Having launched Maple Ave in Vienna nearly five years ago, husband and wife team Tim Ma and Joey Hernandez are not new to the restaurant scene. Yet with the opening of Water & Wall (3811 N. Fairfax Drive) in Virginia Square almost two weeks ago, they found new challenges to contend with at their Arlington restaurant.
“When you get into a new kitchen, it’s completely new equipment, completely new staff, it’s a completely new space flow,” said Ma. “It’s a completely new restaurant. We want to take the time to make sure we get every step right.”
The restaurant has been preparing to open since July, held its family and friends soft opening event on November 1 and opened to the public the next day. Water & Wall has opened at 5:00 p.m. every day, but hopes to delve into weekend brunch and eventually into lunch. For the time being, Ma prefers the limited schedule in order to perfect the dinner operations, especially considering that most new restaurants have issues to work out.
“Everybody has glitches, we’re no different. The hardest thing was getting used to the new kitchen equipment,” Ma said. “We got here and we’ve got all this new equipment, everything’s high powered, high end. We burned a lot of things really early on just because we weren’t used to it. We had to adjust recipes that we’ve been doing for years just because this equipment is so much stronger. That was one of the most difficult things.”
Ma and the kitchen crew continue to experiment with the menu. They’ve brought over some staples from Maple Ave such as shrimp and grits, mussels and braised beef cheek. There are around 10 small plates, eight main plates and typically four specials per night. The menu should be whittled down to the permanent items within the next few months, but Ma expects it to change fairly frequently.
“We’re happy with the menu but we know how the kitchen gets,” he said. “The kitchen gets antsy. They don’t want to cook the same things over and over, so then we move on to the next thing.”
Although signature dishes like duck confit may sound decadent, the Water & Wall crew works hard to fend off the “fine dining” label.
“I want to stay away from the term fine dining, even though I think our look is a little fancier than I anticipated,” said Ma. “I never want it to really be called fine dining. Contemporary, casual dining I think is what we would call it.”
“I know it looks like it when you first walk in, but we’re definitely not fancy,” agreed General Manager Nick Seo. “We wanted to create an environment where anybody can walk in dressed in any sort of attire and have a really great experience. We don’t have a specific dress code, it’s not very fancy at all.”
Seo also manages the bar and is experimenting with signature drinks for the restaurant. He plans to debut two this weekend — his version of the Moscow Mule, and an olive oil/vodka/lemon cocktail. The bar area will run happy hour specials from 5:00-7:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Five drink items will be available for five dollars during that time. Eventually, happy hour may expand to food items as well.
In addition to the signature drinks and focus on food, Seo believes the ambiance will help Water & Wall stand out from its competitors.
“I think it’s different than a lot of the primary restaurants or bars in this area. It is kind of, I think, a fresh take on Arlington dining,” he said. “We’ve had more and more people who live in the residential areas across the street coming in. They walk in and are blown away.”
While Ma says he takes care of the kitchen operations, he says his wife “basically runs things” at the restaurant. One of the things Hernandez focuses on is getting people in the door. Currently, she worries people won’t know Water & Wall exists due to the lack of outdoor signage for the restaurant. But she was encouraged to hold off on ordering any because the whole building is apparently supposed to get a bit of a facelift with new signs.
“It’ll happen. People will find us,” Hernandez said. “It’s been a little crazy these past couple of weeks. But it’s exciting, too.”
Ma is confident the customer base will continue to grow once people notice the restaurant, try it and spread the word. He said Virginia Square is quieter than some of Arlington’s other restaurant hubs, but that’s how he likes it.
“Give us a shot. It’s one of those things where we’re in a quiet spot,” said Ma. “We’ll need people to come out here and taste what we’re doing. Sometimes it seems like a trek just going from one metro stop to the next. But we hope people make the trek and that we can impress them. All I ask is, if you like it, tell somebody.”