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Maxi-ed Out 

It can't be the food that makes this tiny bistro stand out.

Specials, like this seafood dish, are among the highlights at Maxi's. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Specials, like this seafood dish, are among the highlights at Maxi's.
The ambiance is urbane. The portions are large. And co-owner Gilbert Brenot, with his silver hair and resonant French accent, cuts a dashing figure in his crisp chef's whites. Presumably, this is enough for the diners who crowd into this tiny bistro night after night. Because when it comes to the food, Maxi's leaves us unimpressed.

The lackluster fare was surprising, given Brenot's extensive experience. The French-trained chef came to Cleveland by way of Germany and New York in 1985, and has worked at some of the city's best-known restaurants, including Giovanni's and Lockkeeper's Inn. He joined partner Max Condelli at Maxi's in 1998, and since then he has helped the restaurant develop a large cadre of regular customers.

Part of the draw has to be Maxi's intimate interior, a grown-up space free of frippery or kitsch. Despite its location in the heart of Little Italy, the bistro eschews most of the tired Italian restaurant clichés. While there's no escaping the eternal Sinatra, there are also no checkered tablecloths here, no candles in Chianti bottles, no red-white-and-green banners fluttering from the ceiling. Instead, the decor is spare and simple, with worn wooden floors, subdued lighting, and a black-painted ceiling. A mere handful of tables, bare save for heavy white linens, share the space with a long wooden bar. Black-framed European advertising posters, neatly lined up along white walls, add the only splash of color. At the rear of the room, the culinary crew toils in a small, unglamorous open kitchen. At the front, little windows peek out onto the sidewalks. On Friday and Saturday nights, Brenot opens the door to a long, narrow staircase, leading to a tiny upstairs dining room; here sits another scattering of tables, along with carpeting and brighter lighting, but it's unpretentious just the same.

The menu, too, clasped inside an artful black-and-silver cover, is trim and understated. Sixteen appetizers include the predictable bruschetta, stuffed banana peppers, and calamari, along with a few less common dishes like stewed tripe, escargot, and sautéed escarole. Five routine pasta dishes (with a choice of clams, calamari, shrimp, Alfredo sauce, or tomato-basil sauce) and eight gourmet pizzas round out the regular offerings. Weekly specials -- generally steaks, chops, and seafood or fish -- are printed on a separate half-sheet of paper and clipped into place.

But while the offerings are not exactly cutting-edge, prices are altogether modern, with pastas in the $11 to $19 range and a 14-ounce veal chop checking in at $32; add a simple mixed-greens salad with balsamic vinaigrette, and the tab goes up by another $6. Not that savvy diners would complain about such prices, if quality and value supported them. But when a $19 Shrimp Pasta dish contains only four overcooked crustaceans, along with a smattering of underripe tomatoes, a few capers, and a couple of quartered artichoke hearts, blandly sauced in a dab of butter, the value simply isn't there to justify the cost.

Still, despite what eventually devolved into a series of disappointments, our meals at Maxi's began promisingly enough, with crusty warm epis (slender baguettes shaped to resemble stalks of wheat) from nearby Presti's bakery and a zesty blend of olive oil, grated cheese, and cracked black peppercorns and red pepper flakes, for dipping. We followed that up with one of Maxi's oversized appetizers: a platter of tender, slightly astringent sautéed escarole, lushly perfumed by garlic, olive oil, grated Parmesan, basil, and tomato.

We fared less well with other starters, though. Large rings of breaded and sautéed calamari, tossed in fresh tomato-basil sauce, had such fine fragrance and eye appeal that even a squid-squeamish companion had to snag himself a forkful; too bad that, beneath its well-seasoned breading, the calamari proved rubbery and tough. A fresh mozzarella and tomato salad, with balsamic vinaigrette dressing and a chiffonade of basil for garnish, could have been good, if only the tomatoes had been in season. And a huge platter of lovely mixed greens, topped with thick shavings of sharp Asiago and thickly sliced prosciutto, also missed the mark. The prosciutto was unusually salty and sour, and a dressing of balsamic vinegar, with the slightest hint of oil, was too acidic to bring the dish into balance. After a few bites, we picked out the cheese and ignored the rest.

Maxi's small international wine list has been thoughtfully assembled to complement the mostly Italian fare. Bottle prices on the main wine menu typically fall in the $26 to $32 range; an additional listing of select wines, with mouthwatering tasting notes, checks in at $85 to $150. With Brenot's prior approval, guests are also permitted to bring in favorites from their own wine cellars, but doing so isn't likely to save much cash: Diners who BYOB will find a $15 corking fee has been added to the bill.

Pizzas are popular in the bistro, and we debated long and hard between a white Funghi Pizza, with sautéed garlic, roasted red pepper, portobellos, and mozzarella, and Gilbert's Pizza, with tomato-basil sauce, ricotta, prosciutto, and kalamata olives, before settling on the latter. In retrospect, it was a bad choice. The same almost offensively sour prosciutto, now cut into tough cubes and paired with whole pitted, cured olives, made for a dish so aggressively salty that one slice was all it took to make our mouths feel burnt and raw. And leftover-pizza lovers, take note: We took our leftovers home for further study, but by the time we got there, the crust had become so soggy that we had no choice but to send the remainder of the $18 dish on a final trip down the garbage disposal.

Now wised-up, we stuck to the specials when we paid our second visit. But despite our caution, the meals were only marginally better. We made out best with a special of blackened Cajun-style salmon, with a delightfully tongue-tingling coating of spice. Beneath the generous filet was a bed of moist white and wild rice, perked up by finely diced peppers and creamy whole-grained mustard sauce. Unfortunately, we hadn't been asked how we wanted the salmon prepared, and it arrived slightly overcooked for our tastes. Twin pork chops, served on a mountain of buttery mashed potatoes, had been even more harshly treated. One chop was tender, but the other was disappointingly tough and overcooked. And a final insult came in the form of a sugary red onion and port wine sauce: Sticky-sweet and applied in abundance, it masked any nuance of flavor in either the meat or potatoes.

Maxie's staff isn't shy about sending non-reservation-holding guest-wannabes on their way, although those who have planned in advance can anticipate a friendly welcome. Still, service seemed to falter as the place filled up. Especially on a weeknight visit, our hard-working server -- who did everything from taking orders to filling glasses -- seemed to be ever more deeply in the weeds; thus, we did without water refills and endured an inordinately long wait between the time she removed the entrée plates and the time she returned to ask if we were interested in dessert.

Of course, our reply was in the affirmative. After the other letdowns, we felt a sweet ending was definitely in order, and here Maxi's delivered the goods, with an exceptionally moist homemade tiramisu, soaked in dark rum, generously cut, and neatly presented on a grid of chocolate sauce and raspberry coulis.

It left a nice, mellow feeling on our tongue. But in our heart, it was too little, too late.

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