Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville’s original gourmand, was famous for the food served at his Monticello home, which statesman Daniel Webster said was “half Virginian, half French…in good taste and abundance.” Fast forward 200 years, and things seem very much the same in Jefferson’s hometown. Half Virginian, half French food, in good taste and abundance, is everywhere. In fact, food that marries Southern and French tradition has become so common in Charlottesville restaurants that it may be our town’s signature cuisine.
Yet, while many area restaurants serve it, none does it better than Maya, the Midtown restaurant whose kitchen, now in its seventh year, has reached a level of consistency that few others can match.
At the helm is Christian Kelly, the former chef of Clifton Inn who in 2006 was lured away from fine dining by restaurateur Peter Castiglione. One of the founding owners of Zocalo, Castiglione had moved on and was seeking a chef to partner with on a new venture. Naturally, he started at the top. He remembered a dinner at Clifton a year earlier that he had enjoyed so much that he even scribbled a note to the chef that it was the best lobster he had ever eaten. Though it seemed like a long shot, he thought, maybe that chef would join him.
Castiglione’s timing was perfect. When Castiglione called, Kelly was at a spiritual crossroads of sorts. Kelly had recently helped Clifton become one of just 60 restaurants in America to qualify for Relais & Chateaux, the elite collection of luxury hotels and restaurants of the world. But, as significant as was that achievement, Kelly felt ready for a change.
Long before the term “farm-to-table” became popular, Kelly had first fallen in love with food growing up on his family’s farm in upstate New York, where his mother would prepare daily feasts from the farm’s bounty. Decades later, after working his way to the peak of Charlottesville fine dining, Kelly found himself longing to return to that type of cooking—simple dishes that celebrate the produce more than the preparation.
So, Kelly went for it. “I was dumbfounded when he said yes,” admitted Castiglione.
The next year they opened Maya, named after Kelly’s daughter. To showcase the region’s produce, Kelly chose to focus on simple preparations of Southern cuisine. The accessible food and moderate prices ($12 Tuesdays!) have won Maya broad appeal across diverse parts of Jefferson’s hometown, including those at his University.
For example, UVA men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett calls Maya one of his favorite restaurants, and recently joined me for dinner there. One of the first meals Bennett ate in Charlottesville was at Maya, for an assistant coach job interview that helped reel in former Cavalier Jason Williford.
He has been hooked ever since, and has tried nearly everything on the menu, much of which consists of straight-up Southern classics like baby back ribs ($18) and cornmeal-crusted catfish ($15). The entrée plus two sides style of ordering is also a nod towards Southern tradition.
Bennett’s favorite dish happens to be the same as mine: “Local Trout” ($19), which is prepared as simply as it is named. A butterflied skin-on Rag Mountain trout is sautéed in nothing more than butter before a dousing of capers and a quick trip to the oven. Chef Kelly’s favorite, meanwhile, is an amalgam of menu items: an appetizer of cornmeal-crusted fried oysters ($9) eaten together with two sides, collard greens and stone-ground grits with white cheddar. The combination was so perfect that it might supplant the trout as my go-to order.
But, while you can take the chef out of fine dining, you can’t take fine dining out of the chef. Kelly’s classical French training manifests itself, particularly in his sauces. The country ham gravy that tops the local chicken breast ($19) combines Virginia ham with a classic French sauce, béchamel. The red wine reduction that accompanies Castiglione’s favorite dish, New York Strip ($26), is another example.
Exposed brick walls and tall ceilings help to create a relaxed setting that matches the food, whether in booths near the lively wrap-around bar, or in the cozy room upstairs. The partially covered patio is a welcome option, too, and was the ideal spot for our dinner on an unusually mild July evening.
Maya’s motto is: “Southern menu. Local food.” Throw in some French culinary tradition, and you have a restaurant that epitomizes Charlottesville cuisine and also warrants Bennett’s high praise. I bet his school’s founder would have approved, too.