Restaurant Review: Water & Wall
Tim Ma brings big flavors to Virginia Square
Every time I eat at Water & Wall, I’m already anticipating subsequent return trips and wondering what chef and co-owner Tim Ma will come up with next. His blizzards of daring flavors—thoughtful takes on modern American cooking with Asian accents—are always a revelation. I dig the way this guy teases the senses with every bite.
Take this winter’s offerings. For one first course, he spreads a slice of toasted baguette with a velvety chicken-liver paté spiked with Maker’s Mark, then layers on a whisper of tangy duck prosciutto, and dresses the plate with a sweet green chili relish and a sour orange vinegar glaze. Another terrific starter is the Thai-inspired Prince Edward Island mussels in a saffron coconut broth. Studded with cubes of Chinese sausage, this dish is heavy on the ginger and garlic, and kissed with lemongrass and hot chilies. My taste buds explode.
I’m certainly not the first to take notice of Ma’s exceptional cooking. Four years after its debut, his first eatery, the tiny nine-table Maple Ave Restaurant in Vienna, is still a tough place to get a table. When Ma last year snagged a nomination from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington for “Rising Culinary Star of the Year,” it was clear that a bigger arena was in order. Water & Wall opened in November with 80 seats.
Ma and his fiancée and business partner, Joey Hernandez, considered spots in Clarendon and Falls Church before settling on the former Pines of Florence space on a relatively quiet stretch of North Fairfax Drive in Virginia Square. “We’re on an island with a nice mix of business and residential—one with a restaurant absence,” he explains of the choice in location. (For customers, this translates into free and easy evening parking.)
What’s with the name, Water & Wall? It’s a nod to the Manhattan street intersection where Ma and Hernandez lived in 2008 while he attended the French Culinary Institute and externed at the acclaimed, two-Michelin-star Momofuku Ko restaurant in the East Village.
In crafting the new space in Arlington, designer Sucha Khamsuwan (of Studio Ideya in Fairfax) photographed the couple’s former Lower East Side neighborhood, broke down its elements of brick, cement and chain-link fencing, and then parlayed the aesthetic into a modern urban interior. Hand-painted gold-and-green stripes behind the bar echo streaks of falling water. Cloud-shaped fabric light shades obscure the ceiling’s exposed pipes and add an air of intimacy with a muted amber glow.
One of Ma’s personal menu favorites (and mine, too) is the Burmese chicken salad appetizer. Inspired by sous chef and Myanmar native Nyi Nyi Myint, the dish tosses shredded chicken breast with lime juice, Thai chilies, matchsticks of red onion and cucumber, and a subtle oil flavored with turmeric and caramelized onions.
And if you’ve relegated pork belly to the ranks of culinary chestnut, take another look. This kitchen superbly pairs charred slabs of it with crunchy raw green papaya, adding a fresh foil to its rich texture.
Not every morsel here is perfect. I’m not a fan of the veal sweetbreads, which were overcooked one night and coated in an odd red hot sauce. The salad of kale, apples and goat cheese proved ordinary (plus the kale was gritty). And only a salt fanatic could love an otherwise moist and tender chicken breast, which was brined and further seasoned into a sodium bomb. But dishes like this are the exception at Water & Wall, where so much else is memorable.
That includes options such as the fried okra. More of a bar snack than an appetizer, the light and crispy nuggets are doused in a fragrant chili sauce, with just enough of a salt edge to send me happily reaching for another sip of cold beer.
Water & Wall has a decent wine list, but I think beer goes best with the Asian flavors. Need a recommendation? The well-trained and welcoming servers know their brews, which are carefully chosen to complement the menu. I’m partial to the refreshing and hoppy Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, as well as the bright and citrusy Founders All Day IPA.
From the entrée list, do consider the salty-sweet duck confit, nested in caramelized Brussels sprouts and shaved radish, with accents of truffle aioli. (The unusually large duck legs come from a farm in Hudson Valley, New York.) And, the juicy, grilled-to-order hanger steak, Ma’s “most popular dish on the menu,” which is served with crisp potato wedges, braised collard greens and a piquant herb sauce.
For pescatarians, the pan-seared, crisp-skinned Arctic char in a lovely lemony broth with nutty sunchoke slices is not to be missed. The same can be said of the delicate, white-fleshed Mediterranean drum, which is perfectly balanced with a squash purée, roasted beets and pickled cabbage.
These dishes won’t necessarily be around forever. Chef Ma rotates the menu on a regular basis, tweaking standards with seasonal ingredients from local farms.
He’s also bringing over a few favorites that have already been time-tested at Maple Ave, including popular brunch offerings such as eggs and kimchi, a venison omelet and pumpkin buttermilk pancakes.
Yep, Water & Wall is now open for brunch, too—yet another reason to head for Virginia Square. This is a restaurant to watch.
Water & Wall
3811 North Fairfax Drive, Arlington, 703-294-4949, www.waterandwall.com
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday
10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Brunch: appetizers $10;
entrées $14 to $16
Dinner: appetizers $9 to $12; entrées $19 to $25
BAR AND CELLAR
Specialty cocktails and an engaging selection of craft beers and wines, thoughtfully chosen to complement the menu
Free metered street parking after 6 p.m.; free garage parking (behind building) after 7 p.m. weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday. Metro's Virginia Square-GMU station on the Orange Line is two blocks away.