All restaurants have personalities. Usually that derives from their cuisines -- Italian, Chinese, Greek, that often-catchall classification of New American. Lately, however, there's been a blurring of those lines, as restaurateurs try to capture a wider spectrum of the eating population by presenting various cuisines side by side, such as steakhouse classics thrown in with Italian.
Maxwell's 148 in Natick goes one better. The menu reads as though two completely different worlds had collided. There's a crab soup with shrimp dumplings and Thai basil, and also melted Scamorza cheese with a rustic tomato sauce. Peking duck with its traditional accompaniments comes right after pork chop Milanese. Even the bread basket has a split personality: focaccia on one side, deep-fried wonton wrappers on the other.
The looks of the place, inside and out, give the first hints of its duality. It's located in a brick building in a little strip mall with a hot-top paving company in the back. But inside, the decor lends a formality to what was last a sushi restaurant. All of the details -- curtained partitions, tones of beige and white, water trickling over stones, a chandelier that dangles a little too low over a table, a manager in a smart suit greeting each guest -- suggest the kind of special-occasion restaurant Tony Soprano might take Carmela to in an effort to make up for his dalliances.
OK, so we're eating Italian and Asian in a fancy-looking place in a Natick strip mall. "Can this work?" is admittedly my thought as I greet my companions on the first visit.
The mix of Italian and Asian dishes evolved, executive chef and co-owner Mitchell Maxwell says in a phone interview, from his time in Hawaii when he trained with chefs from the Friuli region of Italy. He later spent years in Asia, which added to that repertoire. Among other restaurant management positions, Randy Nason, the other owner, worked at Armani Cafe, and Maxwell's resembles the original upstairs room of that restaurant.
Those explanations help sort out the provenance of the cuisines, but as always the proof is in the eating -- and the service.
Overall, the cuisine is jumbled, with excellent dishes juxtaposed against so-so ones. And it's not as though Maxwell and his chef de cuisine, Brian Cooper, shine on Asian and pale on Italian or vice versa: It's mixed throughout the menu right on into desserts.
One evening we start with a special foie gras appetizer with white cherries from a nearby farm. The firm polenta base is delicious, the cherries and sauce are wonderful. But the foie gras gets rather lost in the mix. A crab soup sports an intense broth sprinkled with wisps of basil and shreds of fried wonton wrappers. Fat shrimp dumplings are the exclamation point here, or at least would have been if they had been a little more tender.
When the waitress sets down a plate of what looks like a chunky tomato sauce, it takes us a moment to discover that this is what we ordered since the menu called it spiedini di Scamorza. That would usually mean this firm version of mozzarella would be skewered and then grilled over an open fire. In this case, the Scamorza melts onto a plate with the spicy garlic and caper-laden tomato sauce over the top. Somehow the appetizer doesn't quite make the statement the individual ingredients might suggest. The cheese has cooled to toughness, and putting the thin sauce and cheese on the piece of accompanying focaccia means that both simply fall off onto the plate.
These days appetizers often capture the pride of place on restaurant menus, leaving the main courses in their shadow. That doesn't seem to be true here. A sea urchin sauce over linguini tastes so cleanly of the ocean that the big pink shrimp on top are almost superfluous; it's a good example of the way Italians can infuse flavor into simple food. A moist filet of lemon snapper from the Pacific sits atop very well-made risotto flavored with tomato, capers, and olives. The delicacy of halibut is carefully preserved in a winey broth, though the raviolis with the fish are too chewy. Beef tenderloin with asparagus and frizzled onions is hardly an exciting dish, and in this rendition it's really neither Italian nor Asian. But a steak dish is de rigeur on any menu these days, and this beef is tender and expertly cooked.
On the Asian side, plenty of five-spice seasoning and chilis add fire to a crispy-edged cod fillet, and Peking duck breast with a crackly skin and julienned vegetables is an appealing dish.
However, other entrees miss the mark. Cod wrapped around a shrimp-and-vegetable stuffing has been overroasted and is dry, although the sauteed cabbage and other vegetables with it are fine. And lamb shank braised in a clay pot with big pearls of Israeli couscous needs a more thorough de-fatting so the meat doesn't taste greasy.
In keeping with the ambitiousness of the menu, the dessert list is long and elaborate, if similarly uneven. Coconut creme brulee is served in a half shell of coconut, set on a bed of shaved coconut, pretty and delectable. But white chocolate tiramisu is forgettable; mango cheesecake suffers from a soggy crust; and chocolate profiteroles taste stale.
However, a Pavlova steals the show: beautiful, voluptuous, and seasonal to boot. In a large bowl, strawberries, blackberries, and other fruit are layered above a crunchy meringue and topped with whipped cream. The dessert costs a few dollars more than other selections, but it's plenty to share and well worth the tab.
How a place makes us feel is the other side of the dining equation. The staff at Maxwell's, from the greeter at the door to the waitresses to the women who clear the plates, are not only friendly and competent, but seem unusually focused. This is a well-run dining room, attitude-free, and you get the feeling that everyone is really invested in taking care of customers.
I'm not sure the dining world has been crying out for a restaurant where you can get both Asian dishes and Italian at the same time. But then again, it's a dining world where almost anything goes. If consistency in all the cooking can be added to its charms in service, Maxwell's can soar.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.
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