Restaurant Spotlight: Mad Maximillians

Fine dining never tasted so original

by Margaret Scarboro

Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, Michael and Gayle Schiffer once dreamed of opening a quaint little pizza shop. Michael was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but was raised in Brooklyn. Gayle was born and raised in Providence.

As fate would have it, driving to Key West, Fla., on vacation, the couple decided to stop and rest in Cary. Intrigued by this small, quiet town, they decided to forgo the Florida trip and take a closer look around. When they spotted an old vacant building for rent, they both fell in love. This was the perfect location for their joint venture.

Taking a huge and uncertain risk, they left their jobs — Michael was owner of Maximillians Gelato, while Gayle worked in a hospital lab — and family and friends behind. In 1991, the couple opened what now is the award-winning Maximillians.

Humble beginnings
The name Maximillians first came to mind when Michael dog-sat a Scottish terrier called Max some years ago while watching 1965’s epic, “Doctor Zhivago.” Also, inspired by Austrian-born Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, it was decided to add an extra “l” to give the restaurant a more unique flair.

Even when a fire in 1998 destroyed the Buck Jones Road location in Cary, the husband-and-wife team refused to give in to defeat. Putting their heads together, a sandwich and casual gourmet eatery called Hot Point Deli was born in 1999. Today, under new ownership, it still embodies the same original recipes, culinary style and relaxed atmosphere Maximillians is known for.

In 2001, a new Maximillians restaurant emerged. With a mix of gourmet and fusion cuisine, this spacious eatery still amazes Triangle area patrons, both young and old.

The Adventurous “Max” menu, art décor walls, and divided partitions for private and intimate fine dining make for a warm, inviting experience. Maximillians became known for its hand-written menus, which now are archived on the eatery’s website, and the creation of new meals mixing Italian and Asian flavors.

Items on the dinner menu are prepared daily by Michael, who serves as chef, and his dedicated team of professionals.

“On a busy night, as many as five cooks are in the kitchen, and everything is made from scratch,” says Margaret Hennessee, who has worked with the Schiffers for more than 17 years.

As Michael puts it, “I wanted to have fun.”

And fun is what guests at Maximillians can have. Mouth-watering classics like Voodoo Tuna and Max’s Original Grilled Caesar Salad — where the lettuce actually is grilled during preparation — keep customers coming back for more, not to mention the fully stocked bar and excellent wine choices.

“We decided to remain closed on Sundays because business was slow. We also needed a day of rest because preparing these special dishes requires a lot of work,” Michael says.

Patrons gather for romantic dinners, business meetings, social gatherings and entertaining clients. People are drawn to the food textures, bold seasonings and fresh products upon which Maximillians has built its reputation.

“Michael and Gayle were approached about putting some of their famous sauces and other products on the shelves for purchase, but this idea is still in the works,” Hennessee says. “And who knows — you may see some of these famous recipes on shelves in the near future.”

“We have a long lease and have no plans to move,” Michael adds. “Besides, we’re bringing Danny Gilliam aboard as chef of Maximillian’s Pizza Kitchen. We worked together for more than 20 years.”

This quiet, little pizza restaurant also is owned and operated by the Schiffers. Located just around the corner, patrons can choose from grilled classic pizza, gourmet salads, tasty appetizers, and the return of the smoky-flavored “Pasta from Hell.”

Even though Michael is the executive chef of both restaurants, Gayle is the backbone of the entire business. She is the strong woman standing beside her man and is in charge of operations, keeping the business up and running each week. Operating a restaurant, Hennessee says, requires a lot of teamwork and day-to-day sacrifices.

“It requires hard work, long hours and missing lots of family gatherings,” she says.

However, the Schiffers get to see all of their hard work pay off each day as satisfied customers continue to grace the steps of Maximillians. With two restaurants under one roof, it’s easy to see why Maximillians is in the spotlight.

Margaret Scarboro is a freelance writer based in Chapel Hill.

Red Chili Scallops
With Spicy Ginger Shrimp Sauce

For the Ginger Shrimp Sauce:
2 tablespoons shallots, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic
1 tablespoon ginger
Star anise
2 scallions
1-2 smoked chipotle chilies
Sweet chili sauce to taste
Pinch of cumin
1 red bell pepper, diced
8 shitake mushrooms
2 ounces white wine
6 ounces chicken stock
2 ounces coconut milk
1/2-cup baby shrimp

Sear 2 tablespoons of the shallots in olive oil. Lower heat, add ginger and garlic, and sauté for one minute. Add bell pepper, scallions and mushrooms, and sauté for another minute. Deglaze with the white wine, then add cumin, smoked chipotle chili and star anise. Reduce by half and add chicken stock, coconut milk, and sweet chili sauce. Add baby shrimp once sauce has reached desired consistency. Simmer for 2 minutes.

For the Red Chili Scallops:
5 large scallops (per person)
1/2-cup olive oil
3 large guajilio chili pods
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon powdered garlic
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fennel seed
Fresh cilantro

Finely grind chili pods and fennel seed in spice mill and add the rest of the spices except for the cilantro. Place scallops in a large bowl with the olive oil. Sprinkle on spice mixture and toss. Grill scallops over high heat, turning every 2 minutes, until interior just begins to lose translucency (about 6-8 minutes for jumbo sea scallops). Place over angel-hair pasta with finely chopped cilantro. Pour ginger shrimp sauce on top of scallops and pasta.

If you go

Maximillians, a unique blend of gourmet and fusion cuisine, is located at 8314 Chapel Hill Road in Cary. It is open from 5-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, call (919) 465-2455 or visit maximilliansgrill.com.

Maximillian’s Pizza Kitchen, owned and operated by the same husband-and-wife couple who run Maximillians, is located around the corner at 8306 Chapel Hill Road. It has the same hours of operation but is closed on Mondays. For more information, call (919) 461-3882 or visit maximillianspizzakitchen.com.

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