Since opening in February 2014, Beverly Hills restaurant Maude has conceived of more than 400 dishes and changed its menu nearly four dozen times. It’s not that chef-owner Curtis Stone is indecisive or impossible to please; the restaurant’s continual state of flux is by design. Every month for the past 44 months, as you might know, Maude has introduced a completely new menu in which every course revolves around a single seasonal ingredient. During Maude’s first year, it was citrus in February, peas in April, berries in July and tomatoes in September. The only menus that have been repeated are the white and black truffle menus, which have respectively fallen in November and December of every year since 2015.
“It’s one thing to change a menu,” Stone says. “But to change a menu with one ingredient every month? No one does this. It sounds like a disaster.”
Maude’s experiment, however, has been anything but. Reservations to the intimate, 24-seat restaurant, which are offered on the first of the month for the following month and typically range from $100 to $150, often sell out immediately. Some diners have become devoted regulars who return every month just to see how Stone and executive chef Justin Hilbert will craft an 11-course dinner focused exclusively on plums, as the chefs did for the first and last time in August 2016.
But Maude is about to change. The restaurant announced in the summer that it’s doing away with its monthly themed tasting menus in favor of a new concept that will launch at the start of 2018. One reason for the reboot is obvious: “The ingredients are starting to dry up,” says Stone, who already has exhausted beets, strawberries, walnuts, cucumber and basil this year alone. The other reason is that the concept has simply run its course. “When we started it, it was a really innovative, new idea. But now it’s a 4-year-old idea,” Stone says. “We want to do an innovative idea, and we want to do something super exciting to us.”
He’s tight-lipped about Maude’s next iteration — he says he’s waiting on permits for one element in particular. “The new format is going to be just as challenging,” he says.
Before they call the old concept quits, Stone and his team have decided to give themselves yet another challenge: Distilling their last four years of work into one final “greatest hits” menu, which will run throughout the month of October. (The last two months of the year will be devoted to truffle menus, as usual.) As difficult as it might have been to theme an entire menu around parsnips or fennel, selecting just a handful of dishes out of hundreds and arranging them in one cohesive meal is arguably even tougher. Picking one favorite dish is “like choosing a favorite child,” Stone says. “There are also the dishes that you kind of don’t even remember, which is sad in a way. You look at it and you’re like, ‘I don’t even remember doing it.’”
On a Wednesday afternoon in late August, the staff of Maude is gathered around a conference table on the second floor above Stone’s other restaurant, the year-old Gwen in Hollywood, to critique every menu they’ve ever conceived. The menus are archived in a giant binder along with photos and ingredient lists for each of the dishes. Some menus, like peas or asparagus, which were both originally served in the spring, are ruled out immediately because their ingredients are out of season. Ben Aviram, Maude’s director of restaurant operations, says he doesn't want to lean too heavily on past October menus like apple, chicories and pear, which might seem like a cop-out.
Then there are the dishes that used their month’s ingredients so creatively that they were confusing to guests. Take the barbecue octopus with pickled tomatillo that was featured on the berry menu from July 2014, for example. “We came for the berries. Where’s the berries?” Stone says, repeating a common complaint he heard from diners. “We try to be a bit playful,” says Aviram, pointing out that the tomatillo in that dish is technically “botanically a berry.” The restaurant’s inventiveness meant that the rhubarb on the May 2014 menu might come whipped into a sorbet in one course and dehydrated and served like a celery stick with a chicken wing in another. “In the early days, people expected a whole artichoke” on their plates, Stone says. “Like, ‘I came for the artichoke.’”
Ironically, one of Maude’s most controversial dishes was the pizza on the July 2017 basil menu; Aviram says some guests objected because it was the penultimate course, which at Maude is typically reserved for a cheese course. Another dish was problematic because of its odor. The appenzeller broth, from the apple menu, “was delicious but it made the dining room smell like farts,” says assistant general manager Diane Zeluff. “It created a ruckus.”
The corn menu also was challenging for guests, particularly because of mashups like corn ice cream and frog leg gorditas. “I never want to do a squash menu again. I never want to do a corn menu again,” Stone says, ruling them out of the greatest-hits compilation. His reasoning? “Fatty ingredients and sweet ingredients are the hardest.”
Avocado, for instance, is so fatty that it’s hard to transform it into a different texture. “You couldn't do much with it. You can’t juice it,” Stone says. But there are plenty of dishes that the staff at Maude do like: “Duck, duck, goose,” a playful pasta dish with duck egg, duck breast and smoked goose fat from the citrus menu; mortadella with focaccia from the pistachio menu (“I couldn’t stop eating that mortadella, I think I put on five pounds that menu,” Stone says); the hen egg from the chili menu (or what Aviram calls “one of the strangest all-around menus” and certainly the spiciest); lobster from the grape menu; and borscht from this year’s beet menu (“I think we all thought it was the best menu in a long time,” Aviram says).
Then come the logistical questions, which quickly turn existential: How much can a dish be tweaked from its original format? Can the staff ban substitutes for meat dishes without pissing off the regulars? How many courses can be served, how long will it take to eat them, and what can Maude reasonably charge for them? If the last seating gets pushed back to 9:30, would anyone book it? “If it was marketed as 20 courses of the best of the best sort of thing,” Stone muses, “can we charge $300?” By the time the staff convenes at the restaurant several weeks later to taste-test the greatest-hits menu, they’ve settled on a compromise: They’ve turned some of their favorite protein dishes into bite-size snacks, allowing them to bump the meal up to 12 courses, which increased the price to $195.
“As we picked our favorite dishes over the years,” Aviram says, “funnily enough, we tended to pick the luxury proteins.” Those include octopus, caviar, Montana brook trout, Maine lobster and Wagyu beef — several of which are prepared as snacks.
Aside from the “duck duck goose,” the hen egg served on a bed of pulverized Fresno chilies with crème fraîche and crispy baked potatoes is easily the standout. But at the tasting, Stone isn’t completely satisfied with the dish, which came out hotter than he expected. “We removed the seeds, we removed the pit, it’s still fucking hot,” he says. It was fine for chili month, when diners knew what they were getting into, he says, but not for a menu intended for a wider audience. The dish gets sent back to the kitchen for a subtle tweak.
The lobster, which is wrapped in sorrel leaves, grilled on a hibachi and served in a thick grape sauce, needs a rework as well. Stone says the sauce is too sweet and that there’s too much of it on the plate. It’s an easy fix. Like every dish on the menu, this is one that the chefs have already prepared hundreds of times before. But at a restaurant as precise as Maude, even the greatest hits have to be perfect.