Restaurant Review #207: Maru, Valencia

A request to try Maru on the house was an invitation I couldn't refuse, and thank goodness I made the trek to the northernmost edge of Los Angeles's suburbs. Even if the meal hadn't had eight indulgent, generously sized courses (per person!) and even if it hadn't been free, my meal at Maru still would have been one of the best I've ever eaten.

Maru resides in Valencia Town Square, an enormous outdoor shopping center that can be intimidating to navigate (think Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade or Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard, folded in on itself). Fortunately, Maru is on the main drag and clearly labeled in blocky silver letters (albeit as "Maru Sushi"). On a Saturday at 5:00, the square was bustling and there were no street parking spaces nearby, but a free garage just around the corner offered plenty of parking in ample, SUV-sized spaces. Maru was nearly empty, but the night was young.

The long, narrow dining room accommodates quite a few tables yet isn't cramped at all. Every table has plenty of room between itself and its neighbors, making Maru a good choice for a quiet meal or a date. The decor is minimalist but classic, with small spotlights above each table and white linens. Unlike most Japanese restaurants, the sushi bar does not dominate the dining room, but is tucked away in the back offering a completely different dining experience to sushi aficionados. One potential drawback, though, it its proximity to the kitchen, where the aromas of homemade Yukon Gold french fries and short ribs might interfere somewhat with the delicate flavors of the raw bar experience.

Maru bills itself as French-Japanese and offers a menu so varied that it should be troublesome. After all, most restaurants that try to serve more than one type of cuisine don't do any of them well. This is not the case with chef Jason Park, the inspired young chef-owner who has run Maru for the last seven years and whose passion for his work shines in every delicious bite.

Park explained that what differentiates him from other chefs is that unlike the older generation of Japanese chefs who he believes had to go into the restaurant business to make a living, he chose his career solely for the love of food. Before opening Maru, he worked at several other restaurants in Los Angeles and one in Japan.

Freshness is extremely important to Park. Every week, he makes the trek to the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market (in traffic, no less), saying that for chefs, there is no comparable farmers market in the area. In fact, he knows some chefs who trek all the way to San Diego for their produce. For the most part, though, chefs with his level of dedication are rare in Valencia, he says, explaining that it's common in the area for restaurants to take shortcuts like using frozen produce.

Our seasonal market meal's opening act was soup and salad. The heirloom tomato salad with red pepper vinaigrette was a refreshing break from the day's unseasonable heat. The dish fulfilled a craving for fresh produce that I didn't even know I had until I took my first bite. The light, bright flavors of juicy tomatoes, crisp greens, cool cucumbers, and silky avocado drizzled lightly with a tangy dressing heralded the beginning of summer.

An espresso cup of broccoli soup provided a warm contrast to the chilled salad. Despite the absence of cream, the velvety soup was rich in taste and didn't have an overpowering broccoli flavor. The homemade pea ravioli (lead photo) was almost as stunning as award-winning Melisse's sweet corn ravioli. Fresh pasta done right is thin and delicate, allowing the dish's other ingredients to shine. The accompanying diver scallop was seared to a perfect crisp on the outside while retaining its moist, slippery inside. An out-of-this-world, savory-sweet vanilla sauce complemented the delicate sweetness of the ravioli and scallop.

What the hamachi usuzukuri, or yellowtail with a yuzu vinaigrette, lacked in innovation, it made up for in freshness. Maru's fish is flown in overnight from Japan. This dish was reminiscent of the ubiquitous albacore salad, but the hamachi was melt-in-your-mouth tender and beautifully presented. All of Park's dishes are as pleasing to the eyes as they are to the palate. Maru offers a great advantage to sushi lovers with spouses and friends who aren't fond of raw fish: everyone can go to the same restaurant and dine happily. Sushi eaters can have their pick of top-notch fish, and those who prefer their food cooked have more choices than just teriyaki chicken and tempura.

Pan-seared monkfish with a winter truffle vinaigrette served over sauteed spinach was a meaty, buttery fish (sometimes called the "poor man's lobster") with a crisp exterior. The spinach was rich and tender, but surprisingly, the accompanying truffles didn't seem to add a noticeable flavor. On the other hand, they didn't overwhelm the dish.

Weiser Family Farm's purple and gold fingerling potatoes don't need a lot of help to bring out their rich, creamy flavor which is a far cry from any supermarket potato. Park clearly understands this, roasting the potatoes to bring out their flavor, enhancing their richness with creme fraiche, and adding maple smoked bacon and a hint of onion for contrast.

