A restaurant is like a theater. The décor is crafted for the right ambiance. Kitchen crew, service staff and managers train, practice and rehearse to support the star — the food. They play to a live audience and usually have only one chance to impress the paying public. As ticket prices go up, customers' expectations rise. The higher they are, the more training and rehearsals are needed to deliver a fine experience.
Fine dining is the aspiration of Maximo's Spanish and Italian Bistro in Shockoe Bottom. The swank dining room boasts a highly glossed floor, jet-black chairs and crisp, white linens. A large mirror above the handsome, full-service bar makes the dining area feel bigger, but the small tables crowded together dissolve that illusion right away. The best seats are on the patio out back, which has a fountain, potted plants and ivy-covered walls. Add live music on weekends, well-dressed servers and upscale menu choices, and Maximo's exudes fine-dining sophistication.
Unfortunately, our dining experiences at Maximo's aren't so fine. Service and food still need plenty of training and rehearsals. Friendly service is always appreciated, but details are crucial in this setting. For most people, fine dining is reserved for special occasions, and nowadays, the public is especially price-sensitive. When a bottle of wine is out of stock and the server brings a recommended alternative, she should tell us the price difference before uncorking the bottle and pouring full glasses without letting us try it first, as is standard at upscale places. Thankfully, Maximo's charges us the price of the wine we wanted in the first place, which is $6 cheaper.
Then there's the lackluster star: the food. At brunch, I'm intrigued by the Castilian eggs. I assume they're a specialty of Maximo's, but when the server says they're "just scrambled eggs" with choices of topping, I order the chorizo and manchego omelet ($12) instead. With a price tag comparable to upscale brunch menus in town, my expectations are high.
Alas, my omelet turns up Castilian. I'm surprised the chef sends out the mess of scrambled eggs, sausage bits and melted manchego. It tastes of chorizo and not enough eggs. A few minutes later, without my asking, the waitress relays the chef's apology, saying the pan has been sticky. After brunch, chef Maximo Mozo sends a couple of glasses of port to our table, a discreet way to make amends. Apology accepted.
Eggs Benedetto ($11) is a pretty dish of two poached eggs. Perfectly sautéed spinach and paper-thin prosciutto enrich the watery lemon cream sauce, but the croissant is tough, not flaky. Both brunch items are served with a mixed-greens salad.
The tapas portions are small for sharing. Croquetas de bacalao ($7.25), fried breaded codfish, taste mostly of mashed potatoes, eggs and butter or milk mixture, with the codfish barely traceable. Marinated white anchovies ($11.95) are rarely homemade. There are many brands of packaged anchovies, and Maximo's uses a good one. Patatas a la brava ($6.25) are topped with a tasty sauce of chopped fresh tomatoes, garlic and peppers, but nothing about the fried, diced potatoes distinguishes them from diner-style diced potatoes.
Entree portions are generous, but so is the salt. The veal osso bucco ($26.95) is an inch-thick cut and it's braised tender, served with linguini in garlic and oil. Maximo's paella ($38.95 for two portions) is served from a 14-inch pan. Tableside presentation is typically another highlight of fine dining, but only when done properly or with extravagant flourish. Our server merely plops portions on individual small plates. By now, I'm watching everything closely. While the pan is full of saffron rice, the seafood and veggies are sparse for the price, compared with other paellas in town.
Desserts are $6 each. Tarta de Santiago, a classic Spanish dessert, is dry and suffers from too much cinnamon and an avalanche of powdered sugar. Tiramisu and limonata cake both appear to be ready-to-serve commercial products, nothing to write home about.
Maximo's has the potential to fill the void for upscale European dining previously found at Sensi. With neighboring Julep's and Arcadia drawing crowds, Maximo's can benefit from the foot traffic. The attractive space will lure guests in, but the service and food must be as polished, if not more, to keep them coming back. S
Maximo's Spanish and Italian Bistro
14 N. 18th St.
Tuesday-Friday 5:30-10 p.m.
Saturday 5:30 -11:30 p.m.
Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.