You can often detect a restaurant’s DNA in its menu or décor — those formative influences from prior kitchens that shape the course of a chef’s career. In the case of Maite (pronounced MY-tay), which opened this winter in Bushwick, the Underground Gourmet, working like a culinarily inclined Holmes and Watson, quickly determined that there was a certain familiar melding of Mediterranean flavors with a few Latin American accents and a mismatched, rough-hewn rusticity to the room that evoked Noho institution Il Buco. And then there were the empanaditas: crisp-shelled and plump corn-flour pockets served hot from the fryer but absent of grease. These little fritters, stuffed with a frequently changing meaty filling, are not the flaky wheat-flour empanadas that Uruguayan chef Ignacio Mattos once served at Il Buco but the Colombian-inspired renditions of Maite chef-partner Ella Schmidt, who, as it turns out, at one time worked under Mattos as a pastry and pasta cook (and chief empanada baker). Several years later, with more kitchen stints under her belt, Schmidt has forged her own cuisine at Maite, a place that feels both homey and new.
The restaurant occupies a corner space once home to the Polanco deli and still wears its weathered signage; inside, the lofty dining room benefits from some breezy cross-ventilation courtesy of broad windows that open to the street. The walls are clad with rough, unfinished wood, the painted-tin ceiling soars to at least double height, and the space is furnished with caged lightbulbs and rusty implements repurposed as beer taps and a somewhat menacing chandelier. With its farmhouse tables and chunky stools, there is an aspect of the finca to Maite — a ranch house on some South American pampa, where families gather for long, leisurely feasts. Culinary inspiration comes from several places, though: Italy, Schmidt’s native Colombia, and Spain, where her mother has lived for decades (Maite is a girl’s name, according to Schmidt, that means “beloved” in Basque).
On the surface, Maite seems firmly ensconced in the current Zeitgeist, and the salvaged décor is the least of it. The tall chalkboard menu lists the day’s offerings in one unbroken stream, without categories. Plates come in somewhat arbitrary order and at random speeds (sometimes too random) and are meant to be shared. Terms like farm-to-fork, seasonal, and local are zinged about with the practiced dexterity of a major-league ball team warming up. There’s even a burger with rib-eye trimmings. But nothing about the place seems phony or calculated, and the menu, limited as it is to a dozen or so dishes, manages to surprise even jaded locavores by focusing on the daily produce and inventive ways to integrate it.
Case in point: Burrata is a mainstay, but instead of finding it simply salted and oiled, or paired with tomato and basil, you encounter it strewn with fiddlehead ferns, or with multicolored fingerling potatoes and sautéed diced peaches. If it’s tomatoes you’re after, though, the chef carves some meaty shoulders off a few overgrown heirlooms, briefly grills them, and uses them to bolster a fried slab of goat cheese and a shower of sautéed corn.
Some dishes verge on giving the impression they were created in the manner of a cooking-show contestant challenged by a wacky Greenmarket mystery box of ingredients and a tight deadline. One night’s salad combined soft lettuces and spicy mustard greens with raw peas, warm blackberries, and a dollop of sheep’s-milk yogurt. On paper (or chalkboard), it sounded overly improvised and a little out there; on the plate, it made sense and proved to be a satisfying contrast of textures and temperatures.
There are usually two pastas, and on our visits, they were always gnocchi and ravioli or some variation thereof. The former are soft orbs, more like gnudi or filled dumplings, typically stuffed with mild cheese, festooned with lovage or squash blossoms, and floating in a buttery sauce. Chicken raviolini were equally rich and just as saucy, making their modest portion feel just right. Finish an order yourself and you won’t have room for the coca, an oval-shaped Catalonian-style pizzetta that Schmidt smears with fennel purée or romesco where the tomato sauce might have gone, and tops with things like crumbled sausage and green garlic, or two kinds of cheese and summer truffle. The crust is medium-thin and dense, with the crunchy fortitude to stand up to the toppings.
There is always a fish, a steak, and a burger, but only the piscine preparations seem to vary: A recent filet of wild striped bass was moist and well cooked, enhanced by some nicely charred hunks of avocado. Similarly, a crispy-cheesy arepa sealed the deal on a salty, juicy, beefy boneless rib eye big enough for two. The burger is the sleeper hit — a robust patty made from chuck and steak trimmings mixed unconventionally with a little minced garlic, which didn’t even bother the patty purists at our table. It’s dressed with a tangy special sauce and aged mozzarella and topped with an egg. The crazy-genius part is that the egg isn’t simply fried as you imagine it will be, but soft-boiled, lightly battered, deep-fried, then attached to the patty with a wooden skewer. The effect is like a deconstructed inside-out Scotch egg served on a squishy bun. Remove the skewer, cut into the runny yolk, smoosh everything together, and you’re good to go.
The only dessert is a simple crème caramel, but it’s all you need. Well, that plus a pot of stove-top espresso that perfumes the air before it arrives at your table. It would be hard to find more persuasive incentives for lingering or places to do it.
159 Central Ave., at Suydam St., Bushwick; 718-366-3090; maitebushwick.com
Open: Tuesday to Sunday for dinner.
Prices: $5 to $38 (for the rib-eye steak).
Ideal Meal: Strawberry-rhubarb margarita, empanaditas, farmer’s greens, gnocchi or raviolini.
Note: The drinks list includes Colombian beer and cocktails showcasing Latin American spirits like aguardiente, mezcal, and Mexican-chile liqueur.
Scratchpad: One star for the uncontrived locavore cooking. One for the benevolent service. One more for putting a soft-boiled, deep-fried egg on a burger.
*This article appears in the July 27, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.