Today I return to two restaurants for second bites: Maxwell’s Speakeasy + Lounge, a St. Helens neighborhood restaurant with a new owner, chef and menu, and Zara Mediterranean Cuisine, a downtown Tacoma restaurant newly opened in August.
Maxwell’s Speakeasy + Lounge
Where: 454 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma
Information: 253-683-4115, maxwells-tacoma.com
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight Friday, 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday, closed Sunday
For years, rumors have chased Maxwell’s Speakeasy + Lounge: The restaurant is closing. It’s for sale. The chef is leaving.
Two rumors have proved true in the last 12 months, but the rumor of the restaurant’s closure remains false, thankfully.
Chef Matt Colony left in April. Kitchen staffer Vivian Irish took over as executive chef, but her tenure was short – she exited in November. Enter Leslie Westphal, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who previously worked front and back of house at the Hub (and the Harmon, too), and had stints at the Tacoma Club, and Stanley and Seafort’s.
As for the new ownership, that happened in August when career military chef Steve Anderson bought the restaurant. Anderson, a culinary school graduate, previously worked in fine dining training and service at Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton.
Maxwell’s looks much the same as it has since its 2008 opening – expansive windows and soaring ceilings with jeweled chandeliers lend an airy feel, and romantic lighting makes this restaurant one with smooch-worthy possibilities (except the tables are too close together for even semi-private conversations).
On my earlier visits under the previous owners, Matt Colony’s flavor-drenched food was refined and plated beautifully. Two recent visits showed Maxwell’s in flux. The restaurant’s execution is more casual and accessible. Anderson says, “I want it to be a fine-dining experience, but approachable and affordable – not just date night, you can come in two to three times a week.”
Entree prices hover around $20-$24; a year ago, they soared closer to $30 an entree. A new menu that Anderson was expecting to debut this weekend takes prices even lower, with seven items priced in the teens. Note: The new menu also means that some dishes reviewed in this article no longer will be available.
Service on my visits followed Anderson’s mantra of more casual: It was friendly and efficient, but the staff seemed rushed and less able to answer ingredient questions. One flustered server tried to clear plates before we were finished. On one visit, menus were dirty with food and drink splatters.
When a restaurant changes course to something more casual with a more economical pricetag, I suppose it’s fair to keep expectations of fine dining in check. With few restaurants in Tacoma offering fine dining, I do wish Maxwell’s had retained more of its old polish so that a date night really felt like a splurge in food and service. But the mood of diners has shifted in recent years. Anderson said his changes have resonated with diners and his business has “improved drastically.”
Do lower prices mean lower quality ingredients? Anderson said no, but I did notice cases of subpar-tasting ingredients, which could be explained away as isolated problems, but they’re worth noting here. Grossly stale apples topped a plate of macaroni and cheese ($8); a plate of clams ($11) atop roasted tomatoes and garlic contained several gritty clams, and the wine broth held no trace of the promised saffron.
But the ingredient problems ended there. Ahi tartar ($12) on another visit bucked the trend: The ruby red tuna tasted purely oceanic with a sesame vinaigrette and seaweed salad that offered snappy sea flavor.
The kitchen produced beautiful meat. A beefy tasting and gorgeously marbled ribeye ($30 on my visit, but will be $32 on the new menu) straddled the line between medium rare and rare as requested; mascarpone-fortified potatoes and roasted root vegetables were a perfect sop for an assertive cabernet sauce. Braised lamb shank ($24) tasted positively sublime swimming in a deep demi with a garlicky tangle of chard – I just wish the side of polenta came with less grit and the plate had not had to sit under the broiler for so long that the heat created a skin on the demi. Sauteed duck leg ($20) arrived succulent and tasty, served cassoulet style with sausage and white beans that were a waxy twin to butternut squash.
Two real misses on two different visits left me wondering whether the kitchen was still settling in. Meatloaf ($15) came with a texture more like soggy paté than meaty ground pork and beef, and it had an acidic aftertaste. Overcooked pork chops ($24) tasted dry and leathery, and left me wanting more mustard sauce to add moisture.
A note on the wine list: None was offered until requested, which Anderson said by phone was an oversight. He said under his watch, the Northwest offerings have increased 20 percent and far fewer import wines are on the menu.
Something of note for craft beer fans: Maxwell’s has had a history of featuring hard-to-find, micro-local brews, such as Burris Brewing – a rare find that I appreciatively quaffed on a previous visit in 2010. Maxwell’s continues to have a tap list that is Northwest centric and also features a small brewery getting a lot of local attention: Sound Brewery in Poulsbo.
Zara Mediterranean Cuisine
Where: 1498 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Hours: Open daily for lunch, happy hour, dinner
Phone: 253-572-1222, zaracuisine.com
When Zara Mediterranean Cuisine opened in August, it held promise. It was a new concept for Tacoma: Eastern Mediterranean cuisine with accents from Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece in a fine-dining environment. But three visits late last summer left me wanting. Trouble brewed in that bustling, beautiful, on-display kitchen. Meat arrived tasting too much of smoke, or it was lukewarm, or spongy, or overcooked.
Flash forward six months to two winter visits, and Zara has made changes for the better. The restaurant offers one of the most polished dining experiences in town, with career servers who understand the high points of finer dining, including tableside preparations, effortless prattle on the wine and spirits list, and truly deep knowledge of ingredients, all set in a vibrant dining room of muted copper and chocolates, accented by shades of gold.
The restaurant’s foundation is its shawerma, whole strips of roasted lamb, beef or chicken that is sliced and tucked into papery-thin, layered flatbread called sharak. A first visit during Zara’s fledgling days brought a lukewarm lamb and beef shawerma sandwich ($11) that tasted saturated with smoke. A recent visit found quite the opposite: Fragrant, tender, thinner-sliced meat was wrapped in a heftier pita flatbread that gave the sandwich a much more delicious tug.
At dinner in the summer, lamb chops ($29), grilled in the wood fire pit, arrived chewy and tough, the edges too charred to enjoy. On a recent visit, they had sizzled edges, but with a slippery, velvety interior buoyed by a savory and clingy pomegranate demi sauce. A new dish sampled on a recent visit, a wood-grilled filet mignon ($39), was supple and meaty, the taste of smoke present, but not overwhelming. The roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus accompanying dinner entrees were exquisitely done and the plating was beautifully symmetrical.
On another lunch visit, a falafel sandwich ($8) proved a delicious bargain with thick, hearty discs of spiced, ground chickpeas tucked into a warm pita with creamy feta and tzatziki yogurt sauce. A shish kebab ($13) was permeated with smoke, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as previous visits.
Zara continues to produce deft appetizers. A dip trio ($10) came with eggplant baba ghanouj with creamy nuttiness from sesame tahini paste; the hummous was a tasty whisper compared to the garlicky shout of the yogurt tzatziki sauce.
Dolmades ($7) – narrow, rolled grape leaves filled with fragrant rice, onions and an assertive kiss of lemon – were pleasing with a tender, velvety texture. Tabouleh lettuce wraps ($8) offered bright lemony appeal in the salad made of parsley-spiked bulgar wheat, but they were too wet. Meaty pieces of grilled octopus ($13) nestled beneath a bed of arugula glistening with a lemon vinaigrette, the flavors brightened by fresh mint.
Baklava remains delicious on every visit. I’m convinced the layers of tender phyllo dough serve simply as a delivery vehicle for the perfect rose syrup.
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune.