I don't often succumb to nostalgia. But when Jay Gust signed on to revamp Maxi's Restaurant and Lounge at the Doubletree Hotel - World Arena, I got some goose bumps.
Back in the day (yeah, I said it), Maxi's was an elegant alternative to other nightclubs, a spot where everyone dressed well and you never knew who you might meet. During one of my visits as a 20-something, several superhumans walked in. Fresh from their 1995 Super Bowl win, the San Francisco 49ers had come to The Broadmoor for their official ring ceremony, and then they descended upon Maxi's to celebrate. Flashing the new bling, linemen bought rounds for us all, regaling us with stories.
(Those were the days ...)
When out and not at Maxi's, I was at the Ritz Grill, where young execs mingled with lawyers, city managers and politicians. And for nearly 13 years, Gust fed all of them.
His dynamic culinary style earned him many top awards, including three straight traveling trophies at the local Colorado Restaurant Association Hospitality Expo's chefs competition. So it was a big deal when, in late 2008, Gust up and left the Ritz to help former Plate World Cuisine chef Ryan Blanchard revive culinary operations at the Antlers Hilton.
After roughly a year, its Judge Baldwin's pub showed improvement, but the Antlers Grille had yet to open again for fine dining during the evening. Which brings us to this past November, when Gust hopped Hiltons, checking out of the Antlers and into the Doubletree — where he was tasked with remaking the menu and rekindling interest.
Visually, little has changed at Maxi's: Snug, wall-lined booths and multi-level seating with two dance floors still offer comfort and party space. To get to it from the front entrance, you cross the atrium, where only breakfasts are served (excepting special Thursday night dinners). On one visit, I overheard a sales manager at the front desk touting the new menu to a prospective client.
From the dozen or so bar offerings (2 p.m. to midnight), the dishes we tried basically hit the mark. Mini Mahi Mahi tacos ($9) were a treat, crisp with succulent bites of fish, though they unfortunately came sans the advertised avocado pieces. A juicy trio of Kobe sliders ($10) with sharp red onions hit the spot, as did an attractively garnished, pastrami-spiced, seared peppered Ahi with a delightful, thick citrus soy sauce ($8).
The only bump came in the service: When clearing plates, the waiter asked if I wanted the rest of my salmon. When I noted that he was actually referring to pickled ginger (on the Ahi plate), he quipped, "How should I know?"
Off an eight-item dinner menu, we opted for the New York Strip ($23) and a lovely entrée of roasted vegetables (a blend of onions, peppers and squash) mixed with gnocchi and arugula in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce sprinkled with pine nuts ($15). The veggie option was tasty, but a touch heavy for my taste. The same gnocchi, this time in a weak truffle cream sauce, was paired with my steak and a fine side of haricots verts. Though the strip was cooked to a requested medium with a nice char, it was a bit dry and lacked both seasoning and any sign of the merlot demi-glace described on the menu. Also, we received a bottle of steak sauce with it, which is never a good sign.
Maxi's lunch menu offers a variety of entrée salads and sandwiches as well as some nods to the Ritz Grill's day menu. Among them: the always tasty, spicy, Bourbon-Street-wing-sauce-coated VooDoo Chicken ($8) tenders. The Asian salad ($11) also delivered, with crunchy Napa cabbage mixed with bean sprouts and green onion, dressed with an Asian vinaigrette and topped with grilled shrimp and wonton crisps.
Sandwiches can be ordered half or whole, with side choices of fries, onion rings and (oddly enough) cheddar mashed potatoes and wild rice. Curious, I went for the potatoes, which arrived DayGlo yellow and looking more like a scoop of lemon sorbet. Save for some unmelted cheese, they actually went down just fine. My TAB ($6.50/$9) of turkey, avocado and bacon with an herb cream cheese was good but for the biting taste of excessive raw garlic in the spread. Redemption came with the warm pastrami and Swiss ($7.50/$10) served on a delicious, slightly sweet rye.
Thankfully, Gust didn't miss a note with our finale: a beautiful, rich and lovely chocolate mousse wrapped in an edible chocolate ribbon ($6). The solid sweet was a reminder that the man in the kitchen does know what he's doing (even if his waiter doesn't).
As for Hotel Gust vs. Ritz Gust, it would seem the former has yet to find the comfortable stride and consistency of the latter. What we foodies have really been waiting for is that cut-loose, creative mastermind who managed to heft that CRA trophy three years running. That's the man who could make Maxi's hop again (with or without help from Super Bowl champs). He just hasn't arrived quite yet.