red pepper relish. (The chef likes sweet and heat in his food.)
A second way to enjoy chicken is via the Burmese salad, where shredded poultry, scallions and fresh red Thai chilies are tossed with turmeric oil. Credit for that star turn goes to Ma’s right-hand man, chef Nyi Nyi Myint, a Burmese native who assists the chief at both restaurants.
Ma’s duck confit would elicit joie de vivre in a bistro in Paris. It helps that the dish starts with a pedigree (the duck is from the Hudson Valley) and a juniper cure. The skin crackles when your teeth make contact with it, and the rich meat proves a worthy successor. Deep-fried Brussels sprouts slicked with truffle aioli and tossed with fresh black radishes and shallots make a swell support for the bird. Veal sweetbreads are worth crossing the Potomac for, too. The organ meat teases the tongue with cayenne, smoked paprika and cinnamon; crisp fried kale alongside lends a pleasing crunch to the composition.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better, says Ma, who owns both restaurants with his fiancee, Joey Hernandez. His kitchen at Water & Wall is more spacious and outfitted with newer equipment, he says, but more space and a longer menu mean more prep time and fewer flourishes on the plates. His treatments, often Eastern in persuasion, are nevertheless winning. Hanger steak, for instance, is shored up with smashed skin-on potatoes and a mound of beer-braised collard greens. An Asian riff on Argentine chimichurri, ignited with red Thai chilies, punches up the main course of grilled, sliced beef. A robust seafood stew is sharpened with lemon grass.
Not every chef can pull off savory ice cream, and I’ll confess I raised an eyebrow as I went into a small plate of seared scallops flanked with bacon ice cream. That eyebrow came down after a taste of the creamy, faintly smoky scoop, however.
Risotto thick with sweet potatoes and veined with pecans is a pleasant vegetarian alternative. In the aforementioned company, the main course is also subdued.
Desserts, prepared at Maple Ave, are usually two choices, one night a cookie plate and Japanese mochi, dense and elastic little rice cakes filled with ice cream. Neither selection is so good that you should hold off asking for the check.
Not every dish soars at Water & Wall, but enough do. This is, for the most part, cooking with a refreshing point of view, food that stands slightly apart from the pack.
Why Arlington? “It’s not Clarendon. It’s not Ballston,” Ma says later in a telephone interview. “It’s a quiet part of Arlington — what Vienna is, in general.” Pause. “It’s also one step closer to the city.”
I can’t tell if the chef is smiling when he says that, but I know this diner is.
Ma Makes Smart Career Move With Arlington’s Water & Wall
By Rachel G. Hunt
Photos: Jessica LatosSpecializing in modern American cuisine, Water & Wall in Arlington, Va., blends techniques and ingredients from various culinary traditions to create simple, locally sourced dishes.
Over the past few decades, Washington has seen the comings and goings of chefs with impressive culinary pedigrees as it has developed into a serious restaurant town. Older chefs who have been cooking their entire professional careers stand shoulder to shoulder in the local pantheon of culinary luminaries with celebrity chefs and hot-shot newbies whose lives revolve around food.
Recently, a new type of chef is joining their ranks. The area is welcoming chefs who began their professional careers in entirely different fields but could not ultimately resist the pull of the kitchen. These are not hobbyist restaurateurs. They are savvy individuals who study the industry before diving in to make sure they understand what is required for success. Some have gone on to receive formal training, others have joined the teams of established ventures, while others have jumped right in by opening their own spot, though they frequently partner with seasoned professionals.
Chef-owner Tim Ma is one of the new breed, and his new Arlington, Va., restaurant, Water & Wall, is a striking example of things done right. Chef Ma began professional life as an engineer but the culinary calling was too powerful, so he left that first promising career to attend the French Culinary Institute in New York City. After a stint at a restaurant in St. Thomas, he returned home to open his own place. His first solo venture, Maple Ave Restaurant in Vienna, Va., has drawn critical acclaim and proved that Ma’s decision to switch careers was a good one, especially for diners. With just a few years of experience, Ma recently opened Water & Wall as Maple’s more sophisticated little sibling. Also described as modern American cuisine, Water & Wall demonstrates the ability of Ma and his eclectic team of chefs to blend the techniques and ingredients of various culinary traditions into a creative, appealing menu.
That menu, in fact, is fairly brief and depends heavily on what the team can source locally, so it changes frequently. Broken into either starters or main plates, diners can sample from a nice range of meats and fish, though the purely vegetarian options are limited. Somewhat refreshingly, unlike many chefs, Ma takes fresh, local and seasonal ingredients as a given and does not play them up in promoting his restaurants. It simply is the only way he does things in his kitchens.
