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Chef Maxwell combines regional ingredients with classic cooking techniques to create unique variations on local favorites.

Variations on a Theme

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Chef Maxwell's: A Richmond Restaurant
421 E. Franklin St.
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-midnight
649-8599

One of the newest dining establishment downtown is Chef Maxwell's. Located in the "New Orleans" building that was once a bank (among other things) before it was a restaurant — it was the French Quarters before its latest incarnation. The tall, high-ceiling room needs little to enhance it except good lighting, the architectural detail of the room and the handsome bar. It's a good room, too, for the mellow jazz that can be heard there each night; the music is pleasant without being in your face as so often it is in rooms too small to accommodate both diners and instrumentalists.

Chef John Maxwell, who oversees the kitchen along with his chef de cuisine, Michael Strautman, is no stranger to the Richmond restaurant scene. He's had previous restaurants and has been actively involved in the training of chefs. Judy Maxwell oversees the dining room. The Maxwells have dubbed their eatery "a Richmond restaurant," I presume because the menu features many regional ingredients and variations of local favorites. But Maxwell's menu is personal, and though he uses classical cooking or food trends when they're appropriate, he combines ingredients and finishes in a unique way. As a result, you get some mixed results — some combinations work beautifully; others, you know won't ever be "classics." I'm willing to take part in the experiment.

I thought the wine list might feature Virginia wines to go along with the "Richmond" theme, but the list is eclectic and mostly above $25 for a bottle.

The menu, made fresh each day with a new printing, divides the savories into three groups rather than the usual two: small dishes and starters ($5.25-$8.95), middle dishes ($7.50-$12.95), and entrees ($19.25-$25.95). An example of Chef Maxwell's original approach to traditional dishes is his oyster stew to which he adds sweet and red mashed potatoes. Spoonbread is made with grits rather than the usual cornmeal and adorned with wild mushrooms, asparagus and Asiago-cheese cream, not exactly what we'd expect. I've had fish or scallop seviche — a marinating process which "cooks" the fish — but shrimp works too. A bit of crisp lettuce serves as foil; a few colorful dribbles of pepper sauce and dollops of horseradish mustard add plenty of fire to tame these little cured creatures. Pan-seared scallops finished with lemon-grass fumet and basil over crispy noodles is an Asian turn and works very well. Other starters include house and Caesar salads.

Middle dishes — smaller portions that can serve as a starter or an entrée — are a nice idea for lesser appetites, or for those who are heading to or coming from the Carpenter Center and want a pre- or post-theater supper. These may include grilled salmon, shrimp with rice and lentils, chicken breast with risotto, crab and roasted pepper cheesecake, or roasted portabella mushrooms over greens.

The entrees span the usual range from fish and shellfish to beef. Garlic-crusted tenderloin with pomegranate jus and horseradish potato isn't exactly a traditional meat-and-potatoes dish. Mushroom-crusted trout over greens with black-eyed peas is not quite down-home but close. My "Napoleon" (a traditional dessert gone trendily savory) of eggplant and veal with a Madeira sauce was a tough stack to chew — good flavor but not up to its $21.50 tariff. A mixed grill of tuna (too well-done for my taste) and rib lamb chops came with an interestingly flavored pile of mashed yams and was strewn with a veritable garden of winter and spring vegetables.

There are several desserts ($5.25-$6.95) and after-dinner inducements. A traditional berry tart is fresh and pleasant.

The ample wait-staff is still not well-oiled. We had to ask for bread and a server's eye was difficult to catch.

With soft lighting, votive candles, mellow music and interesting food, Chef Maxwell's has already caught on with some of those seeking a special romantic dinner. And it's a good choice if you're heading to or from the Carpenter

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