Monday, November 17, 2008

This Maxwell is 'Smart'

I’ve always been an avid fan of the old TV show-turned-hit-movie Get Smart, particularly of its protagonist, agent Maxwell Smart. And while he may not always get the girl or foil a world takeover plot like Smart, Paul’s Palate finds no mission impossible when it comes to seeking out fantastic fare. This starving spy went undercover to sample the oft-praised gourmet cuisine at Maxwell’s 148 in Natick. Would this prove to be a ‘smart’ decision?

With its cream and bronze tiles, crystals chandeliers, velvet curtains, and hydro rock gardens, Maxwell’s upscale, yet inviting ambience is luxuriously feng shui. It’s a surprisingly successful blend between the opulence of the Oak Room and the relaxation one finds in a day spa. For spies like us, this atmosphere could sabotage our entire mission. After all, there is literally no dirt to be dug up here (from the tiles to the tables, Maxwell’s interior is utterly pristine). Nor does there exist the opportunity to conduct our covert operation here: the wonderfully affable, super-attentive wait staff left neither a napkin unfolded nor water glass unfilled. The copper plated menus were also a lavish touch that did not go unnoticed during this spy’s supper surveillance. How could I possibly maintain my cover when I was instantly made to feel so special?

While Agent 007 may prefer his martini prepared in a universally known manner, this agent prefers Maxwell’s Fig 148, a unique cocktail consisting of house infused vodka, Kahlua, Cointreau, and topped with a subtle layer of cream. It’s a moderately sweet, light cocktail whose daring combination of licquers left Paul’s Palate shaken, but not stirred.

Appetizers provided a nice start to the evening. The heavily hyped Pho Max soup achieved maximum points for taste: the lobster broth subtly brought out the crustacean’s flavor, while succulent shrimp and crab dumplings were nice creative garnishes. Clams in spicy tomato sauce, although prepared on the milder side, were also appealing.

The Italian, Asian, and French-inspired entrees soared. Gnocchi al tartufo was a marvel of a dish, and worth every penny of its considerable cost ($45). While this house-made pasta was filled with creamy ricotta cheese, it was thankfully not nearly as heavy on the stomach as one would have anticipated. The gnocchi was well complimented by an abundance of beautifully cooked, succulent chunks of Maine lobster, whose sweetness was balanced by the tartness of ethereal shaved summer truffles. My wife’s grilled Portobello mushrooms were perfectly prepared in a sweet ginger-soy sauce and accompanied by crispy Indonesian noodles, whose crunchy texture provided a nice contrast to the mushroom’s silkiness. Another dining companion lauded the Catch in a Bag, which consisted of a flaky, buttery cod with shrimp stuffing, Asian vegetables, and hoison glaze. What was the secret to transforming a rather ordinary tasting fish into something extraordinary? Maxwell’s kitchen staff takes the innovative approach of cooking and presenting the fish in rice paper. Ancient Chinese secret, indeed.

Dessert served as an exciting finale to our appetizing adventure. Our knowledgeable, patient server strongly encouraged me to order the banana caramel cake. This concoction resembled a superior version of sponge cake, which was spiked with licquer, stuffed with gooey, baked-in bananas, and doused with rich caramel sauce. It was light, decadent, and for this spy, worth dying for.

Following his perilous mission, Paul’s Palate believes the ‘smart’ money would be on dining at Maxwell’s 148. Sure, price-wise, it’s bit of a splurge (cocktails average $12, appetizers $12-14, most entrees from $25-30, and steaks at $45). For eclectic, sophisticated cuisine and top-of-the-line service bordering on pampering, however, this is money well spent (3-course $29.99 prixe fixe meals during the week are also worth checking out). Free parking in the rear of the building certainly helps matters. To quote an old James Bond film title, one should Never Say Never Again to Maxwell 148 when seeking that special occasion dining destination. It’s no secret that this restaurant has accomplished its culinary mission.

Monday, November 10, 2008

This Vintage Leaves Sour Taste

When West Roxbury’s Vintage opened its doors a couple of years ago, its arrival had South Shore diners abuzz. After all, an upscale, yet affordable steakhouse was a rare find (no pun intended). Vintage also lived up to its very definition: its ambience and fare were characterized by excellence, maturity and enduring appeal. Well, save for the last part: co-owner Jeffrey Fournier, who heads the highly esteemed 51 Lincoln in Newtonville, abruptly parted ways with the restaurant’s founding owners, leaving Vintage with a bit of an identity crisis and ultimately forcing its short-term closure. It now boasts a new ownership team, a revitalized menu, and even cheaper prices. Would Paul’s Palate find that this particular Vintage has aged well over time or would this establishment leave a sour taste in his mouth?

One thing is blatantly obvious: Vintage’s menu selection has undergone a drastic makeover. In lieu of quality cuts of steak tailored for the more carnivorous crowd, Executive Chef Brian Roskow and Sous Chef Claudinei Desouza have opted for a more eclectic selection of culinary offerings that include a variety of pastas, pizzas, meats, and seafood. These meals are presented as ‘family style dining,’ and the menu has more of an American Italian feel to it than its predecessor’s New American theme.

Vintage should be commended for its attempt to serve Halloween-inspired cocktails. Those that we sampled, however, were downright ghastly, as both concoctions possessed exorbitant amounts of straight alcohol while lacking any distinct, sweet flavor.

Appetizers were only a slight improvement. Calamari fritte were thankfully not overly fried and doughy, and yet were disappointingly bland and forgettable. Sam Adams-steamed mussels fared much better and the ale-flavored broth made for a wonderfully succulent, soppy dipping sauce for accompanying pieces of buttery garlic bread. My lone complaint of this dish was that it lacked muscles – ahem, mussels, since three shells were mysteriously devoid of the tasty mollusks.

Entrees were equally hit-or-miss. My wife’s veal parmigiana (sans cheese given my wife’s dairy allergy) was lightly breaded, lean, and perfectly cooked, not to mention the zesty red sauce in which it was slathered. A companion and I, however, order woefully overcooked seared rare ahi tuna (our deeply apologetic server informs us that the kitchen has had continuous problems that evening preparing this dish). In addition, a heaping side of ratatouille, while tasty, was an awkward, heavy pairing that simply overwhelmed the tuna’s light consistency.

Desserts, however, almost made this reviewer forget the evening’s prior culinary miscues. A flourless molten chocolate cake erupted with piping hot chocolate, and was one of the finest I’ve consumed in recent memory. For the more health conscious, a champagne-soaked pear doused with caramel and whipped cream was a light, yet comforting consolation prize.

Although its prices are better than ever (appetizers from $8-12, most pastas and meats ranging between $15-25), Vintage’s overall value appears to have depreciated over time given the substandard quality of its food. Clearly, its fare lacks the confidence and experimental touch of Fournier, its former proprietor. If tradition is what the new owners are staking their claim upon, their dishes must shine. Unfortunately, Paul’s Palate has found that Vintage’s initial, promising luster has worn off.