The chicken wings at Water &Wall may well be the best in the Washington area and even rival those prepared by the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, the reputed originator of the archetypal Buffalo chicken wing. Ma and his team come to their version quite differently but end up with something every bit as enticing and addictive. While deep-fat frying is an essential first step in both versions, Water & Wall uses Korean red chili paste and crème fraîche to achieve a perfect balance of richness and spice. They alone make the trial of finding a parking place in Arlington worth it. Buffalo wings are actually a favorite snack of sous chef Keelan Thompson, which might explain why these are so good.
Similarly, the team has put together their version of the coastal Southern classic shrimp and grits as a starter, but they reinterpret it by adding a mild venison sausage, piquillo and tiny okra slices.
On the Asian side of things, steamed mussels are prepared with saffron, coconut, Chinese sausage, cilantro and Thai basil. The Burmese chicken salad, with turmeric onions and chili vinaigrette, is a slightly spicy and traditional dish that’s a nod to chef Nyi Nyi Myint’s native cuisine. The chicken liver pâté, on the other hand, with crostini, duck prosciutto and orange vincotto glaze, is decidedly continental in its appeal.
One of the notable characteristics of Water & Wall’s dishes is their relative simplicity, both in design and presentation. They depend on just a few well-paired flavors and attractive, no-fuss presentation for their effect on the eye and palate. On a recent visit, drum fish was pan seared and served with a warm salad of julienne leeks and pickled cabbage, as well as golden beet chunks and a buttery kabocha squash puree. The pan-seared steelhead fish was paired with sunchoke slices, bits of kale, potato and lemon fish broth. Both dishes were striking with their contrasting colors and textures, and we could not help but think of the old adage that one way to eat healthy is to get a lot of color on your plate. Water & Wall dishes not only look and taste good, they are good for you.
The sides that accompany each dish are also a mark of distinction for Water & Wall. Each is an integral part of the dish as a whole but could easily stand alone. (At this time the menu does not offer sides to be ordered separately, but the kitchen will usually accommodate requests for sides by themselves.) The various purees are particularly well done, but the caramelized Brussels sprouts — quartered, deep-fat fried and tossed in truffle aioli with black radish strips — redefine the lowly little cabbage.
Dessert choices are limited and change frequently, but what’s there stands out. Small pastel mochi balls (pounded sticky rice cake), each filled with different flavors of ice creams such as apple pie, almond and raspberry, are a light and fun choice. The panna cotta — pumpkin on a recent visit — is dense and not too sweet. Partnered with a triangular walnut-chocolate-butterscotch bar, the dish is substantial. Only chocolate diehards will be disappointed with the dessert choices.
Simplicity in design carries through to the space itself. Ma brought on Sucha Khamsuwan of Studio Ideya to create a vision for the space that interprets the restaurant’s name, Water & Wall, which refers to an intersection in lower Manhattan where Ma first met his partner in life as well as business, Joey Hernandez (who is the current general manager for Maple Ave). But Khamsuwan took the literal meaning of the words and used strong vertical elements and shimmery wire-mesh curtain walls that effectively create a sense of flowing water. There is minimal ornamentation to interrupt the flow, and the light sand-colored wood floors further evoke the essence of a streambed. Dramatic lighting fixtures soften the exposed ductwork and cast a muted glow over the earth-toned spaces to create a restful atmosphere.
The elegance of Khamsuwan’s design might easily have overshadowed the comfort of Ma’s laidback concept. But the capable front-of-the-house ministrations of general manager Nick Seo bring out the casual instead. A Washington native, Seo got the restaurant bug early on and left Temple University for the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he took on a range of roles at several places in the area before ending up on Ma’s team.
Those career intersections — some of which, like Ma’s, took unlikely detours — have all thankfully led to one place: Water & Wall, where the professional prospects of Ma and his entire crew are overflowing with potential.
Water & Wall blends a range of influences, from New York-inspired decor to French and Burmese dishes. Photographs by Andrew Propp.
Washington is getting its fare share of New York imports, from an outpost of Daniel Boulud’s DBGB to a Southeast Asian spot from the Fatty Crew Hospitality Group. And now there’s Water & Wall, chef Tim Ma’s newly opened restaurant that mixes Big Apple inspirations with a homegrown neighborhood vibe.
