Nick to the Max

Here's a riddle: When is a new restaurant not a new restaurant? Answer: When it's Nick and Max's.

See, Nick and Max's, a "new" restaurant in Crocker Center in Boca Raton, was formerly Maxaluna, a creative, upscale, Italian place that had been in operation for almost 13 years. And while it still had an excellent reputation and the food was generally terrific, business had begun to fall off. This isn't an unusual occurrence in places like Boca, Las Olas, and South Beach, where restaurants change with the seasons; the excitement this changing generates for diners also means that older eateries don't appear as interesting by comparison. So restaurateur Dennis Max and chef-partner Nick Morfogen closed Maxaluna last August for renovations, then reopened in November with both Morfogen's and Max's names on the marquee and Morfogen's American-Mediterranean menu on display.

In fact, the place was gutted. Booths, interior walls, and dark woods -- typical Max trademarks -- were taken out, and a white-marble floor with glass inlays was installed. Walls were recessed, and stunning Art Deco glass sculptures were snuggled into hollows. Even at night the 160-seat interior, which is rather narrow, seems expansive and infused with light. Our only real complaint is that the small, modest sign, nestled under the eaves, is hard to see. We must've walked by the place three times before we figured out where it was.

Closed Location

But Nick and Max's didn't just change its name for the sake of whimsy or to generate a clientele base. Before he arrived at Maxaluna two years ago, Morfogen ran the Ajax Tavern in Aspen, which he'd opened in 1994 and ran for three years. A top-rated chef who proves his worth with every meal, he's the son of New York restaurateur John Morfogen, who owns the historic Chelsea House. Nick Morfogen's resume includes a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and training at three high-profile New York City restaurants: Le Bernardin, La C™te Basque, and Le Cirque. Morfogen then moved to Napa Valley, where he worked under the renowned chef Michael Chiarello at Tra Vigne. In 1996, Food & Wine magazine named Morfogen one of the "Top 10 Best New Chefs in America," and the next year he joined Dennis and Patti Max and Burt Rapoport at Unique Restaurant Concepts, Inc.

In helping to transform Maxaluna's into Nick and Max's, Morfogen didn't completely revamp the menu. Originally Maxaluna offered northern Italian cuisine, then pan-Italian with a Mediterranean twist, and these roots are evident in the new menu. In other words, there are still plenty of creative pastas such as tagliarini with blue crabs, leeks, radicchio, and lemon; oak-grilled pork chops with porcini and shiitake mushroom lasagne; marinated tuna with pasta "sticks"; and pearl couscous "paella" with Gulf shrimp, calamari, baby saffron onions, and chorizo. One exuberant main course comprised fresh rigatoni with beefy short ribs, a dab of sauteed spinach, and a reduced mushroom-wine sauce. Outstanding. The tender meat and rich demi-glace were reminiscent of osso buco, and the rigatoni was a broad, necessary base for the dripping chunks of meat.

Fans of the former restaurant can still find favorites. I got lucky; one of my erstwhile preferences was a special entree the evening we dined. Tender, potato-filled tortellini were dressed with chanterelle mushrooms and a corn jus, a savory concoction I've had with other types of pasta. The highlights of the dish, succulent sections of Maine lobster, were so fresh we might as well have been eating the dish at a dockside shack in Bar Harbor. Just as good was the sauteed South American sea bass with white water clams in a fennel jus. The fillet practically melted on top of lemon-infused pureed potatoes.

As light as these dishes sound, most of Morfogen's stuff is American fusion: hearty, filling, and hardly what you'd want to consume before lying on the beach. Particularly if you choose the lamb loin chop as an entree. The meat had terrific flavor and was perfectly rare, just the way we ordered it, but a quarter-inch of fat layering the top prevented us from enjoying it thoroughly. An accompaniment of mashed potato tart had a soggy, overbrowned crust.

A pair of appetizers had "excess" written all over them. The first, deep-fried Gulf shrimp and onion rings with flash-fried fresh spinach leaves, was greaseless and lovingly prepared, but the shrimp were skimpy. A roasted-tomato salsa was an ideal flavor enhancement, but an additional mustard-seed vinegar condiment was superfluous. Even more extravagant was the "20 dollar" baked potato. Yes, it costs that much, so the question is: "Is it worth it?" I think so. The giant spud, stuffed like a twice-baked potato, was larded with smoked bacon and garnished with pungent Gruyere, chives, and black truffles and moistened with a balsamic reduction. (These ingredients are so "sinful" that Catholics may want to consider going to confession after eating the dish.)

From among the diner-style desserts, we chose an icebox chocolate cake with a miniature vanilla milk shake on the side. They made for a cute pair, and I especially liked the bittersweet chocolate straw in the shake. But I didn't care very much for either sweet, as both were somewhat insipid.

Service was at once casual and formal. Our waiter knew how to stroke us; when we ordered a spicy Ravenswood zinfandel ($28) to complement the meal, he exclaimed, "Oh, you guys know what you're doin'." But after persuading us to order the more expensive items on the menu, he disappeared. And rather than keep the bread basket filled while we waited for our starters, he cleared the table prematurely, in anticipation of the extra dishes. By the time the baked potato arrived, we were so hungry we would have paid 50 bucks to eat it.

It's hard not to compare Nick and Max's to Maxaluna, which I cherished. Nick and Max's has to iron out some wrinkles, but the potential to be an award-winning establishment is obvious. After all, the talent is the same. I'm sure it won't be long before Nick and Max's raises the bar that Maxaluna set.

Nick and Max's. 5050 Town Center Cir., Boca Raton, 561-391-7177. Lunch Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Monday to Thursday from 6 to 10:30 p.m; Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.; Sunday till 10 p.m.

Gulf shrimp and onion rings
$9

Rigatoni with short ribs
$21

Special lobster
$26

Lamb chop
$27

Chocolate cake
$8

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