Right up our Alley
Maggie’s in the Alley, the innovative eatery located in the Bodles Opera House basement, serves New American fare with flair
By Lynn Hazlewood
Fish story: Maggie’s tuna tataki is served with seaweed salad, wasabi peas, white anchovies and sriracha
Bodles Opera House in Chester is a quirky place, infused with the spirit of Jarvis Boone, the colorful character who saved the old building from demolition back in 1985. Boone transformed the one-time carriage-factory-turned-movie-theater into a pub-style eatery with a small stage where he could perform his vaudeville act. He hired servers who brightened their shift by bursting into song now and again, and all sorts of musicians have performed there over the years.
When Patricia Mazo — one of the singing servers — took over Bodles in 1999, she and her sister, Jo Gillman, decided to turn the basement into a restaurant serving something higher up the culinary scale than the pub grub available upstairs. At that point, the space, which has its own entrance from the alley in back, was a dirt-floored storage area. Revamped beyond recognition, it became a delightful eatery named Maggie’s in the Alley.
On our first visit, we wondered if the utilitarian, speakeasy-style door was actually the way in. Beyond the threshold, though, Maggie’s proved to have the same easygoing charm as its parent, although it’s less funky. We arrived unfashionably early, when low sunbeams streamed in the window, burst into little stars on the glasses hanging above the bar, and cast sparkling reflections in all the mirrors on the walls. It’s sometimes awkward to be the first diners in a restaurant, but Maggie’s feels welcoming, even without the sun performing an impromptu light show.
The narrow room has a bar stretching along one wall. Recycled church pews are lined up like banquettes on the other, facing the single row of tables. Golden oak (from more recycled pews) panels the walls; the cream-colored tin ceiling is a convincing repro. The mismatched orange pendant lights (which hang over each table) and chairs with blue-violet upholstery add splashes of color. Our tablecloth had a neatly embroidered darn that reminded me of Katharine Hepburn’s famously repaired clothes. (I find Yankee thriftiness very endearing.) You have the sense of being enveloped in a comfy space — authentic rather than the recreation it is.
Our pleasant young server recited the specials, then delivered bread and a nutty olive oil for dipping. One of the breads was an olive sourdough that was good by itself but became an intense olive-y treat after it was dunked in the oil. I ate three pieces before I’d made up my mind what to order.
A short but serviceable wine list includes domestic, European, Australian, and South American varieties at fair prices, with a few offered by the glass.
While we were mulling over the menu, a jazz trio started playing classics at an enjoyable decibel level, adding to the pleasure quotient.
Appetizers were knockouts. Fish and chips was a fun version that teetered between cuisine and snack food. Instead of the usual breaded cod or halibut, prawn-sized shrimp were coated in a tempura batter, fried golden, and drizzled with swirls of szechuan sauce. Standing in for fries were fresh-made potato chips, sliced paper thin and crisped in garlic-infused oil with slivers of fried garlic dotting the pile. Not only did the combination taste wonderful, it offered a play of textures in the mouth — crispy plus juicy, starchy plus piquant.
The fried avocado was another mix of sensations. Half a small fruit was coated with panko crumbs and deep-fried. A tangy chipotle cream filled the dent where the pit had been. It came on a bed of tomato salsa and was served warm, so that each bite had a crunch of warm crust that gave way to cool, smooth avocado, with the tang of chipotle cream rounding it out. It was so delicious I was tempted to order another one. Instead, we decided to share a bowl of wild mushroom soup, a special that sounded too good to pass up. Drizzled generously with white truffle oil, it was dense and woodsy, and the fried mushroom cap garnish in the middle was a creative touch.
The menu changes, but among the entrÃ©es that evening were short ribs braised in mole sauce, New York strip steak with blue cheese sauce, and scallops with shitake-ginger vinaigrette and coconut-jasmine rice — as well as several tantalizing specials that also demonstrated the eclectic ways of the chef.
After a lengthy period of indecision (during which our server had to reread the specials to us twice), my spouse finally decided on porterhouse lamb chops. They were thick and juicy, grilled in a straightforward way. But mint pesto made a pleasing variation on the traditional lamb-mint pairing, with the pesto falling neatly between too-sweet mint jelly and sometimes too vinegary mint sauce. It tasted good, and from a design standpoint it looked pretty, too, setting off the creamy orange sweet-potato mash accompaniment.
Caramelized duck breast came sliced and slathered in a rich, dark, sun-dried cherry-port sauce that was a tad intense, but not so much that it masked the enjoyable hint of gaminess of the perfectly cooked duck. Cinnamon raisin couscous was a novel accompaniment that added well-balanced savory and sweet tastes. Both entrÃ©es were served with a little melange of lightly steamed zucchini and yellow peppers.
I’ve discovered that no matter how full one is (and by “one,” I mean me), there’s always room for dessert if the word “chocolate” is being bandied about. Oddly, hearing the word “chocolate” made me decide on rum-raisin rice pudding, but I persuaded my helpmeet to check out the chocolate lava cake so that I could have a bite or two.
My rice pudding had a yummy rummy flavor — the raisins were plumped up with it — with no harsh bite of alcohol, and although it was a slightly odd color, it was a truly creamy treat. The chocolate cake was a restrained version of a concoction that’s often over the top. Moist, with a syrupy center that was rich but not so sweet as to put your teeth on edge, it came served with a scoop of very tasty vanilla ice cream.
Some restaurant spaces seem doomed — you know the ones. The Bodles building is the opposite. If you don’t have a good time there, you must be in a very bad mood indeed. Same thing at Maggie’s. Chef James Devaney has imagination and the culinary skills to take ingredients from around the world and combine them into dishes we call New American. Enjoyed in a friendly room where sunbeams dance at dusk, you’ve got a magic combination.
Maggie’s In The Alley Appetizers range from $8-$11; entrÃ©es from $18-$28. Dinner Wed.-Sat. 5-10 p.m., Sun. 4-8 p.m. Live music on Wed., Thurs. and Sun. u39 Main St.,Chester. 845-469-8272 or www.maggiesinthealley.com