Today's manly tip for dealing with a wedding anniversary: spread it over two weekends. There's, of course, the dinner out at a nice restaurant in town. And then a weekend visit somewhere else. The reward: unlimited, complaint-free ESPN viewings stretching into the foreseeable future, especially if the dessert at both dinners is great.
I recently put this theory to the test with a visit to Napa Valley (we hadn't been there together, and it's a long drive) paired with a dinner at T.L. Maxwell's. If you've been to Napa, you know the restaurants there are crazy good -- they need to be with that competition. You get to sample uber trendy items such as crispy/toasted gnocchi (a fantastic culinary trend!) and the desserts are typically incredible.
The great thing about T.L. Maxwell's Restaurant & Bar in downtown Bakersfield is that the entrees and desserts are so good, the restaurant would survive even if it were in the middle of the ultra-competitive wine country dining scene. As an added bonus, tell the staff you're celebrating your anniversary and they'll comp the dessert and bend over backwards to make your experience special. They seem to genuinely like people celebrating personal events.
The menu features many wine-based sauces, and like most fine restaurants, there is a regular retooling of the menu. As such, I try to avoid the great choices of the past and investigate owner/chef Terry Maxwell's new inspirations. Thus we ordered the fire-broiled salmon with a port wine sauce ($26.95) and the Louisiana pork ($24.95) with a house Cajun spice rub and creme de cassis sauce.
Everything was great, from the smoky Irish bean soup (heavy with cream and bacon) to both entrees and dessert. Maxwell's strength is his wine sauces, both his inventiveness and his daring. I have had salmon many ways, but never with a port wine sauce, which seemed so perfect for the pink, slightly gamy seafood. The white pork used here was a beautiful blank slate for the sauce based on the black currant French liqueur. It is again one of those startling creations that this kitchen is known for that makes you think, why didn't I think of that combination? I sometimes feel when I order at Maxwell's that I'm in an episode of something on the Food Channel. What I like about the sauces here is that they are complementary without being overwhelming to whatever they are gracing. Nice.
Other menu items worth highlighting are the crab cakes (the menu says "that's what we're known for") and the escargot, which few restaurants serve locally. Also good based on past visits are the chicken piccata, rack of lamb, ANY of the steaks and the pastas.
As I mentioned, T.L. Maxwell's is a master at desserts, many of which are unique, such as the South African pudding called malva that Maxwell sampled on his world travels and adapted. His version uses sponge cake, creme anglaise, apricot jam and solid charm. Nothing puddingy about it. I can't resist ordering it on every visit, but we ventured out of our routine and opted for Paula's Turtle (named after Maxwell's wife), which was incredible. It's a variation on the candy we all know and love, but with a more sophisticated treatment. It has three layers: roasted pecans with thick caramel, a rich-tasting layer of vanilla buttercream, and a dark chocolate ganache. Wow. The perfect end to a meal.
I also appreciate the long story of the history of the space, which for the longest time was called The Office and was owned by a group that included Clyde Barbeau, Tom Jones, Phil Ammenta and attorney Barney Gill. The ambiance is established rather than tacky and old, elegant and perfect for that romantic evening, though the dining room is a bit small. Call it intimate if you want a positive spin, but sometimes the place is so busy we've dined at a table in the bar area. Not much of a sacrifice.
One odd note to share: near the end of our dinner, a party of eight (four couples) came in, seated right near the kitchen. The men were loud, boisterous and looked to have been drinking for hours. The four women were sedate, well-mannered and reserved. Either they didn't get the jokes that the men were laughing so loudly at, or the two sexes had been segregated and spent very different afternoons apart. I sort of felt sorry for the guys, as with that much alcohol I don't know how you could appreciate the art coming out of that kitchen. It would've been like a tone-deaf man listening to Mozart. Or maybe the guys were just trying to clinch that long stretch of ESPN viewing.
T.L. Maxwell's Restaurant & Bar can be recommended for a fine dining experience.