By Jonah Raskin
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
Where do college English majors go after they receive their diplomas? Denny Lane graduated from Sonoma State University in the 1990s and still remembers his lit profs. Now he's part owner of Maya, the Mexican restaurant that prides itself on its "Yucatan spirit in the heart of Sonoma." Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf don't aid him at Maya, but he exudes an air of sophistication that adds charm to the large, often noisy dining room with its walls and floors of stone.
I ate there recently with a half-dozen people in the wine and food industry. Two of them were a brother and sister who had grown up in Sonoma and who made their mother's Mexican cooking a yardstick to take the measure of the chef at Maya. From the start, I knew I was in for a comparative dining experience, and I had the hunch that mom's cooking would win. But I was ready to plunge ahead.
I have eaten at Maya several times, and almost always order the chile verde with large chunks of tender, braised pork and either tomatillo or red chile salsa ($14.25). "Very spicy" the menu reads, but that has never been the case. This time I wanted something different. My friends were willing to share dishes, and that was fun.
First came the bite-sized empanadas filled with grilled vegetables ($8.25), not made in mom's Morelos style, my dining companions told me. Next, the quail salad that could have been a meal in itself, with grilled quail in a sauce made from poblano chiles and tomatillos, and a mixed green salad ($14.95). The shrimp tacos looked almost too beautiful to eat, and though they were tasty they weren't spicy enough for my palate (13.95). The pan-seared sea bass with pesto corn risotto and an orange-tomato-cumin sauce ($21.50) also looked almost too beautiful to eat.
My friends opened several bottles of wine from Robledo, one of the few local wineries owned and operated by a multi-generational Mexican family. We enjoyed a fruity 2005 Pinot Noir and a hearty 2004 red wine named Los Braceros in honor of the Mexican farmworkers who came to America as part of a federal program in the 1940s. There was also an excellent 2005 Moscato that was sweet enough to make dessert feel superfluous.
Every dish at Maya looks gorgeous; the chef has obviously gone wild with colorful sauces. The ingredients are fresh and the service is excellent. But the food lacks fire. Even the bright red and green salsas that come with chips don't have much kick. But I only have myself to blame. "Most of our dishes are not spicy," the menu reads. "We're happy to turn the heat up or down for you." Next time, I'll ask the chef to fire up the blast furnace. Then I'll close my eyes, and pretend I'm eating in the Yucatan.
Maya, open for lunch and dinner, Monday–Saturday; dinner only, Sunday. 101 E. Napa St., Sonoma. 707.935.3500.
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