Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining review: Return visits to Maximillians and The Rockford

The signature Voodoo Tuna - a thick peppercorn-encrusted filet served over noodles and snap peas in a coconut-shellfish sauce that fairly hums with the complex harmonies of garlic, ginger, cumin, Thai chiles and cilantro at Maximillians Grill and Wine Bar in Cary.
The signature Voodoo Tuna - a thick peppercorn-encrusted filet served over noodles and snap peas in a coconut-shellfish sauce that fairly hums with the complex harmonies of garlic, ginger, cumin, Thai chiles and cilantro at Maximillians Grill and Wine Bar in Cary.

From time to time, I pay return visits to restaurants I haven’t reviewed in a while. This time around, I drop in on a couple of quirky old friends.

Note: In December 2007, ratings changed from a 4-star scale to a 5-star scale.

Maximillians Grill and Wine Bar

8314 Chapel Hill Road, Cary; 919-465-2455

Last review: 2002 1/2 (out of 4)

New rating: 1/2

When Margie and Will Hennessee learned that the owners of Maximillians Grill and Wine Bar planned to retire late last year, they knew what they had to do. They bought the place.

After all, Maximillians was something of a home away from home for the couple. They had worked at the restaurant, on and off, for some 20 years. They’d met there, and had developed friendships with regular customers dating back to the restaurant’s original location in a tiny converted fast food joint on Buck Jones Road. They were good friends with owner/chef Michael Schiffer and his wife, Gayle.

Schiffer had also become something of a culinary mentor for Margie Hennessee, who was familiar to most customers as bar manager (work experience that is still reflected in Maximillians’ excellent wine selection) but was occasionally pressed into helping out in the kitchen. Like many of the chef’s fans, she was impressed with his maverick style, backed up by an uncanny knack for combining disparate – and frequently spicy – flavors from all over the globe.

It should come as no surprise, then, that there’s a lot of the old Maximillians in the new Maximillians menu. Longtime fans will recognize Schiffer’s signature Voodoo tuna – a thick peppercorn-encrusted filet served over noodles and snap peas in a coconut-shellfish sauce that fairly hums with the complex harmonies of garlic, ginger, cumin, Thai chiles and cilantro.

Hennessee does ample justice to that dish and to other Schiffer creations, including crispy calamari drizzled with a chile-flecked riff on General Tso and sauce served in a fried wonton shell, and a “Korean” BBQ beef skirt steak with a Thai basil-mint-cilantro salad and green papaya slaw. The recurring theme of Asian flavors has roots that can be traced back to the original restaurant’s location next to an Asian market – which the adventurous chef couldn’t resist exploring.

The grilled Caesar remains on the menu, too, reminding us that Maximillians started out as a modern take on a pizza and pasta joint. Longtime fans will no doubt also be happy that Pollo Avanti, a pan-roasted airline breast of chicken served over a ragout of spaghetti squash, eggplant and oven-roasted tomatoes, continues to fly.

All of which is not to say that the new Maximillians is a clone of the old one. Margie Hennessee has dialed back the spice level a notch in a few dishes (“It had gotten a little out of hand in the last couple of years when Michael wasn’t in the kitchen,” she says), and she’s also added a few of her own creations to the menu.

She’s pairing a grilled pork chop with a sweet potato-bacon-gorgonzola-onion pie, sure to win fans as November nights get chilly. She recently added canoe-cut marrow bones with fried capers, parsley and crostini to the starter list, and uses the nightly special to explore new ideas ranging from soft shell crabs in a Mediterranean-inspired broth to a veal chop served with a risotto-stuffed roasted tomato.

The new owners gave the dining room a makeover, too, starting by painting over the old dark cherry walls in a soft pearl gray hue. Will Hennessee’s mother’s China dishes hang on one wall, and a collection of framed black and white family photos on another, giving the place a homelike feel that’s as warmly welcoming as the well-trained wait staff under Will’s leadership.

Sharp-eyed old timers will note that the clock hanging high on the back wall isn’t the same as the one that had formerly hung in that space. That one hadn’t worked for years, and its refusal to behave like other clocks became something of a symbol of Maximillians’ iconoclastic spirit.

The clock that the new owners bought to replace it – repurposed from the blade assembly of an industrial fan – echoes that spirit. And as a bonus, they thought, this one will work. Which it did, according to Margie, for about 15 minutes. Then it stopped – which goes to show, I suppose, that some things just aren’t meant to change with the times.

The Rockford

320-1/2 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh; 919-821-9020

Last review: 1996 (before star ratings were awarded)

New rating:

Once upon a time, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth (okay, it was 1994, but on the local restaurant timeline, that’s prehistory), a spunky little restaurant opened its doors on the rough fringe of downtown Raleigh. The location, in the middle of a six-block stretch of mostly derelict businesses and abandoned warehouses on Glenwood Avenue, was hardly a marketer’s dream.

Then again, marketing was clearly not a priority. Signage was so minimal you had to look closely to know that a restaurant existed at this address, and once you found it you had to climb a flight of stairs to get to it.

Word got out, though, and eventually the local restaurant critic got wind of this little upstairs hideaway and its quirky menu of small plates (before small plates were a thing, mind you) and sandwiches. After a couple of visits (during which the critic joined the growing list of fans of the signature ABC sandwich – apples, bacon and cheddar on powdered sugar-dusted grilled whole wheat), he shared his happy discovery with his readers.

The Rockford has changed hands a few times over the two decades since that review – even closed for a couple of months back in 2010, before being rescued by longtime fans – but the menu and the funky vibe of the place remained relatively unchanged.

Until last year, that is, when current owner Jay Wellons gave the restaurant a makeover. Wellons retained period details such as vintage French doors and hardwood floors, but painted the walls in muted shades of sage green and butter yellow, and hung them with paintings from his personal collection. The result is a look that’s more refined than before, but still casual and cozy, with windows overlooking Glenwood South adding a little romantic sparkle.

The view – of a street that has, over the course of The Rockford’s existence, been transformed into a vibrant nightlife destination – also explains the menu’s dramatic changes. Gone is the ABC, along with most of the other old favorites on a menu that largely catered to alternative tastes. In their place is an offering aimed at contemporary palates. With options ranging from wild-caught NC shrimp po’ boy to Blue Ridge country ham flatbread with Goat Lady Dairy fig and honey chevre, the offering is as trend-conscious as the crowd on the street below.

Even the few dishes that survived the menu overhaul have been updated. Pimento cheese has been amped up with habanero cheddar and Benton’s bacon, now served as “minis” (aka sliders) on marble rye. The Cubano sandwich actually contains mojo-marinated roast pork now, and blackened fish tacos have been upgraded from tilapia to mahi on flour tortillas with pineapple-jicama slaw.

But The Rockford hasn’t entirely lost its nonconformist spirit. Now that small plates are a thing, the restaurant that was among the first in the area to introduce the concept has dropped the category from its menu and added a section devoted to entrees. Under that heading, in addition to the obligatory shrimp and grits, options include a rosemary-encrusted organic chicken breast; bone-in Cheshire pork chop with apple bacon chutney; and grilled flank steak with chimichurri. A recent special featuring grilled salmon over spaghetti squash in coconut sauce was a keeper.

For all its changes, The Rockford is still a worthy destination. Service is as welcoming as ever, and bar as well-stocked. The bread pudding alone is worth a stop (and, as your server will inform you, a 20-minute wait). And nowadays, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the place. The entrance is the bright yellow door in the middle of the two-story red brick building with “the Rockford” painted across the top in gigantic script letters.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals.