When you enter Maite, the big blackboard first catches your eye, filled from top to bottom with words. Its scribbles spell out what’s for dinner; there are no paper menus here. Everyone orders from the board.
Chef and owner Ella Schmidt wanted her restaurant to feel like a cross between a bar in Basque country and a Colombian farm: welcoming, homey, rustic. After all, those are her roots: she was born in Colombia, and spent much of her childhood learning Basque country cooking from her mother, who had lived in Bilbao, Spain, for 30 years.
Maite is pronounced “my-tay,” a girl’s name in Basque meaning loved one. The vibe of the dining room, with weathered wood covering the tabletops, walls, and floor, evokes the countryside. Schmidt’s cooking likewise embraces a robust simplicity. “I like to think of my mom as the chef [at Maite]. If my mom had more training, that’s what she would make,” she said.
Basque country is located near the coast, so seafood is a beloved part of the meal. Tomato-based sauces and stews make up much of the cuisine, borrowing some influences from its French neighbors, but using olive oil more often than butter.
Schmidt masterfully creates light, yet flavorful sauces out of a few ingredients. For the seasonal Sea Bass dish ($21), she melded Meyer lemon, white wine, olive oil, butter, and thyme together, producing a sunny vinaigrette-like sauce that matched happily with the sweet flavor of the fish. Some sautéed chard and grilled avocado added to the conjurings of summer.
In a homage to a popular bar snack in Basque country, known as Txipirones en Su Tinta (fried squid in squid ink), Schmidt makes the Burrata Negra ($15), burrata and garlicky toast resting in a pool of jet-black liquid. The jet-black color and hint of brininess comes from the squid ink, but the intensity of flavors comes from mixing Spanish onions, green peppers, garlic, white wine, and olive oil. The pure taste of the burrata cuts through it all.
Working for six years as a pastry chef at the Italian restaurant Il Buco in Manhattan taught Schmidt that the simple things are often the most difficult to execute well. “You have to be very detail-oriented. And you learn why things work the way they do,” she said.
Her Gnocchi dish ($21) shows that her experience has paid off. The faintly sweet, pillow-soft gnocchi are filled with taleggio cheese, then laid on top of a lip-smacking sauce, made with shallots, sage, butter, and olive oil. These bites of delight are topped with hedgehog mushrooms, giving them a woodsy aftertaste. The dish is uncomplicated, but incredibly delicious.
The Watermelon Radish ($14) also succeeded by placing contrasting flavors and textures side by side. The radishes themselves were sweet with a bitter edge. When tossed with white truffle oil, the vegetables’ umami shone through. Cool bits of cheddar and finely shaved bits of black truffle boosted the savoriness, but were balanced with a drizzle of apple cider vinaigrette.
Schmidt also puts her spin on everyday Colombian dishes—what she calls unrefined. Similar to Basque cuisine, Colombian food is hearty.
The Duck Egg Arepa ($13), for example, places the cornmeal arepa—usually eaten just on its own—in a pool of lard seasoned with smoked paprika. Schmidt explained that lard is commonly used in Colombia and Basque country as poor man’s oil. The arepa absorbs the bright red-orange liquid, drawing in its spicy smokiness. A mozzarella filling and runny duck egg on top add heartiness to the dish, like a breakfast sandwich soaked with aromatic oil.
Schmidt makes Empanaditas ($8) Colombian-style with fine corn flour (elsewhere in Latin America, it is more common to use wheat or white flour), rolled into paper-thin dough and fried to a crisp. Schmidt regularly changes up the filling. During my visit, it was stuffed with duck confit and potatoes. Each bite was like an antidote to winter.
To end on a properly sweet note, the housemade Dulce de Leche ($7) is a chewy, gooey option, accompanied by bits of stracciatella (cheese curds) to keep it from becoming too cloying.
159 Central Ave.
Tuesday & Sunday 5 p.m.–10 p.m.
Wednesday–Saturday: 5 p.m.–11 p.m.