Once Bon Appetit names you the second Best New Restaurant in America (2018), it’s hard to keep a low-profile. Still, tucked down an unassuming alleyway, marked by minimal signage, Maydan manages to feel incognito. Like if you’re somehow lucky enough to know what lies beyond that colorful door, you’ll have single-handedly unearthed a funky little gem, rather than one of the U.S.’s most popular restaurants.
Maydan means “open space” or “town square” and from the moment you enter into the restaurant’s ornately tapestried foyer, it’s clear you’ve stepped into a “space apart” from the conventional Michelin Guide dining experience.
Three hosts welcomed our party of four and asked us our seating preference. We arrived early and the combination of seating (high-top or low-top) and location (first-or-second-floor) choice and the ability to accommodate us before our reservation time demonstrated outstanding customer service.
Before you leave the host stand, the smell of charred meat hits you. As you pass the host stand and walk into the restaurant, you’re immediately greeted by a wall of heat. The full furnace blast of the open air grill borders on oppressive, until you realize it’s those flames you have to thank for the spicy, smoky aromas of deliciousness.
On a chill, wintry day, a seat near the open grill would be ideal. It’s a full-on dinner and a show experience, watching chefs throw slabs of meat, whole vegetables, and discs of freshly made bread dough onto the grill with rapidity and precision. The chefs move with the complexity and beauty of a choreographed dance but with the added danger of live fire, Swan Lake if there was a chance the prima ballerina might become engulfed in flames.
Captivated by the grill, but less enamored of its ambient heat, we chose seating upstairs. The vibe upstairs was less souk, more “funky grandma” with its bold floral patterns, but the table settings continued the downstairs vibe with muted neutrals and shades of blue. The centerpiece of each table is a cobalt and white earthenware platter where wait staff bring fresh discs of bread for communal consumption. Food is served small plates style and the waitress encouraged us that having 7-8 dishes on the table at one time is not uncommon.
We began with cocktails and wine. The Marrakesh Mule was bright and acidic, but it was difficult to taste either ginger beer or vodka. The sparkling wine from Armenia was crisp and lively, but the standout was the rosé from Turkey with its refreshing balance between dry and sweet.
No one had had lunch, so our order did not mess around. We began with cabbage, Beiruiti hummus, carrots, halloumi, mouneh (picked vegetables), swordfish, saffron lamb, and all the condiments they offered. The food arrived as it was ready; the table was always full of a panoply of colors and flavors. We quickly found ourselves tearing hunks of bread, swirling them through one or two or three sauces, piling them high with chunks of spicy lamb and devouring them while we wiped our dirty fingers and strategized for the next best flavor combination. We all had different favorites; our friends favored the garlicky toum, sweet tomato jam, and tart ezme. We couldn’t resist the spicy harissa and herbaceous chermoula.
Conversation slowed, as we rotated from dish to dish. Exclaiming on the meaty quality of the carrots, the salty and sweet peanut and honey sear on the halloumi, or the creaminess of the hummus. The incredible butteriness of the swordfish made it a stand-out and we agreed that it was the only protein that didn’t benefit from additional condiment. Why mess with perfection?
There were times when the pace of fresh bread lagged behind our ravenous hunger, but this was probably a careful calculation on the part of servers (how much free bread cancels out the profit from additional dishes ordered?) rather than an error in attentiveness.
Our second round, we ordered barramundi, duck breast, beets, dango (chickpeas) and sweet potato. The creaminess of the chickpeas (cooked with butter) served as a sauce for the duck helping to counteract some of the clove and cinnamon “mulled wine” quality of the Ras el Hanout seasoned breast. Probably the prettiest plate, the barramundi paled in flavor and texture to the swordfish, but still rewarded with its savory bath in chermoula. The beets may have looked like a crime scene, but their chewy texture and bitter taste had been transformed by tahini, lemon, and dill into something lush and velvety.
At the meal’s end, we tried to identify our favorite dishes. For some, the beets and carrots won out. For most, it was the swordfish. Notable mentions went to the hummus and halloumi.
This visit, we only cracked the surface of Maydan’s extensive menu. Repeat visits are in store to try some of the large plates (whole chicken, lamb shoulder, and ribeye). We bet the next one will be in winter, so we can curl up next to that big fire.