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Maximo's: Over the Counter 

A rejuvenated Italian bistro is cooking again after a long Katrina hiatus.

It's nice to see Maximo's open again. It's good to see chef Paul Cattoche's rack of lamb, spicy crawfish Diablo pasta and the roasted fish on the menu. It's welcome to see the return of another popular and missed restaurant since Katrina, and especially to have another fine-dining option in the lower French Quarter. Most of all though, it's nice to see the kitchen, and at Maximo's, there's no missing it. Maximo's was closed for about two-and-a-half years following Katrina. New owners, led by local real estate investor Vincent Marcello, bought and resuscitated the place late last year, evidently striving to change as little as possible from what seemed like a successful formula before the storm. They tracked down and hired back Cattoche, and he was able to round up many of the restaurant's former staff in time for a February 2008 reopening.

For all the inevitable little knits and changes that did occur, it is remarkable how much has remained exactly the same, or as close as my memory will allow. There is the 1980s design vibe throughout the place that feels more genuinely preserved than self-consciously retro, something emanating from the blond woods and stark marble counters. The most striking feature, of course, remains the wide-open kitchen, lined by a dining counter where guests can sit at swiveling chairs bolted to the floor and surrounded by high-backed booths looking down at the action going on over the grill and at the prep stations.

This uniquely open cooking environment puts its own stamp on the food, which is simple northern Italian cuisine rendered from excellent ingredients and prepared with minimal flair. The menu focuses on grilled meats and seafood and a handful of pastas with scant local influences and evidently nothing to hide.

For newcomers, a perusal of the dishes taking shape just a few feet away is more instructive than reading the menu or trying to follow the long monologue of specials the waiters admirably memorize and recite above your head. One night, we watched the sous chef fillet a halibut, slicing away a huge side panel of the headless but otherwise intact fish. Of course, we had to try it. It was like ordering dinner from the fishmonger. In the time it took to drink a glass of wine, we were enjoying the crisp crust the kitchen had added and the flaky flesh that remained moist and flavorful beneath.

When you sit at the dining counter, you see it all. You see the quart of Brown's Dairy cream the chef pulls out to prepare the Diablo sauce. You see the dash of salt, the draining away of fat and cooking liquid, the deglazing of pans. But I didn't notice when they added all the black pepper. The seasoning is basic but it can be very heavy, and in some cases overbearing. On one visit, every dish we ordered positively throbbed with it.

Overly aggressive pepper and the occasional weakness for overcooking meats are the two main pitfalls here, but they have proved the exception rather than the rule on recent visits. On the nights when everything came together right, we thrilled over the fresh, clean flavors of dishes like sautéed calamari, exquisitely tender in a light tomato sauce, and roasted shrimp that got spicy heat from habanero oil and retained an audible pop under the tooth. Pleasantly bitter al dente spears of asparagus were swaddled in coppa, a spicy cousin to prosciutto, which was crisped like bacon on the grill.

The king of the menu is the rack of lamb, and the sight of one of these large portions being finished on the grill " with its eight bones spread regally toward the kitchen vents and with flames licking its edges " makes it very difficult to resist. A combination of roasting and grilling puts an herb-flecked crust on the exterior, while the interior remained a juicy medium rare as ordered. The jewel in the crown is a dollop of the house specialty pepper jelly, a spicy mint relish that is the kitchen's answer to every mint jelly that has ever degraded a good serving of lamb.

Lighter and more varied but equally impressive is the queen of Maximo's menu, the mixed seafood grill. The precise components change frequently but usually include a combination of local finfish and shellfish. One night featured lemonfish with enormous butterflied shrimp and diver scallops. There was not much on the seafood besides grill marks and a squeeze of lemon. The scallops shone especially well through this treatment and kept both the light marine flavor and the ethereal texture that is their birthright.

The open-kitchen format ensures a clean, efficient and remarkably disciplined kitchen environment. On every visit, the staff performed like a well-oiled machine with none of the tantrums or hissy fits that cooking-based reality TV would have us believe is de rigueur behavior behind a kitchen's closed doors. Even when the kitchen is very busy, there's no cursing, no slamming of pans or barking of orders. And somehow everything gets done anyway.

click to enlarge Diners enjoy the cuisine and view at Maximo's open kitchen. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Diners enjoy the cuisine and view at Maximo's open kitchen.
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