Ryan Brining says he had Danny Meyer in mind when he launched White Maple Café in Ridgewood in 2016. Meyer, creator of the Shake Shack chain and 18 individual restaurants, “changed my future when I read Setting the Table,” Meyer’s treatise on hospitality. It led Brining, who was working in finance, to study culinary management at Manhattan’s Institute of Culinary Education. He later worked in Manhattan restaurants.
“Setting the Table says that running restaurants is basically about keeping people happy,” says the 30-year-old. “I felt that too, and I knew I wanted to do this.” The result is White Maple. A storefront on Ridgewood’s main drag, it has an appealingly casual look, with brick walls, white chairs and a white tile floor. The problem is a lack of consistent quality on the plate.
Brining says he created its eclectic, bistro-priced menu with a consultant. Current chef Gabe Luengas says half the current menu items are his own. (His predecessor, Brian McGackin, had told me opportunities to create his own dishes were “limited.”). Luengas, 41, who took the reins last November, was schooled in his native Mexico City. He was a line cook in three of Stephen Starr’s glamorous Philadelphia restaurants under chef Todd Fuller, a champion of farm-to-table, whom he considers his mentor. Luengas also cooked at Mémoire and Fish in Ridgewood, both now closed.
At White Maple, a number of vegetarian dishes, some gluten-free, coexist with Angus beef, local fish and Goffle Farms chicken. Ingredients are mainly of high-quality. Starters include sliders, tuna tacos, a kale Caesar, mac-and-cheese and (at lunch and brunch) avocado toast.
In my visits, the servers, young and courteous, seemed uncertain about the composition and flavor of dishes, often admitting, “I haven’t tasted that”—not a sign of Meyer-style staff empowerment. They tended to respond to questions and requests with a chirpy “no problem.”
But there are problems. Before I get to them, I’ll say it’s possible to assemble an enjoyable meal here. I would recommend the Korean roasted cauliflower, a nicely spicy side dish sprinkled with sesame seeds; the creamy and flavorful tomato bisque; the roasted maple brussels sprouts, earthy and pleasantly sweet; the Barnegat scallops entrée, fresh and nicely seared; the sliced, grilled hanger steak entrée, flavorful and cooked as ordered; and sides such as the un-sugary sweet-potato purée, lush polenta and shoestring fries. For dessert, crème brûlée and Valrhona chocolate pudding were satisfying and well-made.
Yet over a span of 14 months, I tasted virtually the entire menu in four dinners, and on each visit, multiple dishes flopped. On my most recent visit, fig and goat cheese flatbread was overbaked to a crackle, its toppings dotted on as sparsely as if they were precious truffles. Tuna tartare was curiously bland and less than sparklingly fresh. Braised short rib sliders and a burger were each served lukewarm, their buns squishy, the meat dull.
Deboned braised short ribs were leathery. Arctic char was fresh but dry. (It’s been supplanted on the menu by wild Alaskan salmon.) A hanger steak salad was sloppy, the meat carelessly cut and plopped on romaine with an oddly harsh buttermilk-horseradish dressing.
Thankfully, the shrimp in the shrimp and grits were quite fresh, but were so dosed with fiery gochujang paste that I was the only one at the table who could eat them. (In a Santa Fe chili-eating contest a few years ago, I finished second to a burly trucker.)
Restaurants with as many shortcomings as White Maple often fizzle out. Brining’s venture seems to have won a following. If it can raise its game, it could do the book that inspired it proud.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Modern
Price Details:Appetizers, $7-$20; sides, $6; entrées, $17-$35; desserts, $5-$10
Ambience:Casual and contemporary
Service:Amiable, often unpolished
Wine list:BYO, plus wines from Ventimiglia Vineyard in Wantage, Sussex County