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.

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