The Arlington eatery’s name nods to the intersection of Water and Wall streets in the Financial District, where Ma and wife/business partner Joey Hernandez lived while he attended the French Culinary Institute. Ma, then an engineer, didn’t aspire to the work-hard, play-hard lifestyle of twentysomething New York City line cooks, and the couple spent time in the apartment planning their Washington venture. Both seem to have a touch of the New York. Maple Ave Restaurant, their first, seems more Brooklyn than Vienna, with fewer than 30 seats and a diverse menu that lists roasted bone marrow alongside Burmese chicken salad. The new spot is a considerable expansion, with 40-odd tables, plus what Ma describes as a few “New York Mafia-style” booths. The design from Studio Ideya also reflects the couple’s former Manhattan home; designer Sucha Khamsuwan even visited the eponymous intersection for inspiration.
Influence for the menu ventures far beyond the mid-Atlantic. Southern-style shrimp and grits with venison sausage share space with classic French duck confit and, again, that Burmese chicken salad. The last is less random than it sounds; executive chef Nyi Nyi Myint is Burmese, and mixes Asian influences into a number of dishes, including a lemongrass-scented bouillabaisse and crispy pork belly with green-papaya-and-mango salad.
For all the ambitious cooking, the restaurant’s roll-out is fairly restrained. The focus now remains on dinner service, particularly the savory side. Dessert arrive in the form of specials (there’s no official menu), like a pecan pie bar with vanilla-Jack Daniels pudding and chocolate sauce. A cocktail program is also in the works, with an emphasis on house-made bitters, juices, et al. Once the essential elements are running smoothly, Ma says they’ll open for a Maple Ave-esque Saturday and Sunday brunch, and then lunch. Call it a New York state of mind with Beltway pacing.
What to Expect From Chef Tim Ma’s New Restaurant Water & Wall
Hot off the heals of Northern Virginia Magazine naming Vienna’s Maple Ave Restaurant the best restaurant in northern Virginia, chef Tim Ma has just opened his second spot: Water & Wall.
The new restaurant, located right by the Virginia Square metro, shares several of the same menu items as Maple Ave, including popular dishes like shrimp and grits, saffron mussels, and chicken wings. But Ma says he wants Water & Wall to have its own identity, rather than being a copy of Maple Ave. Other dishes include pan-seared red drum with winter squash puree, roasted beets, leeks, and pickled cabbage; sweet potato risotto; and pork shoulder with chow chow relish, grilled scallions, and garlic oil. Ma also highlights a Burmese bouillabaisse created by chef de cuisine Nyi Nyi Myint, who’s from Burma and London. The menu includes a limited beer and wine list; cocktails are in the works.
The restaurant gets its name from Water and Wall streets in New York, where Ma and his wife lived when he was in culinary school at the French Culinary Institute. “That’s when we started the journey on this whole thing, lots of inspiration, lots of dreaming,” Ma says. “That’s what culinary students do in New York City: dream up their own restaurant.”
Ma says the biggest difference between Maple Avenue and Water & Wall was the build-out. Maple Ave, which opened in 2009, was built by Ma and his friends over the course of a summer. “Every day after work, they would all come over and we would just hang out, put up drywall, scrape floors, clean,” he says. “We literally built that with our own bare hands.”
But for Water & Wall, he hired a professional interior design and architecture firm called Studio Ideya. The designer, Sucha Khamsuwan, actually went to New York to draw inspiration from what he saw at the intersection of Water and Wall streets. Ma says there’s a lot of brick, metal, and hard surfaces, but also some nods to the name like the flowing, waterlike curtains.
Still, Ma says he hopes both places have the same casual contemporary vibe: “We don’t want it to feel like you’re dining at a high-end restaurant. We want you to feel like you’re dining at Maple Avenue but with just the nicer touches that everybody has been asking for.”
Water & Wall, 3811 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 105, Arlington; (703) 294-4949;waterandwall.com
Something wicked this way comes.
What: The pre-Broadway debut of a contemporary musical about a woman rebuilding her life in New York City, starring powerhouse performers Idina Menzel, LaChanze, and Anthony Rapp. The show’s creators won the Pulitzer for their previous work, Next to Normal, which also had a run in D.C.
Why: Catch Menzel as she preps for her first return to the Great White Way since winning the Tony for Wicked.
When: Thru Dec. 8.
Where: The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, b/t 13th & 14th Sts. (202-628-6161). Tickets ($53-$178) at secure.etix.com.
All the News That’s Fit to Click
What: This week’s roundup of books, movies, music videos, and more.
Why: Hyperbole and a Half gets a book, a sad clown sings “Royals,” and Magic Kingdom loses its magic.
When: Boredom makes you crazy.
Where: At dailycandy.com.
What: Sip a cold one as three brainy speakers dish their expertise — this edition features spy satellites, diarrheal diseases, and software vulnerability.
Why: They had you at software vulnerability.
When: Sat., 6:30 p.m.
