Too few Americans have had a chance to savor the full scope and exuberance of Mexican cuisine, the scintillating array of dishes beyond the usual tortilla-wrap combination plates. In San Francisco, where most Mexican restaurants are owned and staffed by Salvadorans, even sit-down eateries offering "real" entrees generally serve the same half-dozen dishes, cooked without much attention to regional distinctions. Our major exceptions to this rule of monotony have been Cafe Aguila's creative revisions, and Cafe Marimba's reasonable authenticity from gringos who've done their homework.
With Maya, San Francisco gains yet another Mexican food attitude -- coastal resort cuisine. Chef Richard Sandoval, scion of an Acapulco restaurant family, was Mexico's chef of the year in 1992, went on to teach at the Culinary Institute of America, and later opened Maya in Manhattan. With its minuscule Mexican population, New York City has traditionally suffered a dearth of Mexican restaurants, and Maya won great acclaim for food both deluxe and faintly exotic.
San Francisco was fairly begging for a taste of haute-Mex, and our Maya offshoot is a showplace in a spiffy SOMA plaza. Its terra-cotta-colored walls decked with some serious art, Maya's location and beauty obviously required a large investment, but neighborhood patrons (live-work loft owners and multimedia ad sales staff) will surely repay it. A full dinner of three light courses will make neither the table nor the patron groan with overload, but may strain the purse strings at about $50 per person sans cocktails.
Given his coastal background, Sandoval seems to take naturally to seafood. Among the appetizers, you'd expect a fine ceviche ($8). And you won't be disappointed by the way the mahi-mahi maintains its firm integrity in a sprightly marinade of lime juice and chopped tomato. More ornate is calamar azteca ($8), featuring tender rings of squid in a nondescript glaze the menu calls "adobo," topped with an interesting, grainy slick of pureed plantain. Alongside are a few arugula leaves ("salad") dressed with "warm chile guajillo vinaigrette." Guajillo chiles are usually pretty assertive, but here they were nearly imperceptible.
Tacos de camarón ($8.50) were two crisp, floury minitacos of shrimp sauteed with achiote paste and tamarind. We tasted neither a tang of tamarind in the tacos nor a nip of chiles in the accompanying "roasted chile de arbol sauce." Ostiones sandoval ($9), a delicious Mexican version of oysters Rockefeller, were baked with a topping of mild goat cheese and a sprinkling of minute bacon bits, with a relish of black beans and diced apples on the side. Somewhere in there was an "habanero-chive rouille." Habaneros are the hottest of all peppers, but ....
We also tried tamal al chipotle ($7.50), a minitamale of shredded chicken with exemplary light, puffy masa, dressed with a ketchup-red sauce that was actually a tad spicy. And the house-made tortilla chips were crisp, warm, and good, even if the cilantro-impaired guacamole ($8) that they accompanied seemed bland compared to our better local versions.
With the entrees, the menu continued its excessively descriptive lists of ingredients, but the flavors emerging from the kitchen remained homogeneous; pleasant, but not vibrant. Pipian is usually a rather piquant green sauce made with ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds); Maya's pipian of pork tenderloin ($17.50) was gentle and velvety, interwoven with a delicious sweet streak of pureed roasted corn that resembled a creamy polenta. Huachinango a la talla ($17.50) was our favorite entree: ultratender red snapper on a refreshing bed of red cabbage and tomato, resembling a superior fish taco, minus the tortilla.
Pato poblano ($17.50) dressed slices of duck breast with a sweet, heavy prune mole over a butternut squash puree, the whole garnished with deep-fried squash chips. But some of the meat was tough; worse, the dish itself seemed ill-conceived, an uneasy marriage of rich duck with a heavy sauce designed for bland turkey meat.
Langosta y camarones ($23) had spiny lobster and prawns "marinated in achiote paste ... roasted corn puree ... watercress salad ... chile de arbol vinaigrette" and another undetectable "chile habanero rouille." The Pacific lobster was slightly chewy, as it always is; the prawns were tender, and both seafoods had a bright freshness; but the vinaigrette tasted like mayonnaise and detracted from their flavors. We were nearly done, and several eager bussers were closing in on us, intent on removing our plates, when I touched a finger to one of the jade-green teardrops decorating the rim of the lobster dish. It tasted good! It tasted -- spicy! I'd found the elusive habanero rouille.
For drinks, there are zillions of tequilas, ranging from blanco (newborn) to reposado to anejo (age 2), plus numerous mild, fruity margaritas ($7-8). The wine list is a 21st-century update of what Moses brought down from the mountain. The gleaming, handcrafted stainless steel tablet weighs about 10 pounds and bears the restaurant's bird logo in turquoise inlay. Tucked inside is a smart little list ranging from $15 to $70 (with the low end marked up as much as 500 percent of retail). Worth trying in the $50 range are several cabernet reserves from Chile's Maipo Valley. We chose a bottomless pitcher of mild, fruity, icy sangria ($19) that lasted our quartet all through dinner.
We were still hungry enough to dive into desserts, enjoying an airy cylinder of layered espresso and guava mousses ($6.50) topped with a few whole espresso beans and standing atop a cookie, surrounded by a superfluous pool of tart fruit coulis with honey cream. A roasted banana and macadamia phyllo napoleon ($6.50) took a long time to arrive -- perhaps there were technical difficulties. The banana was lush, but another layer's eggy custard cream tasted like instant vanilla pudding. Its surroundings were a minced relish of pineapples, mint, and tart underripe strawberry, and a white node of coconut sorbet. Silky crepes ($6), accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, were scattered with sugared walnuts and drenched in a perfect, creamy goat-milk caramel sauce.
With its heavy investment in decor and its bent toward resort cuisine, Maya resembles a hotel restaurant that can't afford to take chances by serving overchallenging food. Then, too, when chefs start working haute riffs on spicy "peasant" cuisines, they often play down strong flavors -- consider Gaylord's, for instance, which made its fortune calming down curries to suit British palates. Don't get me wrong: Maya's food is very nice -- "nice" being precisely the pleasant-but-passionless word that springs to mind. I'm still hoping our town will someday get a restaurant serving spicy peasant food as good as I've eaten in Mexico.