I've never had the luxury of not giving a fuck about what I do with $145. But Maple & Ash—which offers a $145 chef's tasting menu friskily called "I Don't Give a F*ck"—is aimed squarely at those who do. The Gold Coast steak house apparently was conceived as a playground for the fabulously wealthy and businesspeople with large expense accounts. A $95 seafood tower for two? Why not! Caviar ranging from $100 to $240? Bring it on! (When we asked our waiter for recommendations, those were the first items he praised to the sky. Coincidentally, I'm sure, they're also the most expensive items on the menu aside from a 40-ounce porterhouse for $130.)
It's a fine environment in which to spend lavishly. Opulent yet modern, the enormous restaurant is decorated with an elegant chandelier and imposing floral displays. You enter downstairs through the main bar, a sleek space with its own menu of food (and its own chandeliers). The fare is more casual than what's served upstairs; you can order a burger or chips and dip. There's still plenty of opportunity for extravagance, though. While most of the menu items are under $20, there's always the option of adding caviar to your deviled eggs for $24, or a bottle of champagne (up to $350) to your bowl of punch.
Upstairs, after being seated you're presented with an "amuse booze": a small reverse martini (two-thirds vermouth, one-third gin) to sip while you peruse the menu, along with mini radishes and butter, a generous pile of chunks of Hook's two-year cheddar, and a small bowl of excellent assorted green olives. The spread's a nice touch, especially since the wine list begins with a table of contents and continues for another 26 pages. It would be even nicer if the care taken with the martinis on my first visit—when they were delicate, perfectly balanced savory cocktails with just a hint of sweet and sour—hadn't been abandoned on another occasion, when they were served warm (in chilled glasses) and so tart they were barely drinkable. It's a shame since the cocktail list devised by mixologist Cristiana DeLucca (she left the restaurant a week after my final visit) takes martinis seriously, offering eight iterations from various historical periods—but I fared better with a seriously herbal martini with St. George Terroir gin and cucumber bitters. However the best cocktail I drank was the Pimiento Rojo, a smoky blend of reposado tequila, mescal, Amaro Lucano, framboise, and "hearth-roasted red pepper-ginger syrup."
Speaking of "hearth-roasted"—Maple & Ash has a wood-burning grill that's central to chef Danny Grant's approach to food. Not only meat finds its way onto the fire, but also vegetables, everything in the seafood tower, and a "baked-in-coals" French onion soup. All of the seafood tower's components are available a la carte, which allowed us to discover that the Gulf shrimp and scallops, while superbly cooked, shared the same flaw: a fishy, not-so-fresh flavor that also plagued a bland salmon tartare. Tender and meaty charred octopus, on the other hand, was some of the best I've eaten, and the "roasted seasonal fish"—in the case of one of my visits, walleye served over beurre blanc with lobster and endives—was nicely done if not particularly memorable.
Salad is never the point at a steak house—unless it's a wedge salad, and Maple & Ash has a satisfying rendition with ranch dressing, blue cheese, chunks of bacon, and tomato, crowned by two enormous onion rings that, improbably, bring the whole thing together.
The point of a steak house, of course, is the steak. Fortunately, this is one area Maple & Ash has unquestionably mastered. A 28-day dry-aged rib eye, well marbled with fat, had the most complex, earthy flavor I've tasted in a steak, while the perfectly rare interior of the strip steak contrasted beautifully with its smoky, lightly charred exterior. Even the cheapest cut on the menu, a $28 ten-ounce hanger steak served with fries, is handled with care, full of flavor and surprisingly tender.
Aside from the crispy fries that accompany the steak frites, though, there aren't many side dishes I'd order again.. The server highly recommended the "baked and loaded" potatoes and the brussels sprouts with bacon. and the brussels sprouts with bacon. The rich potato dish, generously laced with braised short ribs and topped with raclette cheese, bacon, truffle, and fried onions, was delicious but made a terrible match for the fatty steak; the brussels sprouts, drowning in bacon grease, had the same issue. On a later visit, though, we had the opposite problem: whipped potatoes with butter were undersalted and lacking in both butter and flavor; broccolini with pickled peppers was overly acidic even if a welcome contrast to the steak.
Steak houses have a tendency to leave diners with not much room for dessert, but we didn't have any trouble finishing the key lime pavlova: coconut sherbet and rich key lime custard topped with a brittle meringue wafer that shattered at the touch of a spoon and surrounded by grilled pineapple chunks and a graham cracker-coconut crumble. For that matter, the flaky-crusted caramel apple tart with sweet-tart cranberry caramel and cinnamon cream wasn't work to get down either.
Back to that wine list: Belinda Chang, a rock star in the world of sommeliers, is responsible for assembling the menu of 600-plus wines—including a very useful page with the top 50 bottles under $50. On my first visit, our attentive sommelier recommended a Szigeti sparkling gruner veltliner from this section that I wish were on every restaurant's menu. But another time, the wine service was lackluster: the first course arrived before the sommelier inquired about a wine order, and when he finally did appear (a different one than before) he just pointed to a couple wines by the glass on the menu. After some prodding about the restaurant's Coravin system, which allows diners to order any wine on the menu by the glass, he showed a bit more interest, recommending a nice gruner veltliner from Schloss Gobelsburg, the oldest winery in the Danube. Seeing the Coravin in action—it uses a needle to slowly extract wine from the bottle through the cork in dribs and drabs—made it clear why the program isn't being advertised to people who aren't obviously wine geeks, but it's still a nice option to have.
Maple & Ash presents itself as playful and irreverent, larding its menus with movie references and little jokes that imply this isn't your grandpa's steak house. And while the crowd does skew younger than the one you'd see at old-school places like Gene & Georgetti, the whimsy on display is the type that people with money to burn can afford. I'd happily exchange it for a more solid focus on the food. v
Correction: The review has been amended to reflect that Cristiana DeLucca is no longer employed by Maple & Ash and also to correctly reflect the size of the restaurant.