The wait captain brought out a set of bowls and bottles and set them on a rolling cart in front of our table. Looking both deft and bored, he cracked an egg, squeezed a lemon, and poured a thin stream of oil into a large wooden bowl, whisking everything together. In two minutes, we were handed two plates of Caesar salad.
Whisking up Caesar dressing. Filleting sand dabs. Flambéing Crêpes Suzette. Thirty years ago, your average black-jacketed headwaiter was expected to cook as well as pour wine. But I entered the restaurant scene a decade or so after tableside service disappeared, and up until last week, Benihana’s was as close as I’ve ever gotten to it.
This most traditional of the waiterly arts may someday disappear from Massimo’s, one of Fremont’s longest-running and swankest restaurants. I went there to see a restaurant in transition, and caught it just on the cusp. I had heard from a reader that Chris Lichtenhan, who made quite a name for himself cooking innovative Californian cuisine at Pearl’s Cafe, took over the toque at Massimo’s three months ago. From Bill Rinetti, the owner, I learned that his father of the same name, who founded Massimo’s in 1976 and charmed patrons for a quarter-century, died of cancer on October 11. “He was an icon in Fremont,” said Rinetti. “A thousand people showed up at his funeral.” Bill Jr., who has run the business end of the restaurant for many years, has now taken over his father’s responsibilities.
The longstanding menu is being revamped to reflect Lichtenhan’s strengths. Thanks to the arrival of the new chef, there’s a second restaurant peeking out from among the steak Dianes and spaghetti carbonaras. This one — called the specials menu — serves contemporary, seasonal, and more nimbly prepared food.
On a recent evening, one such dish was a salad of shredded butter lettuce, red cabbage, and orange cubes of roasted persimmon. The sugary fruit was perfectly balanced against a lively sage-infused vinaigrette; alongside that bright contrast, toasted walnuts and shreds of pickled red onion squared off against one another. The meatiness of a grilled ahi tuna steak, left rosy in the middle but cooked past the ruby-red, creamy centers that Oakland-Berkeley foodies expect of their tuna, was brought out by a simple spritz of lemon and olive oil and a salsa of sun-dried tomatoes and capers; the mashed potatoes next to it were thick and smooth. And the pappardelle, bathed not-too-thickly in a cream sauce with salty pancetta and sun-dried tomatoes, was perfumed through with smoked chicken breast. Unlike the other pastas I tasted at Massimo’s, the wide noodles were cooked perfectly al dente.
The rest of the menu reads like a culinary time capsule from 1976. Which, by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing — steak Diane and veal saltimbocca are becoming fresh again. Six or seven of the hundred-plus items are starred, indicating that they’re prepared before your eyes.
Tableside preparation definitely worked for the Caesar. I didn’t get any hint of anchovies, but the creamy vinaigrette the captain came up with was garlicky, cheesy, and well-balanced; he mixed up just enough to coat all the romaine leaves without drowning them.
Some of the other sauces, though, were too thick for their own good. The lemon butter coating the thin, tender veal piccata had almost congealed. One of my favorite un-PC indulgences, since it has three of my top ten ingredients of all time — butter, lemon and capers, in that order — veal piccata should taste light and zingy. It didn’t take off.
I had a similar reaction to the salmon á la Massimo, which I ordered since it’s so rare to see poached fish on a restaurant menu. Californian cooks now prefer to grill and roast, because they’re quicker and less precise methods. But as the meat itself demonstrated, when fish is poached right it melts away. The sauce, a leaden beurre blanc studded with tiny bay shrimp, didn’t match the salmon’s elegance. Much better was a simple crab spaghetti containing chunks of Dungeness crab, tomatoes, and garlic in butter-emulsified broth. The spaghetti could have been cooked a little more al dente, but the flavors of crab, white wine, and garlic coated every inch.
The service — all male, all bow-tied — hit my ideal balance between discretion and attention. However, it could use a little updating in one regard. On my first visit, my friend Dina appeared to be invisible to our waiter. The menus and the wine list came to me, and each time we placed our orders he stared resolutely at me, waiting for my command only. “Dina,” I’d say firmly, turning toward her to indicate that the little lady was allowed to think for herself, “what would you like?” (Then I picked up the tab.)
“Well, did you get a look at the age of the people around us?” Dina said afterward, laughing, as the steam shooting from my ears propelled me to the car. “He’s just responding to his clientele.” All the customers tucked into the deep, scalloped burgundy booths around us were older than fifty. On my second visit, it was unclear who in our party of three was the alpha male, so the waiter minded everyone.
The regular wine list offers an affordable range — a few finds here and there, the rest pleasant-enough vintages. The reserve list looks a little more impressive, with dates in the low 1990s, bin numbers next to each vintage, and prices that mount into the three and four digits.
Desserts could use a more elegant touch. The tiramisu scored about six out of ten — I picked up a hint of coffee from the lady fingers, but not enough to perfume all the whipped cream on top. On my second visit, we nibbled at berries decked with a dollop of Grand Marnier-scented whipped cream. But I had waited all week for the cherries jubilee. The captain, smiling this time, wheeled the cart over to us and flicked on the tabletop gas ring. He melted an obscenely huge cube of butter with some sugar, then poured in cherries, kirschwasser, and Grand Marnier. Blue flames rose a foot in the air. After they finally died down, we received two bowls of cherries spooned over vanilla ice cream. Being doused with spirits revived the canned cherries. The pleasure they offered was nostalgic rather than gastronomic.
According to Rinetti, chef Lichtenhan is streamlining the menu and adding more regional Italian specialties. When he’s done, Massimo’s could be the first restaurant on the block to combine tableside service with up-to-date cuisine. Just don’t mess with that Caesar.