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Friday, February 16, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Legendary Maximilien is still the place to indulge - especially for lunch

Seattle Times restaurant critic

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Been around a while? You've probably eaten at Maximilien. Tap your brain and you'll likely dislodge flashbacks of brunches past, hours spent lingering over an omelet and a glass of wine, a croque monsieur and endless cups of cream-laced coffee. Perhaps you were once a regular, paying homage to tiny, tender snails and a heart-breaking view of Elliott Bay, visible from every creaky, mismatched wooden seat in the house.

Maximilien


Rating: * *

$$$

French

81 A Pike St. (Pike Place Market), Seattle

Reservations: 206-682-7270

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; brunch 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday

Prices: lunch starters $3.50-$9.50, entrees $8-$19.75; dinner starters $3.50-$17, entrees $19-$30; brunch entrees $8.25-$14

Sound: Edith Piaf and friends create a pleasant background for conversation

Parking: $4 validation for Pike Place Market valet service offered at dinner only Thursday-Saturday; pay-lots nearby

Full bar / All major credit cards / Smoking in bar only

Come back and you'll find your memories intact, though Maximilien now has "new" owners, host Axel Macé and chef Eric Francy. These former employees bought the French café in 1997 when proprietors Francois and Julia Kissel bid Pike Place Market au revoir. Never been? Then you may be surprised to learn that Maximilien has been holding court for more than 20 years, hidden down the corridor under the Market clock, just to the left of Don & Joe's Meats.

Once the definitive answer to the French food question, this unpretentious café quietly suffers from proximity to several higher profile French-accented restaurants (five of them within a two-block radius). With its classic French menu shamelessly adrift in butter and cream, a soundtrack courtesy of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel and clientele convinced that black clothing is meant only for occasions elegant or funereal, Maximilien could easily be considered - oh, let's face it - a dowager by comparison.

So, why go?

Because age deserves respect! Because frogs have legs! Because Macé and Francy are not faking those accents and because our memories of Seattle's legendary restaurants are fast becoming nothing more than that: fond memories. Coupled with the view, each of these reasons is enough to support the young Frenchmen's efforts. But I'll give you another, anyway: lunch.

Remember lunch? That mid-day favorite of the Ladies Who? That former venue for the three-martini? That enviable excuse to meet your mate and make out (here, at least) over a massive mound of moules marinière ($11.95)? Well, the time has come to resurrect that pastime, and this is the place to do so. Ditch the cup o' noodles. Say ba-bye to Briazz. Play hooky. Make an afternoon of it. That way you won't feel guilty about having "dinner" for lunch. A swell idea since dinner for two (which must start with the fabulous $14 frogs legs or you're missing the point entirely) can swing into the $100 range long before you can say, "I'll have a cognac and a crème brulée."

Go ahead. Have a cognac and a crème brulée. But have it after lunching on a generous seafood salad ($11.50) or tender-breasted chicken ($12) whose luxurious, butter-drenched pan jus earned me two nights in Weight Watchers criminal court. Oh, arrest me! Just bring along more of those slender fries to swipe the excess sauce and ease my pain. And while you're at it, how about another round of oysters Rockefeller ($8.75)? Each briny shucker is gentled to perfection - and not overwhelmed by - the finest dice of bacon and onion, a kiss of butter and a barely wilted robe of spinach.

Chef Francy doesn't toy with tradition. If you crave classic French simplicity - say, garlicky escargot à la Bourguignonne ($8), beefy, Gruyère-draped soupe à l'onion ($3.50/$6.50) or grilled chicken and brie on baguette ($9.75) - come and get it. Each is available at lunch and on the bistro menu served during dinner hours in the cozy upstairs bar. Daffy for duck? Then treat yourself to crisp-skinned, silk-centered duck confit à la sarladaise ($19.75), the meat artfully preserved in its own fat and roasted to perfection. Available at both lunch (where it tops out the menu, pricewise) and dinner (where it rests on the low end), the duck sits astride a bed of tiny lentils, surrounded by potatoes crisped in precious duck fat.

Many dinner menu items appear on the lunch menu at less inflated prices. As for those that don't, take a look and you won't have to be told that the chef is a native of Southwest France, where foie gras is one of the four food groups. He presents the luscious liver on its own as an appetizer ($17), as stuffing for game birds (pheasant, $26, and quail, $22) and as accompaniment to sea scallops ($29) and tenderloin of beef ($30). See you at the cardiologists. See you here for lunch.

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