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Pekin Paradise Duck Breast with baby carrots, kumquat marmalade, quinoa and fennel (photo by Ash Daniel)
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Espresso chocolate mousse with orange, hazelnut, anise and hyssop (photo by Ash Daniel)
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Maple & Pine inside Quirk Hotel (photo by Ash Daniel)
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Diver scallop crudo with lime green curry and cilantro (photo by Ash Daniel)
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Chef David Dunlap (photo by Ash Daniel)
Maple & Pine is a polarizing force. It’s extravagant. It’s artful. It’s adventurous. It’s also pricey, acutely conservative with portions, and on rare occasion, flat-out strange. To match the modern intrigue of its surroundings in the atmospheric lobby of Quirk Hotel, though, one has to make some allowances for experimentation, and executive chef David Dunlap, formerly of The Ashby Inn and The Inn at Little Washington, is certainly one to trust with experimental cuisine. He touts his fare as “global,” and it’s definitely a trip — one I’m very glad I took.
The main challenge Maple & Pine faces is the fact that Richmond’s new(ish) wave of brilliant, national-attention-garnering restaurants takes an aggressively casual approach. In this city, you can stroll into a James Beard nominee’s establishment in jeans, plunk down $20 and polish off a hell of a meal — and that’s a point of pride. So while Maple & Pine’s little plates at high prices wouldn’t be unusual in, say, Washington, D.C., they’ve got their work cut out for them here. Which brings me back to Dunlap’s feats of creativity, because they’re crucial: They draw us in, get us dressed up, inspire us to comb the crumbs from the beards of our gentlemen friends.
Juicy gems of hanger steak sit amidst three preparations of broccoli and a scatter of bay leaf crumble that melts on your tongue like snowflakes. Pekin duck slivers glisten under grill-marked fat caps with grilled plums and ginger dressing, a triumvirate of flavors that disrobe together in the mouth. A wildly textural oyster “slurpee” showcases sake-cucumber, apple and pink peppercorn sorbets. Lamb with lavender hummus and pickled blueberries, I confess, wasn’t to my taste and I’ve since referred to it as the “glass slipper” of entrées. Was it beautifully crafted? Yes. Am I glad someone is willing to explore the far reaches of the human palate? Yes.
There are tamer, but no less painstakingly prepared, meals to be had. We began with the orange-laced roasted beets, which was a good idea; puffs of blue cheese mousse and fronds of watercress, and the coupling of tangy and sweet, arouse the appetite. Maple & Pine’s soup is a must; the velvety, rich, sherried chestnut soup or the subtly sweet, herbal heirloom tomato consommé with country ham tortellini won’t disappoint. Deeper into the first rounds, we snapped up crispy lamb belly with almond purée, lemon gremolata and honey-poached cranberries.
Shiny, handmade twirls of pasta never failed to elicit delight from my dining companions, either. One variation, tagliatelle with butternut squash, oyster mushrooms and Virginia ham foam, tasted like “Thanksgiving at an Italian grandma’s house,” as a friend put it. The next visit, we tried the cilantro cavatelli with charred corn, egg yolk and jalapeño. Perfectly runny yolk clinging to fresh pasta is a thing of beauty unto itself, but smoky corn sweetness and verdant, sharp jalapeño spice take it over the edge.
The only bits to hit the table without much fanfare were the overtly briny rockfish in dashi broth with maitake mushrooms and charred scallions at dinner, and the chicken panino with pepperoncini marmalade, Asiago, and celery root slaw at lunch. A better lunch bet is the buttermilk fried chicken, which comes out tender, flaky and adorned with a decent succotash. The best bet is, to my surprise, the marinated vegetable plate. When I saw the little crown of tender pink, gold and white vegetables topped with crispy kale and duck cracklings, my jaw dropped. Each bite was a celebration of all five tastes: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, umami. It’s the dish I’m most excited to go back and eat again, and that still shocks me.
It’s a great thing that Maple & Pine has the recognizable cool of Quirk Hotel to lean on, and it’s a great thing that Quirk Hotel has Maple & Pine to accentuate its shine. We need them both; each adds a distinct layer to Richmond’s identity. Because of their symbiosis, I think — I hope — we’ll be enjoying the wild wanderings of David Dunlap for a long time.
3.5 out of 4 forks
Maple & Pine
201 W. Broad St.
Hours: Breakfast: 6:30 to 10 a.m. daily; Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily; Dinner: 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: $8 to $30