Maie Day Makes Its Mark on South Congress
Chef Michael Fojtasek’s new hotel steakhouse is a playful addition to Austin’s dining scene
Michael Fojtasek wants me (and you) to know that Maie Day is not your granddad’s steakhouse.
“It’s supposed to capture the playfulness and spirit of a backyard gathering,” says Fojtasek, the award-winning, James Beard-nominated chef behind Olamaie and Little Ola’s Biscuits. “It’s eschewing the classic notion of the steakhouse; we call it a community chophouse. Steakhouses are one of my favorite genres, but I think they’re dated. They were kind of built for, you know, old white guys.”
Fojtasek is speaking my language, and not just because we’re talking about massive hunks of meat. As much as I love the nostalgia factor of a classic steakhouse, I too find the actual thing to be a bit oppressive and fusty, as well as bank account-depleting.
“This is taking everything I love about steakhouses — the simplicity of offering approachable, familiar dishes — and serving them in a big, bright, airy space,” says Fojtasek. Even the bar program, overseen by J. Endress, beverage director for MaieB Hospitality, gets lightened up, forgoing what Fojtasek calls the “dark, heavy, brooding cocktails of a traditional steakhouse.”
Maie Day, which opened, appropriately, on May 1 in the former Central Standard space of the South Congress Hotel, is Fojtasek’s fourth venture for his MaieB Hospitality group and his second collaboration with New Waterloo, the company behind some of Austin’s most popular hotel and restaurant properties, including La Condesa, Otoko, Sway and Hotel Ella.
In 2021, New Waterloo asked Fojtasek to be consulting chef on their revival of Butler Pitch & Putt on Barton Springs Road. The alliance proved so enjoyable that he didn’t hesitate to sign on to opening a 150-seat steakhouse in the South Congress Hotel, despite a tight turnaround.
“I’ve been wanting to do a place like this for years,” he says. “ and my team work so well together, and in this case, we were able to roll the existing Central Standard staff into working at Maie Day. I’ve had so much support from everyone. It’s phenomenal.”
Fojtasek is also sentimental about the truly spectacular interior and exterior murals by local artist Xavier Schipani. “They define the space, and they’re really special to me,” he says. “Xavier is the artist I think most defines our city at the moment — connected in so many ways of its past through people and previous work, but also representative of the future by way of the concepts he represents.”
I’ve been a huge fan of Fojtasek since meeting him and Olamaie co-founder Grae Nonas in 2015, when they were named Food & Wine Best New Chefs. I’m not even exaggerating when I say the restaurant was a motivating factor in my relocation to Austin from Colorado. But, Maie Day isn’t Olamaie 2.0, nor is it Southern. (Maie is the name of Fojtasek’s grandmother, mother and daughter).
“They share similar flavors and the menus change seasonally, sometimes more than once.” Fojtasek says, noting that he’ll be working with many of the same Texas farmers, ranchers and fishermen, including Steelbow Farm, Eden East Farm, Animal Farm and Austin Orchards.
“While my priority is quality over locality, we’re trying to rebuild those farmer relationships that were lost during the pandemic,” he adds. “It’s been challenging, because they had to find other ways to sell their crops, so many of them pivoted to CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) and don’t have enough to supply restaurants right now.”
All of the beef is from Texas, sourced from Peeler Farms, Dean & Peeler (“The best beef in Texas, in my opinion,” says Fojtasek), 44 Farms and Ranger Cattle. (I would be remiss not to drop that rancher Josh Eilers received an overhaul on the current season of “Queer Eye”).
Seafood, including seasonal Gulf shrimp and the daily whole grilled fish special, are all sourced from Gulf day boats to ensure both pristine quality, as well as responsible marine resource management. The restaurant purchases from Ben McBride of Heritage Seafood.
All of this seasonal bounty is showcased as raw bar items, unfussy appetizers like smoked fish dip, cold shaved prime rib and crab salad with benne crackers, and sides such as creamed corn, grilled tomatoes, a “bloomin’ onion,” creamed greens and a wonder called “Funeral” potatoes, a midwestern spin on the scalloped variety.
Mains include a grilled half-chicken, a daily butcher’s cut and the usual steakhouse suspects like ribeyes and filets. Desserts, from former Olamaie pastry chef/MaieB hospitality director Jules Stoddart, are large-format cakes and a cookie tower.
“My goal was never to reinvent anything,” says Fojtasek. “It’s just simple, familiar basics, relentlessly well done.”
Since engaging the community and sharing the pleasures of the table are at the heart of Maie Day, it’s a fitting end to this story to note that when I ate there eight days after the opening, I ended up sharing a meal with a complete stranger. I’d just finished the crab salad (which comes with the teeniest, tiniest, cutest bottle of Tabasco) when a hotel guest sat next to me at the bar.
In keeping with steakhouses everywhere, the portions at Maie Day are substantial, so when he asked me how my sides were, I offered him some of my sorghum syrup and butter-glazed carrots. Then, he suggested I try his raw halibut starter with buttermilk, pickled strawberries and spring onion. Later, I insisted he share my slice of chocolate layer cake with caramel, benne seed, raspberry and coffee Chantilly, because it was the size of a house.
As I was getting up to leave, one of the servers told me that he’d been watching the two of us share our meals. “I can’t wait to tell Chef,” he said excitedly. “This is exactly what he was hoping for when he came up with the concept for the restaurant.”
That reminded me of something I’d asked Fojtasek about earlier in the week. I wanted to know what it was like for him to open a conceptually different hotel restaurant, when his background is in independently-owned fine-dining establishments.
“I’ve never been one to not buck a challenge,” he said. Lucky us.