Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. MC, V. Reservations at dinner. Prices: main courses at dinner average $8 to $9, light entrees $4 to $5. At lunch 50 cents to $1.50 less.
Umbrellas are coming down, and outdoor tables are being stored away, as sidewalk cafe season ends. But Maxime, though its tables are indoors, has an outdoor cafe style to it that will withstand the winter. Maxime is long and narrow, with a carpet down the center like a fashion-show runway. Its tiled tables are planted among indoor trees and hanging foliage of jungle breadth. A long wall of windows overlooks the new consumer activity of Friendship Heights. Not the Champs Elysees, but representative of Washington's special native charm.
Maxime has been edging from cafe to restaurant in recent months. And while it has been learning from its mistakes, it has more lessons to absorb before it can graduate to a serious restaurant. Its menu started with crepes, quiches, salads, a few sandwiches and a couple of daily specials, casual meals tailored for rapid preparation. The latest menu lists two quiches, two croques, eggs Florentine and salads, but the emphasis is on the dozen substantial main courses, such as braised duck with peas, Dover sole and beef stroganoff, half of them changing daily. Appetizers include clams or oysters on the half shell, artichoke vinaigrette, brains vinaigrette and four soups. The mode has shifted from light suppers to full meals.
The prices have shifted, too -- higher, of course, in most cases. And that intensifies the scrutiny the restaurant deserves in determining not only whether it is good, but whether it is worth its price. Main courses at dinner are now $8 to $9. Oysters or clams on the half shell are $4.25. Soups are nearly $3. That means a three-course dinner with a modest appropriation for wine will cost roughly $20 including tax and tip.
That's no problem if you order knowledgeably and when the kitchen is in good form. The onion soup has the sweet richness of good broth with fresh onions patiently braised, and its cheese layer is plentiful. But the vichyssoise may or may not be flavorful, and its topping of dried chives is like chewing grass clippings. Oysters at $4.25 have no right being small, ought to be of more recent vintage and certainly should not have bits of broken shell clinging to them.
One for three on the appetizers.
Now to mark the main courses. Veal francaise is a simple dish that is highly vulnerable to mistreatment. Maxime takes good care of it. The veal is high-quality goods, pale and properly trimmed, sauteed quickly over heat high enough that the butter crisps the surface but the thin meat is not overcooked inside. Along with it come very good potatoes au gratin. It is the sauteing that Maxime does so well, for a whole boneless trout was also sauteed in butter so skillfully that the skin was crunchy and the interior softly steamed; it was well weighted with buttery toasted almonds. And calf's liver was equally delicious, fresh and delicate, with a well-browned surface and velvety interior, sauced with a piquant splash of vinegar and minced shallots.
But stop there. Actually, it was the cook who should have stopped there, before the scallops were cooked to a toughness that undermined their creamy mushroom sauce. Rockfish, too, was oddly tough, though it did not seem to be from overcooking. In any case, it is clearly the simple sauteed dishes that are Maxime's bid for excellence. Beef stroganoff is a pleasant enough dish as a slightly tomatoey stew, but it lacks the traditional elegance of rare-cooked beef and rich sour-cream sauce. Duck a l'orange also lacked fully realized glamor, though it was semi-boned and well crisped, and its orange glaze was all right; the meat had an overworked, reheated flavor.
You might expect more consistency among the original cafe foods, as well. A spinach quiche was light and creamy, but begged for seasoning, which is hard to adjust at the table for a quiche. It was a large serving, and its puff-pastry crust was reasonably good. The croque monsieur was totally undistinguished in its ingredients and preparation. That the restaurant is trying harder than it originally was shows in the salads. The salade Nicoise was insipid in the early days. Now it is a carefully balanced mound of greens paved with tuna, potatoes, eggs, anchovies, and, instead of the usual green beans, limas (and on one occasion, artichoke hearts). It is an imaginative and generous melange for $4 to $4.50. Spinach salad is both large and pretty, edged with tomato wedges and sprinkled with chopped egg. Even the salad that comes with main dishes is a matter of good greens with raw mushrooms, far better than the watery string beans that are meant to round out the platters.
The wine list limits itself to Californias, a small selection, reasonably priced. It also includes as a special a good buy from France, Canteval, at $6.50.
The culinary focus at Maxime is dessert. At some point you are likely to be drawn to the pastry case to view the assortment, so you will need no encouragement to order one. Trust your eyes, for the fruit tarts are as luscious as they suggest, with well-browned puff-pastry bases, a touch of eggy custard, ripe fruits and berries and a true fruit glaze rather than the tasteless algae glaze that makes most bejeweled tarts shine. The raspberry, strawberry, orange -- all are readily recommended. But pay attention also to the walnut cake, gateau aux noix, an unassuming-looking square layered with cream. It is layers of an intriguing buttery, crumbly wafer, nutty and only lightly sweetened, with a thin smear of whipped cream between each. It is unique, delicious. Somehow the same kitchen produces a chocolate mousse that is uncomfortably close kin to schoolroom chocolate pudding. Put your money ($1.50 to $2) on the pastries instead.
So Maxime is doing a few things well, but continues to do more things than it can do well. While it is true that a respectable French restaurant is desirable in the neighborhood, and its immediate competition (Magic Pan, Booeymonger, Hamburger Hamlet) makes Maxime look awfully good, the no-frills style of service and inconsistent kitchen performance make a full dinner a borderline value at its price level. For dessert, Maxime is worth an excursion. And for the simple sauteed main dishes it proves reliable. But Maxime still needs to stretch to fill the shoes it has chosen for itself.