RESTAURANTS; Urbane Renewal
By DAVID CORCORAN
THE opening of the Robert Treat Hotel was one of the grandest moments in Newark history. It was 1916 -- the 250th anniversary of Newark's founding by Robert Treat, who in 1666 had led a band of Puritans out of New England to settle on the green banks of the winding Passaic River. Now this brawny, thriving capital of industry and finance had just passed a quarter-million population. It was feeling good about itself, and it decided to give itself a party.
Three boatloads of costumed dignitaries re-enacted the Puritans' landing. President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson were there; they were among the first guests at the Robert Treat. As for the hotel itself, a local paper called it ''the last word in hotel construction.'' There were immense windows, clusters of electric lights on crystal fixtures, marble wainscoting, heavy rich rugs.
You know the rest. By the time Newark turned 300 in the late 1960's, there was little left to celebrate. Though the Robert Treat managed to stay in business through the long and paralyzing municipal decline that stretched into the 90's, remodeling and time had erased its splendor.
So when the hotel's owner, Miles Berger, opened a high-end restaurant last April in a tunnel-like space that used to hold a coffee shop and bar, it was a moment as freighted with significance, in its way, as the hotel's debut 84 years earlier.
Here was an owner casting a multimillion-dollar vote of confidence in the fledgling revival begun by the three-year-old New Jersey Performing Arts Center, just across the street. Twenty-five-dollar entrees in Newark? Would anyone show up? More important, would anyone come back?
Now the restaurant, Maize, is settling in for its first full season. The early returns are in, and they are most encouraging.
Stephanie Voulgaris, whom Mr. Berger selected as owner of the restaurant, had a middlebrow background, running the food and beverage services at the Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson's at Newark Airport. But she shared his vision of a first-class restaurant, and assembled a first-class team.
I'm not a great fan of Maize's interior, which seems overdesigned and self-consciously opulent, with plush earth-toned carpets and wall hangings, and banks of lights that suggest Art Deco lanterns. But the restaurant is welcoming, especially since the staff is almost aggressively determined to win you over. In particular, Craig Callus, the young wine steward, is smitten with each of his well-chosen bottles, and will happily describe them at great length.
Ms. Voulgaris promises that growing pains have passed, and a prix fixe preconcert menu to be inaugurated this month should help diners make their curtains across the street. Still, if you have tickets, it would be prudent to make reservations no later than 5:30.
And there's a more important reason not to rush: the food and wine are worth savoring. Pat Kotsonis, the chef, is just 29, but his deep resume includes Le Bernardin and Bouley in Manhattan, and he runs his kitchen with talent and authority.
We figured we were in good hands with the arrival of the giveaway appetizer, sensuously moist cornbread laced with jalapeno peppers and black bean sauce, and a basket of first-rate Portuguese bread from Teixeira's Bakery in the Ironbound. The appetizer menu incorporates a confusing array of ''first stops,'' ''second stops'' and ''sides and tapas.'' Whatever philosophy underlies these labels, most are winners.
The only disappointments were maize sticks -- oily egg-roll-like wrappers enclosing corn-and-bean salad -- and a one-dimensional lentil soup. Mushroom soup was wonderfully dense and dark, and it gained crunch from truffled risotto cakes. Sweet-potato fries were thin, chewy and delicately flavored.
Fried oysters, at $13.95 the most expensive appetizer, were cooked in a savory cornmeal crust and returned to the shell, where they waded in a sauce fragrant with white wine, sake, lemongrass and cilantro. A huge bowl of she-crab soup was redolent of fennel, sherry and Madeira, though so rich with cream that my appetite failed midway through.
Main courses are ample and elegant. My favorite was an underdog, humble breast of chicken in a wickedly crunchy coating of pistachios, on a winy bed of carrots, parsnips and celery root. Fish are beautifully and confidently presented here. We particularly enjoyed a halibut ''napoleon,'' with layers of shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, artichokes, corn and tomatoes, and grouper on an artichoke-spinach puree, topped with a tangle of fried leeks.
Sirloin is billed as ''14-day aged,'' and its mild but distinct beef flavor mingles comfortably with sauteed spinach, blue cheese and caramelized onions. A special of filet mignon, on the other hand, simply didn't work: it was sliced and layered with potatoes, napoleon-style, and the whole production was tough and dry.
The versatile Mr. Kotsonis makes his own desserts, and he's good at it. Cornbread pudding may have found its way onto the menu only because the restaurant is called Maize, but it deserves a long life on its own: a dense slab of comfort food, sweet but not too sweet, enlivened by cinnamon and five-spice powder. Even more intriguing is the fruit soup, fresh berries and orange slices in a syrup infused with a spice rack of exotic and elusive flavors.
Not everything at Maize works brilliantly. The noise level can be a bit high, as can the prices; the early troubles with timing are disquieting.
Still, it's hard to be anything but awestruck by what Mr. Berger & Company have brought off here. A high-end restaurant in Newark? That's right, and one that -- like the arts behemoth across the street -- is succeeding beyond all expectations.
Robert Treat Hotel, 50 Park Place, Newark
ATMOSPHERE -- Stylish and opulent.
SERVICE -- Determined to please.
SMOKING -- Allowed in a downstairs lounge.
WINE LIST -- An all-American beauty pageant, many by the glass.
RECOMMENDED DISHES -- Mushroom soup, she-crab soup, fried oysters, sweet potato fries; pistachio-crusted chicken, halibut ''napoleon,'' sauteed grouper, sirloin steak; cornbread pudding, fruit soup, chocolate mousse.
PRICE RANGE -- Dinner appetizers: $6 to $13.95; entrees: $16.95 to $26.95; desserts: $5.95 to $7.95. (Lunch prices average several dollars less, with sandwiches at $7 to $11.)
HOURS -- Lunch: weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner: daily, 5 to 10 p.m. (11 on performance nights).
CREDIT CARDS -- All major cards.
RESERVATIONS -- Recommended.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS -- A short elevator ride separates the entrance and restroom from the main dining room.
RATINGS -- Poor, Fair, Satisfactory, Good, Very Good, Excellent,
Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.