Where: DC9, 1940 9th St. NW, at U St. (202-483-5000). Tickets ($10) at ticketfly.com.
Yoga in the Galleries
What: Unroll your mat and unlock your mind in a 90-minute workshop held in conjunction withYoga: the Art of Transformation.
Why: All experience levels are welcome to pose among the masterpieces.
When: Sun., 3:30-5 p.m.
Where: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW, at 12th St. (202-633-4880). Register ($15) at support.asia.si.edu.
Water & Wall
What: The sexy supper club in Clarendon serves chef-driven plates like bouillabaisse scented with Burmese spices and duck confit with Brussels sprouts — but start with the chicken liver paté with orange bourbon glaze.
Why: Chef Tim Ma’s first venture, Maple Ave Restaurant, just scored the top spot on Northern Virginia Magazine’s best restaurant list — plus, Ma is easy on the eyes.
When: Mon.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m.
Where: 3811 N. Fairfax Dr., b/t Oakland & Pollard Sts., ste. 105, Arlington (703-294-4949).
What: Go behind the headlines of the 2012 election when Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, co-authors of the best-selling Game Change, discuss their new book.
Why: Expect the pair to spill the tea (party) on Michele Bachmann.
When: Tonight, 7 p.m.
Where: Jack Morton Auditorium, George Washington University School of Public Affairs, 805 21st St. NW, b/t H & I Sts. (202-994-7470).
Welcome to One Weekend In, where we check in on a restaurants first few days of service. Here, Tim Ma talks about Water & Walls early days.
Water & Wall [Photo: R. Lopez]
Tim Ma and the team behind Maple Ave. in Vienna already had one restaurant under their belts when Water & Wall opened this weekend inArlington. That meant for a different experience this time around — but it didn’t necessarily mean an easy ride, either. Ma talked with Eater about Water & Wall’s first few days, which were plagued by equipment malfunctions, busier than they ever expected, and extremely rewarding overall.
Hey there. So how are you feeling?
I’m a bit tired. I haven’t slept at home for the past week. For the first couple nights, we stayed overnight because we were doing construction and it didn’t make sense to go home. Then it was like ‘Oh shit, we’re going to have to be cooking all night.’
Will you be able to go home tonight at least?
No, tomorrow we have a media luncheon so we’re prepping for that. And we have a dinner with Cedric [Maupillier of Mintwood Place] tonight benefitting Arcadia. So I’ll make it home Tuesday night, and probably Wednesday I’ll take the morning off.
So take me back again, when did you officially open the doors?
On Friday we did Friends and Family, and then Saturday we did the grand opening. Last night was just kind of a regular service, which was kind of nice.
So when you opened, did you feel things were pretty much ready, or did you still have last minute construction things to finish or anything like that?
Probably just like everybody else, you’re never completely ready. And you know, I think toughest thing was convincing the staff, “Hey, we’re ready to open. Regardless of everything, it’ll be fine.” If we felt completely ready to open, that probably means we should have opened about a week ago. It was a little hectic the first day, but I had basically doubled the staff, and I think half of them at some moments didn’t know what to do.
So what do you think the biggest challenge was on opening day?
So I’m not the expediter in the kitchen calling orders. My sous chef does that. I’m on the line. It was myself, my chef from Maple Avenue on the line and the equipment wasn’t working.
Oh no. What specifically?
It was a weird thing. The gas pressure coming into the building was too high for the equipment. It was just coming in full blast, and that meant the fryers weren’t working correctly. At 5 o’clock, we had the equipment guys in here fiddling with the equipment and we had to work around them to begin prepping things out. Every time the fryers turned on, it shook the whole building. It was a little scary. Then on Saturday, service got hit really hard. The core cooking was being done by me and the chef from Maple Ave., so we knew what was going on, but I think it was harder for the newer staff to get ahold of that.
So what were the crowds like on each of the days?
Well, since Friday was Friends and Family, everyone there was either someone we knew, people who helped us building this place, and our loyal Maple Ave customers. Saturday night was about half friends and family, half reservations. We were fully booked out on Saturday night. At around 2, I was saying there was no way we’d have enough food to make it through the entire night. So we had to turn away people at the bar, walk-ins. So that was a great thing to be booked out the first night, but it was a tough thing just because we had no idea how much volume it would be. It’s a much bigger restaurant than Maple Ave. Sunday was just very chill. It turned out to be a lot of neighborhood people, my family.
What was the most exciting part of opening weekend, or the most rewarding moment?
When I wat down with my dram of scotch at the end of the night, that was the most rewarding. Just kidding. I think being booked out Saturday night was probably the most rewarding. It took us a long time — years — before we could say we were booked out or turning people away at Maple Ave.
