Open Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m. AE, CB, D, MD, V. Reservations. Prices: Dinner main courses average $9.50; lunch main courses $4 to $6. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $25 a person.
I want the good old days back, at least one good old day last February when Maxine's was new and gloriously good. I started the evening upstairs with a glass of wine before the fireplace, undoing the snarls of rush-hour traffic in the comfort of a sofa. Moving downstairs to dinner, I was seated on a deep rust silk banquette with delicately embroidered gold geometry. The tables were set with elaborately folded napkins and tiny silk buds in pottery vases. The textured off-white wallpaper was muted background to highlight brilliantly colored abstract paintings, paintings worthy of the attention they drew. The room is small, intimate, but opened by the stairway to the second floor lounge. It joins Da Vinci across the street as one of the prettiest of Washington's new interiors.
Against the soft classical music and formal setting, the service was awkward, unpracticed, but this was, after all, a new restaurant and trying terribly hard to please. The spirit was willing.
The menu is Swiss and small, with eight main courses, three of them veal, two beef, two pork at $9.50 each, and a combination platter, which is $12.95. The appetizers, all $3.25, include snails, frogs legs, tartar steak and a cold plate of Swiss air-dried beef, prosciutto and salami. Two soups ($1.75), two salads ($2.75) and a couple of desserts each day round out the menu. Supposedly, there are daily specials of fish and game, but I found no such, except the admission that there was a fish dish available for nonmeat eaters.
Right away Maxine's kitchen ingratiated itself with homemade bread, dense and crusty country-style white bread that hinted of mountain villages. And the tartar steak was mildly spiced lean beef artistically arranged with olives, capers and onions rings, accompanied conscientiously with toast wrapped in a napkin. Snails in herb butter were competent. And more highlights were to come. The kalbmedallion was slightly misguided; though the veal was stellar quality and soundly seconded by fresh mushrooms in a robust brown sauce, the garnish of canned white asparagus added nothing, and cold bearnaise on it detracted from even that. But a filet provencal, unimaginative as it sounded, was a superb cut of meat, thick and crusty and rare, well peppered and enhanced by tangy spiced butter melting over it.Most remarkable, however, was the vegetable accompaniment, an oval platter carefully laid with six fresh vegetables: snow peas, green beans, carrots, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and rosettes of whipped potatoes, all cooked with precision and appropriately seasoned. Dessert offered nothing more adventurous than strawberries and melon balls with layers of whipped cream, but the fruits were ripe and the fresh cream unsweetened, and all was well. I left under the enchantment of the vegetable plate.
Another day, another visit, lunch this time. The service lagged among the crowded tables. The win was forgotten. But the oxtail soup, a strong, meaty clear broth with tiny cubes of meat, and the hearty leek and potato soup reinforced my enthusiasm for Maxine's. Lunch offers salads, omelettes, casseroles and three meat entrees, plus several daily specials. The wiener schnitzel was fine homestyle cooking, the veal still high quality, in a buttery crisp bread crumb insulation to retain the juices, well seasoned with pepper and lemon. But a vegetable casserole needed rethinking. It was well-browned puff of egg, a kind of souffle, studded with cubes of vegetable. Maybe seasoning would have saved it, for none was apparent. But the vegetables were soft and tasteless, the whole thing like something for a hospital bland diet. Ah, well, one takes a few flaws in stride. The salad was a painstaking still life under a well-made creamy golden dressing. And dessert -- fresh strawberry sundae and cooked apple ring with ice-cream -- refreshed and revived.
But Maxine's has drifted from its first rush of idealism. By late March that stunning vegetable plate had been reduced to a dish of sauteed potatoes with peppers and onions, and cauliflower, both overcooked and tasteless. The backsliding was not all-encompassing; the sauces on the frog's legs and the pork chops were distinctive, and the appetizer plate of cold meats showed the familiar artistic touch. The dried beef and ham on it were excellent and with the homemade bread would itself have made a superlative light meal. But after the appetizers, I began to worry about the future of Maxine's. First, the main courses came before we finished our appetizers. Second, the Swiss wine the waiter highly recommended was overpriced, insipid and served warm. The pork chop, though deliciously blanketed with fleshy wild mushrooms, was thin and dry. And on the Swiss butcher plate, that once-superlative filet was dry, the pork chops tough and the veal both dry and tough. Dessert became a necessity to quell remaining hunger. The orange mousse looked an elegant fluff in an orange shell; cake roll poised against whipped cream and slice of lime. But somebody forgot the sugar in the mousse and was stingy with flavor. The cake was no better. The most I can say for the finale was that the waiter attended graciously to our coffee even long after we paid the bill. The coffee at Maxine's is called Viennese and is flavored with cinnamon. An alternative of plain coffee would be welcome. But I don't want to confuse the issue. It would be enough for Maxine's to start back at the beginning.