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At 800 Maple, a restaurant heads for starring role

Before I was appointed designated eater, “dinner theater” brought to mind a place for eating baked chicken while actors murder Hamlet. Lately, I’ve started to consider the ways all dinners are theater. It’s why a waitress calls a stranger “hon” and smiles, even though her feet hurt. It’s how a fine dining server can make your party feel special, in a room full of people getting the same treatment. Or deliver a line that makes you cringe, like the server at 800 Maple who congratulated me on choosing a drink with the enthusiastic smarm of a car salesman pushing the extended warranty. On another night, I might not have thought it worth mentioning. But my dinner at 800 Maple found an otherwise excellent restaurant where a small misstep stood out, so please take my criticism in that vein.

The A-frame building was a Four Seasons and a sports bar called Divots before it became 800 Maple in 2005. Owners include Henry Gorino and Chuck Mauro, restaurateurs behind Siena, Rocco’s and, before its 2014 sale, Oliver’s, plus a future place at 905 Elmwood Ave.

Its renovation two years ago freshened up a room that splits the bar from dining room with a sort of twig fence. It’s upscale, with paper-covered white tablecloths and logoed wine glasses. High ceilings meant that I never had to raise my voice to talk to my tablemates.

The bread basket started us off with white and wheat bread, and lavish crackers topped with an intriguing combination of black sesame, fennel and other seeds, served with a deeply flavorful spread of roasted red peppers and artichokes. Chef Charles Mallia’s menu draws from Italian and steakhouse canons, with a strong comfort food streak and pizzas emerging from a wood-fired oven that flickers behind a counter. It’s a familiar formula, but still capable of surprises like pozole, the Mexican stew ($7.95). This was chicken-based, lighter than the usual pork preparation, and served piping hot. Plenty of chicken and tortilla strips, plus lively green chile and cilantro on a base of hominy and fresh corn kernels, made it an engaging starter.

Another success was a pair of fat, seared scallops with a salad of celery, leeks, fennel and red grapefruit supremes ($15.95). The faintly astringent vegetables, green coriander oil and a burst of citrus made a fine foil for the rich seafood. A pair of stem-on artichoke hearts, dredged in Romano panko crumbs and pan-fried ($13.95) and served on dressed arugula with lemon and capers, were a tender treat.

A “surf and turf” pairing of crabcake and pork belly ($13.95), served with golden raisin puree and a refreshing apple salad, was less satisfying. A deep-fried crab patty was decent, not loaded with filler, but the pork’s top meat layer was chewy as fruit leather.

Truffle fries, sweet potato fries (both $8.25) and mac and cheese ($9.25) were spot-on comfort food sides. The truffle version, smaller-caliber for maximum crispness, were dressed with a judicious amount of fragrant truffle oil, the sweets sticky candied batons. Mac and cheese was firm spiral pasta in cheese sauce, browned under a broiler, indulgent even without the proffered lobster upgrade.

Our Louie pizza ($16.95) offered puffed, crispy edges with the right amount of chew, on a pie loaded with moist-enough sliced chicken breast, spinach and a kick from sliced stuffed peppers. We made sure to pack the leftovers.

Entrees were good to great. A venison special ($47.95) had two rib chops cooked perfectly to rosy pink, paired with roasted carrots over pesto. The meat’s subtle wild edge was overshadowed by the accompanying cherry jam, so I left it off. Tough little tendrils were still attached to the carrots. A pork roulade special ($28.95) wrapped stuffed loin with bacon, artfully executed and moist enough, but the mushrooms were leathery.

A rotisserie-roasted half-chicken ($22.95) offered plenty of moist meat and bronzed skin over buttery mashed potatoes with properly al dente green beans. It was the original Sure Thing Entrée, done well. A special of striped bass fillet was the hit of the night. Seared skin-down in cast iron inside the wood-burning oven, it was served over Israeli couscous, with orange sauce and shaved fennel salad. Crackling-crisp skin and tender flesh, framed with bright citrus and the faint licorice crunch of fennel, it kept our forks scrabbling till it was gone.

It was worth saving room for desserts ($8.50). An outstanding lemon curd tart with a shortbread crust offered a buttery, less-puckery take on the classic. A brownie-cookie hybrid served warm enough to melt its scoop of ice cream won favor with the chocolate contingent.

Other than triggering my smarm allergy, service was excellent, with spent dishes disappearing and silverware swapped swiftly.

During my visit, I saw an operation close to the top rank of area restaurants. In the four years I’ve been paying close attention to local restaurants, I’ve heard many more diners talk about Siena, its sister restaurant. Now I’m not sure why.

800 Maple - 8 Polished menu with savory surprises packs one of Amherst’s finest restaurants.

WHERE: 800 Maple Road, Amherst (688-5800, 800maple.com)

HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday dinner.

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $10.95-$15.95; pizzas, $16.95; and entrees $22.95 to $47.95.

PARKING: Lot.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.

800 Maple: Amherst hotspot is mostly excellent » Continued on Page 12