Maxwell's executive chef Matt Colony. Lui Kit Wong/The News Tribune.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Drop-In Dining is a restaurant dining report where reporters drop in unannounced and sample the food, on TNT's dime, then report what the scene and the food were like. Have a suggestion for a Drop-In Dining feature? E-mail us at email@example.com.
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WHERE: 454 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma (Walker Building) 253-683-4115
DETAILS: Major credit cards, www.maxwells-tacoma.com
HOURS: 4-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 4 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays (closed Sundays in winter)
By Craig Sailor
The News Tribune
The scene: Open since last April, Maxwell's is a dining destination where both the menu and the setting exude loads of style. A dramatic entrance quickly scales to an intimate, inviting dining area. Completely remodeled from its former self, it's now tastefully decorated in muted tones and well-directed lighting. A bar and lounge area are slightly separated from the main dining area.
People in the kitchen: Matt Colony, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in London, heads Maxwell's kitchen. A veteran of Gordon Naccarato's Pacific Grill in Tacoma and Beach House in Purdy, Colony says his style can best be described as rustic. He eschews complicated presentations in favor of comfort food and simple flavors.
Drinks: My meal started with pain – a delightful, sadomasochistic type of pain that arrived in the form of a margarita. The "What's the Password" rocks margarita ($10) is rimmed in salt after a jalapeño is run around the rim. After the first sips, my lips began to peel, but I couldn't stop drinking. Made with Patron Reposado, lime juice, muddled jalapeño and a fraction of the sugar that you'd find in a Puerto Vallarta bar, it is a multilayered concoction of salt, sweet, tart and pain.
Another of Maxwell's 10 specialty drinks, the Metro ($10) was a big hit at our table. Made with Prosecco, elderberry liqueur and a lemon twist, it's reminiscent of a champagne cocktail and a sweet, festive way to begin dinner.
An extensive wine list features mostly Washington and Oregon wineries with a few offerings by the glass. Wine lovers should circle Tuesdays on their calendars. All bottle selections are reduced 30 percent.
The menu: Colony changes his menu every season. Winter's menu debuts today, but some items from his fall menu (which we dined on) will be carried over or translated to new dishes.
Starters: Maxwell's antipasto ($16) was a collection of three semisoft cheeses, two styles of bread, salami and paper-thin prosciutto. Going into winter, Colony will offer the plate as a special with prices based on that day's meat and cheese selections. Rogue River blue cheese and Cypress Grove's Humboldt fog are favorite choices, he said.
The hearts of romaine salad ($7, white anchovies additional $1, sautéed prawns, $5) came with marinated tomatoes, sourdough croutons and shaved grana in a white wine garlic dressing. With the addition of the anchovies, it veered toward being a Caesar. But the dressing was sweeter, and the tomatoes gave a different take. The croutons had just the right bite, and the big shaves of Grana, a hard Italian cheese, lay on top like a fallen house of cards.
A roasted acorn squash bisque ($8) was topped by a pear chutney, crisp sage leaves and drizzled with walnut oil. The medley of flavors and textures was layered and nuanced. Highfalutin comfort food is how one of my dinning companions described it.
Our drinks weren't the only thing that arrived on the rocks. Three Puget Sound Kumamoto oysters ($7) arrived on the shell in a bed of pebbles. The chilled rocks kept the shells stable so none of their precious liquor could spill out. It was a nice touch. A light white balsamic vinegar mignonette and seeded lemon accompanied the plate as well.
Entrees: Maxwell's calls these "signature plates." A daily list of special entrees and appetizers accompanies the main menu.
Maxwell's makes a delectable coq au vin ($19). A game hen came in the traditional burgundy sauce with a mushroom, pancetta and country-style brioche stuffing. The occasional chunk of pancetta gave a porcine contrast to the bird, and the very large brioche reminded me of chicken and dumplings – if you squinted. Baby carrots and parsnips rounded the presentation. This dish will be replaced by a seared duck breast entrée on the new menu.
Apple wood-smoked pork rib chops ($22) came with a ginger-apple sauce and an apple cider reduction. The flavor was intense and sweet. Colony is replacing this with a cider-brined grilled pork loin on the winter menu.
Potato-crusted cod ($19) was an unusual presentation to the white fish. A specialized Japanese peeler cuts potatoes in a circular fashion that shroud the cod. The tender fish was delightfully encased in its crunchy potato coating. Accompanied by a bok choy slaw, house-made tartar and malt vinegar buerre blanc, it became a highly evolved fish and chips (minus the chips).
Another fish dish, a sockeye salmon special ($21), was prepared with flying saucer-shaped cippolini onions. The entree was sweet but not overly so. Even the roasted garlic was like candy.
Just when I was thinking Maxwell's menu has a sweet tooth, I was corrected by the arrival of peppercorn and herb crusted ahi tuna ($27). The fish was seared on the exterior and sushi raw inside, as the ubiquitous dish is usually prepared. But while many restaurants resort to a cloying sauce, Maxwell's treatment is savory and spicy. The accompanying beets and whipped potatoes added depth to the presentation.
Dessert: After a filling dinner, a shared pineapple bread pudding ($7) was all we could handle. Using brioche dough, the dessert was served warm and topped with cinnamon, whipped cream and a vanilla bean glaze. Dried cherries put it over the top and made it a temptation worth giving in to.
Service: First seated near a doorway the hostess happily offered us another table when we voiced our displeasure. Our server was personable and knowledgeable about the menu. We never felt like he was giving the company line but instead his own suggestions based on our preferences.
We did not leave Maxwell's feeling unloved. Service was attentive, almost to a fault. More than once someone swooped in to remove a plate before we were done. I did appreciate, however, how one server materialized out of thin air 1.3 seconds after I finished my margarita to offer me another. But I declined. There's only so much pain a guy can take in one night.
Happy Hour: $3 draught beer, $4 well drinks and deals on wine and lounge menu food make this an attractive time of day for the thirsty and hungry crowd; 4-6 p.m. weekdays and Thursday 9 p.m. to close.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541