Last night I was a guest at Maximo Cocina Mexicana & Margarita Lounge's Media Night. Being wined and dined is a perplexing situation to be put in when you have to write about it afterward. As the night progressed, however, despite the VIP treatment, subjectivity came surprisingly easy. While the positives at Maximo deservingly command attention, it would be difficult to ignore some of the restaurant's missteps.
That Maximo was holding a Media Night 16 months after first opening is telling alone. Owners Mark Maguire and David Knouse made no secret of the restaurant's beleaguered traffic flow. Tucked deep inside a shopping center behind the gargantuan shadow of the Galleria, the restaurant struggles with visibility. This is a shame. The restaurant's space is striking and grand, resembling a 19th century hacienda with contemporary finishing touches. The bar--dark, intimate, and masculine--is the antithesis of the bright and capacious dining area. Antique replica chandeliers and sienna-hued walls and drapery add to the dramatic look of the restaurant. Although the grand scale initially may be intimidating, their large banquets and overstuffed chairs are perfectly inviting for a long and festive dinner.
The theatrics extend beyond the décor. My dining companion and I started off the evening with Maximo's signature cocktail, the Heat Margarita. While the name of the drink could use some work, it's a very literal moniker. Slices of jalapeno are muddled in a tumbler, and then joined by a mixture of tequila, non-alcoholic triple-sec and lime juice. Dices of jalapeno are thrown in as both garnish and fair warning. While this potent concoction should be an instant hit for those who are fans of anything spicy, it's a must-try experience for everyone.
Finishing up our tumblers of fire, we ventured over to the stately banquet room to begin our journey through Executive Chef Amador Mora's menu. In an anecdote told by both of the restaurant's owners, Chef Mora was the non-negotiable cornerstone upon which the restaurant was built. With his success as the creative chef at the Uptown upscale Mexican restaurant, Trece, Maximo's owners knew that Mora was exactly what they needed for their concept of high-end Mexican cuisine. Through persistent cajolery, Chef Mora eventually came on board as both a partner and as executive chef.
The menu is Chef Mora's celebration of both traditional Mexican dishes and Tex-Mex. The restaurant's calling card is the menu's expansive coverage of the various Mexican regions, ranging from the Yucatan to the Oaxaca. For our meal that evening, we would be sampling signature dishes starting from appetizers and ending with desserts. However, the meal really began with Maximo's trio of salsas and dips, which consisted of a sweet pineapple salsa, smoky charred tomato salsa, and creamy jalapeno dip. While the charred salsa could have used a bit more heat, (especially since the pineapple salsa is sweet), the jalapeno cream was sublime. Like most wonderful things, the jalapeno cream was surprisingly simple, an accidental discovery in the kitchen when Chef Mora combined pureed jalapenos with olive oil.
Our first course consisted of Chef Mora's lobster nachos, Empanaditas, and guacamole. For two dishes that Mora considers to be his signatures, the lobster nachos and tableside guacamole, this was the weakest course of the meal. To his credit, he did not have guacamole-making duties for the evening. All the heat that was missing from the charred tomato salsa appeared in the guacamole, overwhelming the beautifully buttery avocado. While the nacho miraculously retained its crispness despite the mound of melted cheese atop the chip, there was a glaring lack of lobster meat, at least in the piece that I was given.
The soup and salad course fared much better, as I and the diners sitting in my vicinity all agreed that Maximo's gazpacho and citrus romaine salad were the highlights of the entire meal. Presented with a soup duo of sopa de tortilla and gazpacho tapatio, the gazpacho proved far superior between the two. For a restaurant that prides itself in being an upscale celebration of Mexican cuisine, the tortilla soup was disappointingly bland. The gazpacho, however, was a bright and refreshing fete for the palate. I almost wished that I could have ordered an entire serving of the heirloom tomato, cucumber, sweet peppers, corn and crabmeat chilled soup.
Our salads came out shortly after we finished up our soups. Of all the dishes we sampled, the salad was the most surprising. Romaine Hearts, grilled pineapple, oranges, tomatoes, onions, and Gouda are lightly tossed in a ginger cilantro vinaigrette. At first bite, the ginger packed too much punch. However, as the initial shock of ginger mellowed in my mouth, the rest of the flavors of the salad began to sing.
Chef next presented our group with an entrée trio: Salmon Californiano, Aguja al Cazo short ribs, and his wife Alberta's chicken and spinach enchiladas. Unfortunately, the entrees were hit or miss. Our salmon was overcooked, and the bed of sweet corn mash sitting below the salmon was overly sweet, resulting in a bizarre, almost licorice-like aftertaste. The enchiladas were just that, enchiladas, but the beans and rice accompanying them were well-made. By far the most exciting entrée of the three was the braised short rib. The short rib, itself, was seasoned well and cooked perfectly fork tender, but what made the dish outstanding was the truffle chimichurri sauce. I believe I mumbled, my mouth full, something like, "I could drink this stuff out of a goblet." The only failed component of the dish is the side of chipotle mac & cheese. The distracting coloring and flatness of the side rendered it completely superfluous. Granted, the short rib needs a side component, just a better one. The grilled asparagus that accompanied the short rib, however, was appropriate and appreciated.
Our meal ended with a family-style dessert platter of Crepas de cajeta al fuego, bomba de chocolate, and Texas peach & basil sorbet. Of all three, the sorbet was the most delightful, if only because of the warm Texas summer evening. The chocolate cake was appropriately moist and rich, but if I had to order a dessert at Maximo in the future, I would stick to either the crepes or the sorbet. The crepes, filled with caramelized bananas and rum-spiked pecans, while delicious, needed a bit more sauce both to keep the dessert moist and to make it complete.
The most obvious comparison to Maximo would be Trece, with the latter possessing several blessings the former does not, namely location. Yet the foundation of Maximo Cocina Mexicana & Margarita Lounge are all in place; only time will tell if that foundation should be altered. It is a beautiful restaurant, with accomplished restauranteurs at the helm, and an equally successful and talented head chef in the kitchen. Maximo is an ambitious restaurant, but whether all parties can repeat their past success remains to be seen.
Maximo Cocina Mexicana & Margarita Lounge 5301 Alpha Rd., Suite 80 972-233-5656