1.02.2012

It's a Suppah Club, Dahling

I feel like I’m bringing you guys to Ithaca a lot. Look, I know it’s a hike from the Northcountry, but I’m going to continue to recommend that you set aside a sunny Saturday, hop in the car, and make the drive. There is seriously good food there for you to eat. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of restaurant reviews in this tiny community. How did Ithaca get lucky enough to have so many fabulous restaurants in such close proximity? Is it Cornell? The proportionally high number of Volvos on the road? Good hippie karma? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is one of the great daytrips in the whole state. A place where hiking, people watching, shopping, wine tasting, water sports and eating all meet – what else could you possibly want to do this weekend?

This week, I’m going to tell you a story about Maxie’s Supper Club. When I first moved down to the Southern Tier in 2000, and was more interested in cooking at home and watching endless hours of Food Network, this was one of the first higher-level dining spots with which I became obsessed. Not that the food here is high-end – you can get fried chicken, gumbo and po boys – but Maxie’s enjoys a very high esteem on the interwebs and Real Foodies (capital R, capital F) regard it highly. Back in those days, I request Maxie’s as my birthday dinner locale, and we had an absolutely fabulous meal there.

Maxie’s is cramped and rollicking. There is often live music, always good drinks, and the wait staff want you to have a good time. Whether you’re in the jamming bar area, drooling over the raw bar display and jostling for room on your tiny table to fit all of the delicious treats you’ve ordered, or in the proper dining room, you are in for a memorable and delectable evening. Give in to the unique vibe of the place, order a cocktail or artisanal beer, and dig in.


Maxie’s sets the scene

My friend Lindsay and I spent a blissful evening at Maxie’s last month, after a blissful day at August Moon Spa. Lordy, I love Ithaca. We tipped off our server, Will, to the fact that we would be making pigs of ourselves, and he didn’t even judge us, just brought plate after plate of Heaven to our table with a smile. We started with the fantastic cornbread with honey orange butter. I’m a total sucker for good cornbread, and Maxie’s is not fooling around – it was sweet and crumbly and the house-made butter was bright and delicious. A passing staffer offered to get us more after we devoured the two generous pieces, but we begged her not to, since we knew how much food we’d be ordering.

First up: appys! Lindsay chose the peel-n-eat shrimp and I, the fried green tomatoes. Let me establish for you right up front that every bite of seafood I have ever had at Maxie’s has been impeccable. I don’t know from where they source their fish, but it is flawless. These shrimp tasted like shrimp are supposed to taste: firm, fresh, large and replete with Old Bay. We absolutely inhaled them with glee. The friend green tomatoes were served with a whole grain mustard remoulade. They were enrobed in a splendidly herbaceous crispy crust with sea salt and a hint of tarragon. I loved them. They didn’t even need the sauce, they were good enough to stand alone.


Jumbo shrimp is the most delicious oxymoron

In case you haven’t caught on yet, Maxie’s has a definite Southern/Cajun bent to its cuisine. In the spirit of that, Lindsay ordered the jambalaya as her entrée. She was rewarded with a huge portion of rich comfort food. This dish is spicy, but with what Linds called a comfortable heat, and I agreed – it had a kick, but didn’t knock you over. The chicken in the stew was basically filler – this dish is all about the spectacular shrimp and andouille sausage. We saw many plates of this coming out of the kitchen, and I suspect even a Louisiana native would be satisfied with this meal.


I do declare this jambalaya to be yummy

I’m a sucker for grits, and I’m a sucker for gravy. So, as you can imagine, I had no choice but to order the shrimp and grits with tasso gravy. Duh! Is it bad that in my notes about this dish, I can make out the word, “sex,” and then it’s just incomprehensible scribbles? What can I say, from the second I smelled this plate of bountiful bliss, I was in an altered mental state. The tasso gravy was peppery and perfectly savory, the andouille was insane – high quality, spicy, awesome – and the huge shrimp and coarse grits kicked the tar out of a similar dish I had in Georgia a couple years ago. I wanted to eat this forever, it was so good. And in case the word tasso is throwing you – it’s a variety of Cajun ham made from the same cut you use in pulled pork or carnitas. Or, just call it good. I do.


Hello, gorgeous

Let me just digress here for a moment so we can talk about grits. Almost everyone I know who’s from the North immediately turns their nose up to grits whenever they’re mentioned. Why is this? Do you eat polenta? Cornbread? Risotto? Oatmeal? Grits are not dissimilar to any of these – which are basically vehicles for other flavors. In fact, polenta and grits are the same thing (cornmeal mush cooked up with cheese or other flavorings), but somewhere along the way, grits became the redheaded stepchild of the grain family. Grits, like polenta, risotto or oatmeal, are excellent conduits for cheese, chilis, bacon, mushrooms or other savory goodies. I encourage you to try them at a place like Maxie’s – where they are thick, rich and delicious. Incidentally, my favorite grits ever are at The Flying Biscuit, which can be found throughout the South but primarily in Atlanta. Flying Biscuit’s creamy, dreamy grits are loaded with sharp cheddar, white pepper and heavy cream, and are complete nirvana.

But let’s get back to Maxie’s. Yes, yes, Lindsay and I ate more than I’ve already told you about. I ordered a side of spinach in an attempt to shove some vegetables into this carb and fat fest. The spinach was just “eh.” It could have been cooked more, for my taste, and it definitely needed more salt, which is not a commonality with the rest of the food we were served. Of course, we also ordered dessert. How could we not? Lindsay’s key lime pie was well-balanced in flavor, with salty, sweet and tart all getting equal billing. The banana chocolate coconut pie Will encouraged me to order was an absolute riot of flavor. It was all banana up front, with a subtle, tasty coconut backdrop. The chocolate wasn’t especially prevalent, but that was OK. I think it would have been overwhelming if it had been any stronger.


The final riot

Finally, we were full. OK really, since we had also split a bottle of crisp Cairnbrae Sauvignon Blanc and a yummy, kir royale-type cocktail, we were practically ready to roll out of the place. A quick chat had us agreeing to score Maxie’s Supper Club at 8.5 out of a possible 10 BHS points. While the food is unpretentious and the atmosphere fun and funky, Chef Carol Kanfoush really cares about the cuisine being cranked out at Maxie’s. It’s hard to find a reliable spot for great seafood this far inland, and Maxie’s is that place, plus so much more. They have plentiful vegetarian items on the menu, plus loads of comfort food, and again, that raw bar is to die for. So what are you waiting for? Hotfoot it to Ithaca for that day trip or getaway you’ve been meaning to plan, and set aside a dinnertime for Maxie’s. Then report back here in the comments section! I love to read your insights into the places I’ve visited. Check out our group on Facebook and follow BigHungryShelby on Twitter, too. And please, for pete’s sake, try some grits! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Maxie's Supper Club on Urbanspoon

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