I kinda like all the wasted space," my friend said as we looked around the dining room at Maize, and indeed I had to agree.
Airy restaurants are nothing new, but the spacious interior at Maize -- with a high, vaguely silo-evoking circular structure above the bar, plenty of space between tables, counterlike seating between the bar and the dining room -- and others I've encountered lately is further evidence of the evolution of the poker bar. No longer dark, smoky places that serve fried bar food (and not good fried bar food at that), today's poker bars have interior (and exterior) designs worthy of the high-rent places and food to match, with some of them breaking culinary ground. They even have surprisingly good service.
And something else occurred to me as I looked over the menu at Maize: This new generation of poker bars is the new fern bar.
Remember fern bars? Those were the places, usually chains (and named for the masses of plants that served as a major decorating component), that in the '70s and '80s showcased an all-things-for-all-people mentality that somewhat accidentally broadened the palate of middle America, making commonplace some of the Asian and Latin and Mediterranean flavors that until then had been exotic as far as the masses were concerned. Some of them were fairly successful and eventually evolved into niches of their own, while others were less so and died, as generally is the way with restaurants.
This thought arose while I was thinking about two dishes that my friend and I had ordered -- a homey Italian one with comfort-food flavors, and an updated riff on Asian classics that apparently had been inspired by a Mexican-American one. An all-over-the-place menu can indicate that management has no idea what its mission is, but that isn't the case with Maize and its brethren. No, in this case the mission is to innovate, to inspire. And good for them.
So what were the two dishes? One, an entree of baked four-cheese pasta ($13.95), which was ziti rigati layered in a gratin dish with the cheeses in question and the right proportion of a deeply steeped marinara so that it complemented the cheeses instead of overwhelming them. There was the obligatory layer of chewy melted cheese on top for a very satisfying dish -- soul food for anybody who knows what a nonna is.
The other was the Tuna Chips ($11.95), an appetizer of seared fresh tuna served atop crisp wontons that served as chips (think nachos), with a light drizzle of a soy-based mixture and a bit of wasabi cream for zing. With a pile of Asian slaw on the side, the dish, attractively presented on a long, narrow tray, brought a number of textures to the party.
Not that those were the only standouts we encountered at Maize. An entree special of scallops ($25) was ringed with a mixture our waiter described as corn coulis but that we'd call a corn puree, except that coulis probably sounds more appetizing. At any rate, it was truly superlative -- rich and creamy, silky smooth, well-seasoned but carrying a clear corn flavor. The scallops were perfect -- fresh and sweet, not overcooked but aggressively seared on their flat surfaces -- their delicate sea flavor contrasting nicely with the more pastoral corn. But wait!, as Ron Popeil would say, the more in this case being a sort of ragout of mushrooms and bacon and chives. It was a very successful -- and obviously inspired -- dish.
For dessert we shared a longshoreman-scaled wedge of chocolate fudge cake ($7.95), stuffed with layers of ganache -- simply chocolate and cream, which is as purely perfect as it sounds.
Service throughout was fine, from our waiter and his assistant. That's something else you wouldn't have found in a poker bar of yore.
The only weak point of the entire evening was the cheese fondue ($14.95) that we chose as our other appetizer. It was nice and smooth and served with the requisite bread cubes plus fruits and vegetables for dipping, but it was curiously bland. Really bland. Billed as white Cheddar, it tasted more like white American. Or maybe "white-bread" sums it up.
Which Maize most decidedly is not. And good for them.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.