Mayas' menu uses the tagline "Latin fusion cuisine," but fission would be more like it. Rather than presenting many cross-cultural combinations on the plate, this Lower Garden District restaurant serves dishes from different corners of Latin America, showing how these traditions broke off from common cultural cores to develop on their own.
Taking a little from Mexico (like the miraculously greaseless chiles rellenos), a little from the Caribbean (island-style curries), a little from Central America (bulging tamales and crisp tostones), and even a few notes from South America, Mayas collects a lot of familiar flavors and presents them in an uncommon upscale manner. With its long, thin dining room of dark wood and restrained, tropical decor, Mayas feels like a Latin bistro.
The nice thing about Mayas is that diners can choose confidently from comfort food or more original dishes. Examples of each can be highly satisfying. In the first category, the Cuban-style ropa vieja was hearty and straightforward, with tender strands of roasted pork deeply penetrated by citrus.
Some truly classic dishes aren't so familiar, like the seafood stew called moqueca, a set piece of the casual Brazilian kitchen. Resembling a curry, it's golden in hue, thick and creamy with coconut milk, rippling with garlic and loaded with seafood (here big shrimp and pebble-sized scallops). Diners order this moqueca either with a pile of rice or a short loaf of French bread for dunking (I recommend the latter). Served in a huge, teardrop-shaped casserole dish, it's a head-turner as the waiter bears it through the dining room with oven mitts, and its intense flavors stick with you.
Other memorable dishes would be right at home at any contemporary bistro. Watermelon salad has become a summertime standard for its rejuvenating, even rehydrating qualities, and Mayas does one with salty, firm feta chunks, cilantro and a foundation of thin-sliced cucumber. The menu description of the Chilean sea bass (aka Patagonian toothfish) made the dish sound like a mixed seafood platter, but it arrived as an impressive, well-composed mosaic with a skewer of large shrimp over the grilled, herb-crusted fish and half a fried soft-shell crab resting atop a pressed cylinder of rice.
Although it is fun to explore a menu like this, two significant issues arise. One is the kitchen's penchant for overly sweet sauces that taste of soy and sugar and prove the dominant flavor in too many dishes. The other concerns price. You can find entrees for under $20, but the marquee items go much higher, with some over $30. You can eat at pretty much any restaurant in town for that money, including many that outstrip Mayas. Tropical-themed cocktails are good but also expensive, as is the weak wine list.
I found the service at Mayas consistently excellent. Waiters had sound advice not only for dishes, but also for pacing an order as we tried different things. With so many different flavors at play, it's good to have such able ambassadors running the room.