Our first night of our vacation earlier this year in the Lake Okoboji region of Northwest Iowa found us eating out at what many think is the premier restaurant in the area, Maxwell's Beach Cafe. Located at the end of Lake Street next to the legendary Arnolds Park amusement park, and across from the pier that juts out into West Okoboji (see map), Maxwell's has been in business since 1986 offering upscale fare to vacationers and locals in the lakes region.
Lewis Casson and his wife, Julie Roth are the owners of Maxwell's Beach Cafe. Casson is a native of Liverpool, UK who moved to the U.S. and began to work in the restaurant industry. After working at restaurants in Kansas City, Sioux Falls and Spencer, IA, Casson opened the seasonal restaurant (open mid-May to late-September) on the shore of West Lake Okoboji. While they offer locally raised beef and pork, they also have a number of items on their menu that feature more cosmopolitan selections.
After parking our car in a lot directly behind the restaurant, we made our way around to the front to enter the place. Maxwell's features a covered outdoor patio, but the late day sun was beating down in the patio making it warm and somewhat bright to sit outside at that time. We decided to eat inside where it was cooler and the seating was more comfortable than the plastic chairs outside. A hostess greeted us and sat us in a booth toward the front of the restaurant. It was far from busy - the late summer season was winding down - and we knew we wouldn't be hurried at all during the meal.
Actually, the clientele was an interesting mix of vacationers in shorts and polo shirts (like us), golfers just in off the course, families with little kids, and older people who were very dressed up to go out for dinner - on a Monday night. The dining room was rather large with a series of booths along the wall and tables in the middle. A small bar was on the east side of the dining room but it was fully stocked with liquor, wine and beer.
Our waitress for the evening, Kailey, came over to greet us. She asked if we wanted anything to drink and I ordered a beer while Cindy decided to stick with water for the time being. After Kailey brought my beer back to me, she told us of the specials that evening. They sounded interesting, but a quick look through the menu told me that they had a steak au poivre on the menu - a New York-cut strip steak with a peppercorn cream sauce on top. I'm a sucker for a good steak au poivre. Maxwell's looked like the kind of place that could make a good one.
Maxwell's also featured a domestic Kobe beef sirloin steak raised from cattle at Majinola Farms near Panama, IA. I think they actually had it wrong on the menu - Majinola Farms raises Wagyu beef and I don't think you can call it Kobe beef unless it's actually grown in Japan. I'm not certain about that, but that's what I read when I first wondered about the difference between the two. The other thing that sort of concerned me about the "Kobe" beef at Maxwell's - it was pretty cheap. It was only $22 bucks. I've had Kobe and Wagyu beef that was four times the price of what they had on the menu at Maxwell's. It was either a very small piece of meat or it was a bad cut. Either way, I wasn't going to order it.
Some of the other eclectic things on the menu included a roasted duck entree, double cut lamb chops, a Korean-style spare rib dish, and something called "Shittake Beef Pappardelle" featuring homemade egg noodle pappardelle pasta mixed with spicy marinated beef, sliced shittake mushrooms and drizzled with a soy/ginger sauce. That sounded very interesting to me.
Cindy was looking hard the jumbo scallops - homemade pappardelle egg noodles with aspargus and prosciutto ham with caramelized onions. It's topped with a cream sauce and jumbo scallops. That's what she decided to get. I couldn't find anything to sway me away from the steak au poivre and I ordered that. Cindy also ordered the spinach chevre salad and I got wedge salad for openers. We both had taken a look through the wine list and Cindy decided to order a glass of the William Hill Central Coast chardonnay. I was going to have a glass of wine with dinner (I ended up getting a glass of the Textbook cabernet), but in the meantime I switched from a Bud Light to a bottle of Lucky Bucket lager - an Omaha-area micro-brewery that I've never tried before. (There's a large Omaha influence in the Lake Okoboji region - lots of people from Omaha have vacation homes in the area.) I tried it and I wasn't impressed with the beer. I'll think twice about ordering one again if I come across it in the future.
Our salads made it out to the table and the presentation was nice. Cindy's spinach salad had goat cheese crumbles, strawberry slices and almonds on top, along with an aged balsamic vinegar drizzle. She said the spinach leaves were very fresh and loved the taste of the strawberries.
My wedge salad was actually cut into quarters with sides of both a creamy blue cheese dressing and Maytag blue cheese crumbles. The lettuce was crisp and fresh, but the great taste of the Maytag blue cheese was the winner with the salad.
Not long after we finished our salads, Kailey brought out our main entrees. Cindy's jumbo scallops with pasta dish looked scrumptious - and she said it was. The entree featured three large grilled scallops on top of the pasta along with asparagus chunks and ample amounts of prosciutto. She cut off a chunk of one of her scallops to give to me to try. She asked me, "Isn't that great," as I took a bite of the scallop. It was very, very good.
My steak au poivre looked good, but it was overcooked to more of a medium-rare versus the rare I had asked for. But it certainly wasn't a deal-breaker. And it had a LOT of fat for the cut of meat. Aah! That's one of the hazards with steak whether you're eating out or making one at home on the grill. The au poivre sauce was very good and the beef - what I could get at - was tender and flavorful. Three or four stalks of grilled asparagus came with the steak (they weren't bad - a little limp), and a side of pretty good broasted potatoes were on the side. It wasn't the best steak au poivre I've ever had, but I certainly couldn't bitch much more about it.
After dinner, Kailey came out with the dessert tray. I was sort of stuffed from the dinner and I wasn't certain that I wanted anything else for dinner. Cindy said, "Oh, come on! We're on vacation!" We decided - actually SHE decided - to order the tiramisu (made locally for Maxwell's) with two forks.
Kailey brought out the tiramisu and it was a large piece that was drizzled with a caramel sauce. Oh man, was it great! The caramel sauce was a nice addition to the tiramisu giving it another sweet little bite. We've had tiramisu at a lot of places over the years and, quite frankly, it was one of the better ones we've had.
The meal we had at Maxwell's Beach Cafe was very good. I really can't quibble about the cut of steak having too much fat on it. But you would think that a New York strip steak would be a little more lean than what I had at Maxwell's. Kailey's service was good, we liked the ambiance of the place and we felt it was a pretty good value for what we got.
We couldn't lie - it was very good. And we also knew that it would be tough to top this meal at any other Lake Okoboji restaurant while we were there.