8314 Chapel Hill Road, Cary
There's a subtle punk-rock feel to Maximillians Grill in Cary. I know, Joey Ramone is turning over in his grave, but it's true. The marble tables in front, the Paris posters on the walls, the dark wood and white tablecloths in back, all this is just dress-up: a hipster in his Sunday best. It's what's going on in the kitchen, backstage, that defines the place. Maybe that's why it was the pick of a server at our previous Food Chain selection, Wasabi.
The menu is aggressive, and the food has a devil-may-care attitude. Though I don't have a backstage pass, I imagine the kitchen is a rockin' place. Sizzling, spicy, a little dangerous. I hope the man who makes my Voodoo Tuna wears a black bandanna and ripped jeans.
Michael Schiffer, founder/proprietor/chef of Maximillians (and the brand new Terra Nova), does nothing to discourage my fantasy. His restaurant's catch phrase is "Exceptional service. Adventurous menu." What kind of adventure does he want a diner to have? "I want them, love it or hate it, to remember it.... If I set the bar at this height of expected intensity, I know I'm going to lose some people, I'm not going to hit that mainstream palate all the time. But I will get the people we should be getting at Maximillians."
It is easy for Schiffer to be so cavalier about his clientele. Though he has no formal training, he achieved wild success in the early '90s when he opened Maximillians in its original location on Buck Jones Road. "I got to town in 1991 with about six pasta dishes under my belt, knew how to make a pizza. My wife and I had little or no experience in the business—she was a waitress—and within five or six months I was chef of the year, and we had six or seven other awards. There was no rest after that. We had two-hour waits, every night. We could close for a month, not tell anyone we were going to close, and then open a month later, and still that night, again two-hour waits."
It all sounds like heady times. Schiffer tries to find a comparison. "When we first got to town, somebody came up to us and said, 'You guys have to try this place [Humble Pie]—they've got a bunch of lunatics downtown.' And I said, 'Well sure, OK, that sounds just like us,' we were just like a pirate ship, we just didn't have the patches or parrots. I went down and talked to them, and sure enough man, that place was loony tunes. The waiters just did everything except cuss you out, and you just went back for more. We had a lot in common with them."
At the former Maximillians location, they'd work up each night's menu in the mid-afternoon and print it out just before the first seating. "We had an Asian market that opened up. I used to go over there—let's say I'd run out of spinach, or had to go and get some more eggplant—I'd run over there and see a jar, or see something, in a tub, and if it looked savory or if I just picked it up and squeezed it or smelled it, back it came. And then we'd do the session at 4 o'clock, and we'd just wedge it into this sauce, and see how it goes. And it was successful nine out of 10 times."
A kitchen fire sent the Buck Jones location to an early grave, and with it some of the chaos. The second and current incarnation is on Chapel Hill Road in a modest row of stores just off Maynard. Gone are the last-minute ingredients, the daily menu, and presumably some of the more foul-mouthed employees. Just like Humble Pie, the place has grown up. The vibe is refined, the menu permanent, and now executive chef Edward Krynicki mans the helm.
This is not to say Schiffer's concoctions won't still blow you away. Voodoo Tuna (above) has been a house favorite for years. Schiffer was about to re-open Maximillians when one of his new chefs challenged him to make a bold new dish. So he went back and looked through the thousands of old handwritten menus he'd accumulated over the years.
"There it was: unusual, imaginative," he says. "It went ballistic, and now we can't do anything else. I've got 30 other tuna dishes, you know, but this one ... the star anise, basil and everything, it's coming at you." (He agrees that his greatest influence is probably Thai food, though he'd never eaten Thai before coming to Raleigh.)
Other favorites are an addictive grilled Caesar salad and a raucous dish called Sea Monkeys on Parade that sends giant prawns swimming through a scalding bath of green curry—with just enough coconut milk and jasmine rice to calm the waters.
It's hard to escape your successes. One might think Schiffer would rest in the safe harbor of Maximillians, but the captain of this pirate ship hears the siren call. This month Schiffer is opening Terra Nova next door to Max's. "I'm going to be getting my chef shoes on again here and flying like I haven't done in years, so I'm looking forward to that. We're going to call it 'tapas-style,' whereas Max's has always been 'world cooking.' I particularly like equatorial styles of cooking. I don't like to sit there with a pastry bag of salmon mousse, [piping it] into a trout. I'd rather take a whole fish and whip up some amazing sauce."
The best meals he's ever had tend to be straight out of a Real Simple magazine shoot: He recalls a peasant lunch on the Sea of Galilee with cheese, bread, fresh fruit and a glass of wine . . . "[or] the best set of oysters I ever had at the Union Oyster House in Boston." Though he hails simplicity, he also credits Chris Schlesinger at the East Coast Grill in Boston with introducing him to complex flavors: "He just grabbed onto anything that was vivid, punchy and had the acid and the push and the aromatics flying at you, and the heat was a launching pad for all this." He most respects "the guys who can handle a chili"—Schlesinger, Norman Van Aken, Anthony Bourdain.
Locally, he loves the bar at Sushi-Thai, and when he goes to Pho Cali, the tiny Vietnamese restaurant on Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, he tells them to "light me up" and they bring him his own plate of spices. Humble Pie is on the list: "I love to go there with my crew. Any time they want to give up that spot, let me know."
But for his Food Chain pick, this outspoken chef has one true favorite in the Triangle. "I had a dessert that just about floored me a couple of weeks ago. It was one of those things that you wake up the next morning and say 'What the hell?' It was a sensory overload, disorienting kind of thing. I've had those kinds of experiences there on nearly every one of [their] courses. Anybody who has that push to put that minimalistic, New York, edgy kind of thing here, that's great." Any guesses?
Go toward the light.