Did you see any industry people during opening weekend?
Yes, Katsuya [Fukushima, of Daikaya] came in.
Tell me about the opening menu. Were any dishes particularly big hits the first weekend?
So maybe 30-40 percent of the menu is from Maple Ave. The rest was designed by myself, my chef from Maple Ave. and my sous chef. So I was kind of more interested in what they were doing, not so much what I was doing. I think the dish that hit it off the best was a Burmese Bouillabaisse from my chef Nyi Nyi [Myint]. He takes all the seafood we have in-house — scallop, shrimp, mussels, squid — and makes a seafood stew that’s tomato-based, but he bases it on Asian-style ingredients and herbs, like lemongrass, Thai chili, fish sauce. It’s such a nice, homey dish. It’s the style of food I like to eat.
How did the opening compare to Maple Ave.’s opening?
Two different worlds. We were talking about it last night. At Maple Ave., it was so slow when we started. It’s only been three days, and I don’t know what the week would entail, but last time we just opened the doors, and were like, ‘People, please come.’ I think we have more of a marketing push with this, and more of a reputation. We have more experience – before we literally had no idea what we’re doing, learning everything as we went. Here, we have experience, we’re bringing people with experience. I wouldn’t say it was better, just different. There’s a lot more of a feeling of control
Do you think your recent #1 ranking in Northern Virginia Magazine for Maple Ave. was part of the reason it was so slammed opening weekend?
I don’t know. But that made our week stressful, too. This is coming out the same weekend we’re opening a new restaurant. So for one thing, Maple Ave. was busier, and Maple Ave. was already kind of stretched to its limits given I took about half the staff with me to open Water & Wall. The night before opening, I went over to Maple Ave. and was essentially grocery shopping, taking all of their stuff. They weren’t particularly happy…so it was a little stressful, but a good kind of stress. How often can you say you’re #1 at anything? So we’re kind of enjoying it right now and not letting it get to us too much. Otherwise, all the work it took to get there wouldn’t be worth it.
Have you had the chance to celebrate the opening at all?
I don’t think we’ve quite celebrated. There’s been the normal after-shift drinking. We had a pitcher of beer, talked about what was going on. But after Friday night we also had to rest. We literally worked a 40 hour work week in two days. And everyone was tired, not just me.
Any goals now that the first weekend is done?
To stay in business? You just think about how much money you spend to get something open, and the important thing now for us is to settle in and make it the best we can. Maple Ave. is so stable, like a machine now, but here everything is new. Even cooking shrimp and grits here is different on different equipment. We really wnat to start tweaking the menu, and to figure out what Arlington wants to eat, because what Vienna wants to eat isn’t always what Arlington wants to eat. So we’ve been getting everybody’s feedback as much as we can. That’s what’s going to help you stay in business. The most important thing to us is food and service — not parking, not atmosphere. Now we quote unquote have a bit more atmosphere here. We have to make sure that’s not what’s tricking them into trying the food.
· All Previous Water & Wall Coverage [-EDC-]
Vienna’s Maple Ave Restaurant is the little bistro that could: It narrowly avoided bankruptcy after chef Tim Ma tweaked his concept and began cooking the French-Asian flavors he was more familiar with.
Now, nabbing a seat at the nine-table hot spot is near impossible, which makes the coming of Ma’s second restaurant, Water & Wall (3811 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 105, Arlington), that much sweeter.
Open for dinner since Saturday, the 84-seat establishment allows a larger audience to sample Maple Ave Restaurant’s signature dishes, like shrimp and grits with venison sausage and piquillo ($10), chicken wings with Kendall Farms creme fraiche, Korean chili paste and oyster sauce (above, $10) and fried okra in a Thai chili sauce ($9).
Menu newcomers not to miss include the grilled hangar steak with smashed potatoes and collard greens ($25) and pan-seared steelhead with sunchokes, kale and potato ($24).
You’ll also find a larger selection of beers on tap, including Anderson Valley’s caramel-finish Winter Solstice ($8) and Huyghe Brewery’s La Guillotine Belgian Blonde ($8).
More often than not, tipsters, readers, friends and family of Eater have one question: Where should I eat right now? Restaurant obsessives want to know what’s new, what’s hot, which favorite chef just launched a sophomore effort, where to sip the cocktail of the moment. And while theEater 38 is a crucial resource covering old standbys and neighborhood essentials across the city, it is not a chronicle of the ‘it’ places of the moment. Thus, we offer the Eater Heatmap, which will change often to continually highlight where the foodie crowds are flocking to at the moment.