Maro Wood Grill entices guests with an intimate setting and smoke-kissed food – but don’t worry, the smoke won’t get in your eyes

Story and photos by JENNIFER ERICKSON

There is much to be said for ambience, for walking into a warm, softly lit space on a chilly evening and feeling the stresses of work and the world begin to melt away. This was my sensation upon entering the well-enclosed patio of Maro Wood Grill on a recent evening. 

Since most of Maro’s seating is on the terrace in front of the restaurant, my friend and I had brought layers, fearing a chill. We needn’t have worried. Thanks to efficient heat lamps and an absence of any drafts, a lovely warm glow enveloped us and the other diners. No one needed to shift seats because of an overbearing heat lamp or a cool air current. 

We might have opted to sit inside, perhaps at the small bar offering front row seats to the grill, with its glowing red embers of charcoal and mesquite, where most of the food is cooked. But we opted instead for the magical glow of the patio. Here the background music filled the gaps in our conversation without overwhelming it, and the intimacy of the space encouraged the exchange of a few casual observations with nearby diners, who seemed as delighted as we were to find this haven.

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Hard to believe this intimate setting is an outdoor terrace where diners will soon find a warm haven

If the atmosphere enticed us, the food kept us enthralled. What’s amazing is that even though most cooked menu items are grilled, and even though the grill is plain sight, the only place you encounter smoke is in the delicate flavor it imparts to the dishes. Rest assured, you will not leave Maro smelling as though you’ve been sitting around a campfire. However, from the first juicy bite of a sweet-smoky grilled green bean, you will know that the cook is, indeed, playing with fire. 

Yes, I used the adjective juicy to describe a green bean. Somehow the flames lick the beans enough to char them and seal in the moisture, rather than drying them out. The crunch came not from an overly crisped bean, but rather from a wonderfully fruity salt.

That would be Sonoma coarse sea salt, according to Alex (who preferred not to give his last name) who has owned Maro Wood Grill with his partner Chris since last May (the restaurant has been in operation for eight years). Alex informed us that their aim is to provide an organic, farm-to-table menu with grass-fed beef and other sustainable proteins and, as much as possible, locally sourced ingredients. Hence this ethereal Sonoma, California sea salt. 

That said, quality rules, which is why the organic wines on the menu are Italian. According to Alex, they tried to find organic wines from California and Argentina (since the menu is loosely based on Argentinian cooking principles), but ultimately the Italian organic wines most closely met the flavor profile they were seeking to match their menu.

Our meal started with a couple of the empanadas for which Maro is rightfully known. We tried the beef and the chicken, which both had moist and flavorful fillings with just enough crust to seal in their goodness and to eat them without making a mess when dunking them in an slightly tangy aioli dipping sauce. (Vegetarians will be happy to note that spinach- and mushroom-filled empanadas are also on the menu.)

A sampler plate of the grilled vegetables followed (usually they are separate menu items), and we made quick work of the (aforementioned) green beans, shishito peppers, mini bell peppers and okra, often forgetting to swipe them in tasty a trio of horseradish, sriracha and ginger aioli. Honestly, those mesquite-kissed vegetables were fruity, smoky, juicy and so full of their own natural flavors that the sauces were almost an extravagance.

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The grilled vegetables get a nice char but remain succulent

If you’re in the mood for leafier greens, Maro offers a number of substantial salads that could easily be shared as a side or serve as a first course or a light meal. The couple next to us, visiting from Sweden, said they’d had their fill of meat earlier in the day, so they started with an assortment of empanadas (I mean, if you haven’t tried them, it’s almost an imperative), and then finished with a duo of salads – one with burrata, tomatoes, beets, micro arugula and truffled balsamic vinaigrette, and another with kale, carrots, candied walnuts and house pomegranate dressing.

Beef, pork, lamb, seasonal fish and poultry are all accounted for in the proteins offered for entrees. For this meal my friend and I shared a seared ahi tuna and a grilled rib eye steak. You will find steak and tuna at myriad restaurants in Southern California, but will they be this fresh? Will they play with smoke and fire just enough to sear their outsides, leaving their insides rosy red? More important, will you be this glad that the other components of the dish complement, rather than mask the innate flavors of the beef and tuna? You owe it to yourself to find out. 

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Maro’s signature empanadas are crusty on the outside and moist and flavorful on the inside - to dip or not, that is the question!

And what were those julienned vegetables with the tuna that looked a bit like peppers and onions, but were earthy as well as sweet and velvety rather than shiny and slick? That would be rutabagas, turnips and parsnips, said Alex, solving the mystery for us. “That’s how we turn ugly into beautiful,” he said, referring to the trio of root vegetables as they appear in their natural, rather hoary state.

A bright, housemade chimichurri provided an herbal and acidic counterpoint to the rich, but lean rib eye, and grilled mushrooms and asparagus complemented its grassy profile. At Maro, the meat provides its own decadence, no need for extravagant sauces. A lovely Argentinian Malbec, however, paired quite nicely with the beef.

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Don’t be fooled – the meringue underneath this charred surface is as light as air, floating above a delicate lemon curd and light crust

Admittedly, dessert was not really on our radar by this time, but when faced with a surprisingly light and decidedly not too sweet lemon meringue pie, we rallied. This is not your grandmother’s lemon meringue pie. No gummy, dense neon yellow layer of overly sweetened lemon, and no dense, almost springy meringue on top. Here was a delicate crust smeared with a layer of lemony custard and topped with pillows of barely set meringue. 

Oh, and did I mention that your well-behaved dogs can join you on the patio if they are joining your party for the evening?

Maro Wood Grill, located at 1915 S. Coast Hwy, is open from noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and from noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. It is closed Mondays. For more information, call 949-793-4044, or visit www.marowoodgrill.com.