Thanks to several popular novels and movies most Americans are familiar with the term geisha. But how about maiko? A maiko is an apprentice geisha. The process of becoming a geisha is long, intricate, and dictated by decorum and process. “It’s kind of how I view the culinary training process,” says Michael Tam, one of the two chefs behind Maiko, a new pop-up concept that launched earlier this week. Tam recently moved to Richmond from Washington D.C. and prior to that traveled throughout Asia. For Maiko he partnered with Jeffrey Baird, formerly of Avenue 805, Chez Foushee, and other independent restaurants around town. Baird is currently corporate chef for Performance Foodservice and a part-time culinary instructor at Stratford University and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. The concept for Maiko reflects the background of the two chefs: Southeast Asian flavor with a sprinkling of southern comfort, along with a continual process of improvement as represented by the name.
The new concept kicked off last Tuesday with a pop-up dinner at Citizen. Six courses took diners on a journey through Tam’s life, including childhood visits to Southeast Asia and even a reflection of his most recent time in D.C.
The meal started with a bang: caviar ice cream. A waffle cone was carefully filled with a combination of salmon poke, uni, trout roe, tobiko, sesame nori, rice wine vinegar, and pickled celery. I wasn’t sure how the savory, salty, umami flavors would pair with the delicate sweetness of the waffle cone, but it was just right—making for a playful flavor combination that matched the dish’s concept perfectly. I heard that once Maiko is fully up and running, the vision includes catering and I could easily foresee smaller versions of these cones as popular party dishes.
Up next we sampled the seven corners salad featuring octopus, Broadfork Farm greens, fresh herbs, Bidan chilies, nuts, seeds, and a fish sauce vinaigrette. The octopus was the obvious star here—it was gently poached to a perfect tenderness. A generous amount of fresh basil combined with the tang of the fish sauce and a kick from the peppers for a pleasingly herbal, pungent salad that was far from ordinary.
The third course—kettle krupuk—was an Asian spin on kettle corn. Crispy chips made from Indonesian emping melinjo nuts were pounded thin and fried, resulting in a light texture and almost popcorn-like flavor. They were topped with palm sugar, sweet soy syrup called kecap manis, and spicy sambal oelek chili paste for heat. Served with a lime on the side, this seemingly simple snack packed a bunch of flavors into each deliciously crunchy bite.
After that we tried HK (Honk Kong) Breakfast, which featured light, creamy congee topped with a farm egg, bacon, chives, shallots, and white soy. Tam told us that in Hong Kong congee—a rice porridge that’s eaten in many Asian countries—is often served topped with a chopped cruller donut to add some extra texture so our version was topped off with a small crunchy donut. The texture of the congee stood out on this dish—it was light, savory, and slightly brothy—almost like a delicate cream of wheat studded with bits of rice, smoky bacon and dashi.
For our fifth course, we stayed stateside with Chino Greens. This take on Italian aglio olio, which usually features pasta, was instead made with gently wilted Broad Fork Farm greens topped with olive oil, peperoncinos, lemon and Pecorino cheese. The right blending of these simple ingredients allowed the flavor of the local greens to shine.
Dessert was another Chinese dish—doufu fa is a tofu pudding. This version started with soy milk the chefs made themselves and then turned into soft tofu for soy panna cotta. The creamy, smooth base was topped with chocolate ganache that had an extra earthy undertone from the addition of adzuki beans (the same bean used to make the red bean paste that’s often seen in dim sum desserts), alongside fragrant chrysanthemum tea, caramel-y brown butter, a crunchy pistachio crisp, and a hint of lemon. To be honest, I am often wary of panna cotta—it generally just doesn’t do it for me as a dessert, but this one was so silky smooth and the addition of new flavors and textures from the toppings made it interesting and satisfying.
The food throughout the meal was creative, interesting, and flavorful, but what most impressed me about this pop-up meal was the organization. Both Tam and Baird have considerable experience in the restaurant industry and this meal was locked down. I’ve attended many pop-up meals where food is extremely delayed, chefs are running around like crazy, and courses are sometimes sloppy from being hastily thrown onto plates. These chefs—with the assistance of a few other friends—were calmly plating in an open kitchen, precisely wiping plates to ensure each one was clean and visually appealing, and generally pretty darn calm for preparing a first meal in a new kitchen.
Not to mention, $35 for six courses with Citizen’s affordable wine and beer options to add at the event was a great deal for a perfect amount of food.
Up next from Maiko look for a few more pop-up meals as the concept gets honed and ironed out. The next dinner will probably be in January after the holidays. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on Marco Style!