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Maximo's black paella made with squid ink.
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The carpaccio stands out among the Italian offerings.
I'm a sucker for potential. The idea of what could be is often more alluring than the reality, especially when the initial impression is positive. That was my experience on two recent visits to Maximo's, a beautiful restaurant in a sea of Shockoe Bottom drinking holes that needs some serious editing and a better focus to be successful.
Let's start with the positive. It's pretty. The contemporary décor was a pleasant surprise. I liked the elevated dining area overlooking the central floor space and the impressive bar, which made for great people watching, though the built-in padded benches are extremely shallow. I felt like I was sitting on a shelf, not relaxing into a comfortable dining experience.
The lighting was right, flattering but not too dark. Even the cutlery felt substantial in my hands. The food, overall, was solid, with a couple of standout dishes. The waiter, the same on both occasions, was young and tried so hard to please. His sincerity went a long way toward smoothing over most of the bumps.
The first disconcerting parts of my experience with Maximo's Spanish and Italian Bistro were the name and the menu. We have enough Italian restaurants. Richmond even has some really good ones. I get that there are two chefs, and one wants to do Spanish and one wants to do Italian, but diners don't want to navigate through a mixed message.
I sampled nine items on the menu and wasn't really excited by the Italian options. The Spanish dishes beckoned. A potato small plate with a piquant sauce of paprika, peppers, garlic, onion and tomato was disappointingly lackluster and would have been vastly improved with roasted potatoes that had crispier edges. The marinated sirloin steak skewers described on the menu arrived as skimpy, overcooked bits of pork. This switcheroo, which the waiter unsuccessfully explained away as the more authentic version of the dish, would have been irreparable except for the surprisingly excellent cod croquettes that Russ and I ordered the first time I dined at Maximo's. Don't expect a fish dish; the cod was the flavoring for these fabulous gooey cheese fritters.
Other winners were the carpaccio (wafer-thin slices of tender, rare beef filet served simply with capers and lemon wedges) and the gambas al ajillo, a shrimp dish that arrived sizzling in an aromatic garlic-butter sauce. My girlfriends and I scarfed down the appetizers on a subsequent trip, leaving room for the ample portion of paella, which we split. Full of all the expected and perfectly cooked seafood and infused with saffron, this delicious rice-based Spanish classic lacked the chorizo, chicken and tomatoes of my favorite versions. Nevertheless, it was large enough for the three of us to share and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Dessert was an authentic Mediterranean flourless almond cake scented with cinnamon. It should have been moist and bursting with flavor, but turned out to be dry and not worth the calories to finish. To make matters worse, my pitcher of sangria was so watered down by the overabundance of ice that not even this fruit-filled cocktail of red wine and brandy could rescue the meal's finale.
Thankfully, by the time we were paying the bill, the folksy-jazzy trio whose music had made conversation difficult during the meal finally stopped playing. The sweet waiter mentioned something about the band members being friends of someone connected to the restaurant. Weirdly, they were performing on both of my visits. I found them mediocre and completely incongruous to the atmosphere. The Latin music on the house sound system was a welcome respite, as was the charmingly romantic back patio, where Russ escaped for a cigarette break when he could endure the loud folk music no longer.
Richmonders have a plethora of wonderful restaurants from which to pick, so they aren't always patient while a new place finds its niche. Although the too-shallow bench seating cannot be easily remedied, most of Maximo's other missteps could be fixed easily and quickly with a firm commitment to what they do best.
With sangria, tapas and paella on the menu, Spanish pottery on the walls and live flamenco music in the works, a high-end Spanish restaurant might actually work.