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PETE TITTL: Tradition continues at Horse in the Alley

Usually when a restaurant is as dependent on the chef/owner as T.L. Maxwell's was, the business struggles when he leaves. Maxwell, a former city councilman who has moved on to a radio talk show career on KNZR, worked in the kitchen and always came into the dining room when he owned and operated his downtown restaurant for over 18 years, and his natural interest in food manifested itself into a restaurant that was regularly on the Best in Bakersfield list.

When he left, the restaurant was renamed Horse in the Alley and new owners Jason and Beth Browder (who took over in 2018) have made a lot of smart decisions along the way, keeping the classic retro atmosphere of this historic spot as well as a simple but intriguing steak/seafood menu and an alluring wine list that makes it perfect for special occasion dining. And as we visited on a recent weekend night, we saw Jason following Terry's habit of greeting the customers, walking from table to table to personally check on the dining experience. I would not have thought Terry Maxwell could be replaced so easily, but the new owners have followed in the tradition he started. As we walked in, we heard Frank Sinatra singing "Strangers in the Night," and a more perfect music choice for this atmosphere could not be found.

First let's get a few things out of the way. Reservations are a must. The place is just too small, the hours too limited. We counted seven booths and six tables (some that seat six or eight), and all were full on the night we visited, with one couple dining at a table in the bar. You can go to the restaurant website and request a reservation or call after 4 p.m., but I just wouldn't go without them.

Also, the listed prices can throw you. I mean what kind of entrée sells for $175? (That's a 20-ounce lobster tail and filet mignon dinner with cognac cream sauce for two.). The steaks are $50 to $65, pretty standard for quality beef in a restaurant nowadays. And the pasta, chicken and seafood items are in the $20 to $30 area.

On our visit, I chose the rack of lamb ($50), while my companion selected the lemon drop grilled salmon ($35). I should note that the menu listed the lamb at $42, but with the inflation we've been living with the price was actually $50 on the tab at the end of the meal.

We resisted getting any of the specialty drinks or a bottle of wine, and my companion ordered a glass of Lange TwIIns chardonnay from Oregon ($7) while I picked a glass of the Troublemaker Red blend ($10) from Paso Robles. Both were complex and a decent value at that price, and we did notice other decent wines on the bottle list at $28 to $32, many from the Central Coast. 

When Mike Stepanovich used to rank restaurant wine lists in town, he always had Maxwell's high on this list, and it's great that the Browders are keeping that tradition going. In addition, they have a substantial list of scotch and Irish, American and Canadian whiskeys. You will have alcohol options here.

I was a tad concerned by the name of my companion's salmon entrée, envisioning all the lemon drops I consumed in movie theaters rather than the common martini, which I've never really tried. It was, thankfully, not sweet at all, and the salmon was grilled perfectly, with a thin layer of avocado laid on top after cooking before the sauce (which had some dill) was applied. My companion thought the avocado got lost in the process but given the fact that I can't recall a dish where either of us said the avocado ruined it, I found that entirely forgivable. It was served with a respectable rice pilaf and the kind of steamed vegetables we remember fondly from Maxwell's: carrots, broccoli, zucchini. A spray of herbs served as the final presentation touch. Well done.

My entree was available either as a rack or lollipop style, and being lazy I chose the latter, having the kitchen do the cutting. It featured the kind of sauce great lamb needs, a rosemary-merlot sauce that the menu says has "a hint of mint," and I was just grateful as I could be that it was a hint as the sauce just elevated that meat the way a great sauce can.

You could see bits of the rosemary spiking out of the chops as it was presented, and it convinced me that though mint is a standard accompaniment to lamb, rosemary, as with chicken, is always delightful. And the baked potato here is thick and moist and nearly perfect, enticing my companion's fork regularly.

Our waiter was Gil, and he is one of those veteran restaurant experts that is a complete asset to the operation. After a greeting, he warned us what was not available from the menu that night, mostly tuna items and the lobster medallions. He spoke in a soothing voice, seemed to have everything always in hand while shuttling around to his tables, was knowledgeable about the food and wines, always giving the customer the impression they were in good hands. In short, the kind of server a high-end restaurant should have. I will bet he gets regulars requesting seating at his tables.

In the restaurant business, the small details separate the good from the great, and Maxwell was always good at that, and the tradition continues at Horse in the Alley. Once seated, you get fresh, warm sourdough rolls with heated olive oil kept warm by a candle underneath.

We have loved the cheesecake and turtle torte for dessert but find it impossible to resist the variation on South African malva pudding cake that Maxwell perfected. This apricot jam sponge cake is darker in color now but is still served with crème anglaise. It still has the same caramelized top and if you've never had it, you are missing out.

Horse in the Alley is still a treasure and can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

Pete Tittl's Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter at @pftittl.

Pete Tittl's Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter: @pftittl.

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