The crispy duck risotto was the biggest winner of the night, which is saying a lot considering its competition. The risotto cake's crunchy exterior contrasted with its creamy interior and gave way to a center of tender duck meat. Medallions of melty-warm fresh mozzarella cozied up to their soul mate: a truffle oil-infused roasted tomato sauce. Sometimes truffles are overrated
(the monkfish dish perhaps being a case in point), but they really pushed the duck risotto over the top.

Less creative restaurants commonly serve steak with mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables, and maybe some A-1 sauce. Park seems to acknowledge this popular combination while turning it into something more exciting. The perfectly grilled skirt steak tasted like Korean barbecue, reflecting one of Park's original cooking influences: his mother. The paper-thin hand-made pasta it sat atop was bathed in a creamy sauce that merely hinted at the flavor of horseradish. Grilled wild arugula added a crunchy, bitter-sweet contrast.

The beef ravioli with hon shiimeji mushrooms in creamy ten-year balsamic sauce again showcased Park's agility with homemade pasta and savory sauces. The delicate pasta was nearly bursting with filling. The grilled greens on top are ramps, also known as wild leeks. They have an oniony, garlicky, slightly bitter flavor.

At this point in the meal, we had gorged ourselves silly and didn't think we could possibly eat any more. We suggested to the waitress that maybe Chef Park should send us smaller dishes or skip us ahead to dessert so we wouldn't waste any of his delicious food. His response to her was, "they'll eat well tomorrow," so he kept sending us dishes which we mostly took home as leftovers. At most upscale restaurants, it seems uncouth to ask for a doggie bag, but Maru is not so pretentious as to waste food for the sake of appearances.

The next dish was all about the french fries. Normally a cheap side, Park elevated the french fry to an art form. Every fry was perfectly cut and perfectly cooked, but what really pushed them over the top was their tantalizing smell. The fries came with a side of fork-tender short ribs (blessedly bone-free) with a sake-soy reduction.

Topped with marinated onion and cilantro, the pan-roasted lamb loin over crispy shiitake rice with Japanese curry sauce was like a deconstructed Indian dish but with unique flavors and textures. The lamb was perfectly cooked and I was thrilled to have a second serving of crispy rice.

At its worst, bread pudding is a soggy, eggy mess attempting to resurrect leftover bread. Bread pudding at its best is crisp and buttery, a marriage of contrasting textures with cold ice cream dripping down the sides and perhaps a judiciously used extra ingredient, Valrhona chocolate in this case.

Park's dessert menu consists of slight variations on the classic crowd-pleasing desserts. The yuzu-mascarpone cheesecake with fresh raspberries was rich but not too heavy, with a bright flavor imparted by the hint of citrus.

According to the server, the fresh berry cobbler topped with homemade vanilla ice cream is many patrons' main motivation for visiting Maru. The rustic, doughy cobbler was the ultimate comfort food, and despite the indulgences of the evening, we were able to finish the whole thing.

The incredible number of dishes described here represents only a third of Maru's menu (and that's not even including the raw offerings). With such a wide selection of fantastic dishes, it's easy to understand why Maru has many regulars. Surprisingly, Park's outstanding food comes with a very affordable price tag. The dishes shown here are actually smaller than the usual portions. Most appetizers are $12, most seconds are just over $20, topping out at a reasonable $38 for the New York steak. Most desserts are $8. There is an extensive list of California and French wines along with Japanese sake. Wine pairings are available.

Maru's service is phenomenal. Our server, Trisha, was friendly, attentive, down-to-earth, and personable, and at the start of the meal, she didn't even know we were reviewers. Fresh silverware appeared before every well-timed course. Busboys promptly cleared dishes and refilled drinks.

Maru could easily hold its own in any of LA's best restaurant neighborhoods, but Park's regular patrons, including a couple who eats both dinner and lunch at the restaurant every single day, are grateful for his chosen location. Besides , Park says of operating in Valencia, "I have a captive audience." Park explains that many Valencians used to live in LA and grew accustomed to a high level of cuisine, but moved north where the houses were more affordable when they wanted to settle down. Thus, there is more of a market for haute cuisine in the area than one might think. Though Maru has been open since 2001, it still seems to be an undiscovered gem. Get in while you can.

24250 Town Center Drive, Suite 180
Valencia, CA
Maru Website
Closed Mondays
Lunch Tue. - Fri., 11:30-2:30
Lunch Sat., 12:00-2:30
Dinner Tue. - Fri., 5:30-10:00
Dinner Sat., 5:00-10:00
Dinner Sun., 5:00-9:00

No comments: