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Richmond Times-Dispatch
Flair Features
Gateway Virginia

Chef Maxwell's has extra special eclectic cuisine

Thursday, May 27, 1999

By Jody Rathgeb

The menu announces, "Chef Maxwell's . . . A Richmond Restaurant," but that's an understatement. Chef Maxwell's is more than a restaurant. It's a dining experience brought on by much skill in the kitchen.

The food's the thing here. Yes, there's a lovely atmosphere, but the Experience comes with the flavor.

A nice range of flavor is offered. Starters ($5.25-$8.95, also called "small dishes" on the

menu) include soups such as Creamy Tomato and Shrimp Bisque, salads and such appetizers as Stoneground Grits Spoonbread and Pan Seared Scallops. "Middle dishes" ($7.50-$12.95), which can be light entrées or heavy appetizers, offer Grilled Salmon, Grilled Breast of Boneless Chicken and Roasted Portobello With Garlic Crust and Olive Oil. Among the entrées ($19.25-$24.50) are Grilled Seared Tenderloin, Mushroom Crusted Pan Seared Speckled Trout, Veal Guglielmo and East Virginia Crab Cake.

Value shoppers are no doubt noticing that prices edge toward the high end.

At first I thought so, too. But value addresses whether you get your money's worth, and with the food at Chef Maxwell's, you certainly do.

Those trying to keep the check modest may, however, want to skip wine. The list here is decidedly high end, ranging from $25 to $92 per bottle, excluding the champagnes. Wines by the glass cost $5 to $9.50. Our friend Steve found some very nice selections for us during our visit, but if you're looking for that $20 bottle of wine, you'll search in vain.

But let's get back to the food. Because there were four of us, we were able to do a large sampling . . . and not one dish drew criticism.

Our starters were Cucumber Gazpacho With Giant Lump Crab ($5.25), Sautéed Cultivated Mushrooms ($8.95), Caesar Salad ($8.50) and Crab and Roasted Pepper Cheesecake ($7.50). Each was big enough to substitute as a meal for a light eater.

Tom's gazpacho was fresh and chunky, more a

salad than a cold soup. The refreshing blend of cucumbers and tomatoes (tasting almost as good as in-season, from-the-garden ones) was topped by a generous scoop of crab meat to make it special. Steve's Caesar salad, prepared at tableside, was classic and good, he said, although he thought its $8.50 price tag was too high. He particularly liked the homemade croutons -- no doubt cut from the restaurant's excellent bread, made on the premises.

As for me, the phrase "sautéed mushrooms" seemed woefully inadequate to describe my appetizer, which combined several types (portobello, button, porcini) in garlic truffle butter with herbs. This mushroom-lover was in heaven. Nevertheless, I would have gladly traded for Marci's savory cheesecake, which had a wonderful roasted/smoky creaminess and was accompanied by a mini salad.

In addition to the aforementioned bread, our basket included what was possibly the best cornbread I have ever had; it was actually creamy!

We spent so much time tasting and savoring that we emptied our first bottle of wine, a Syrah from Argentina ($26). Figuring that we were definitely here for the evening, we ordered another wine, Chateau Larose Trintaudon ($30.25), and went on to the entrées.

Most of our main dishes were traditional ones, but their flavor, size and accompaniments exceeded expectations. The most standard, Roasted Angus Prime Rib ($24.50), was a slab of meat prepared to order and teamed with mushroom grits and herbed vegetables. East Virginia Crab Cake ($22.50) featured three creamy cakes

along with braised collard greens and delicate patties of rice combined with puréed or finely chopped scallops. Remoulade sauce completed the dish.

Steve's Piccata of Summerfield Farms Veal ($21.75) had plenty of the capers and lemons that define the dish, plus something more: tiny fava bean gnocchi that offered intense bursts of flavor.

My dish, the most unusual of the batch, was Chicken and Blue Crab Soufflé ($19.75), presented as a layered cylinder about the size of a soup can. This came with three sauces: a standard demiglace, adobo sauce (a reduction plus chipotle pepper) and applejack cream. All these ingredients combined peacefully instead of warring with each other, and the result was terrific.

Dessert? Of course! Tom and I shared Bread Pudding With Bourbon Sauce and Black Walnut Cream ($6.50). The bourbon-soaked pudding was dense and moist, tasty enough by itself; Tom said the thick walnut cream (from which I abstained because of an allergy) added yet another dimension.

Another dessert on the menu sounded too over-the-top for me: Virginia Maple Creme Brulée With Gingered Cream and Persian Lime Drizzle ($6.95). Yet Steve and Marci shared it, and when I took a taste I realized what I should have learned from the rest of the meal: Chef John Maxwell is one of those few who can do eclectic cuisine the way it's supposed to be done. True, creme brulée doesn't need anything extra . . . but here it was extra-special.

Maxwell himself visited each table briefly -- a nice touch, especially when the restaurant bears his name -- and as the Saturday evening wore on the pianist and singer were joined by other musicians for a mellow performance. Sated and happy, we were allowed to linger in the classy comfort.

About the only jarring part of our visit was the uneven service. Everyone was quite attentive, but the waiter kept confusing who ordered what and there was little help -- even a bit of condescension -- when the restaurant was out of the first wine Steve tried to order. It fell to him to re-study the wine list and find another Syrah; shouldn't they have suggested it?

These brief lapses in training -- or perhaps a personal bad day -- would not, however, prevent us from returning to Chef Maxwell's. As Steve put it, "I'd come back here in a heartbeat."

The Times-Dispatch pays for Jody Rathgeb's meals on her unannounced visits to restaurants.

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