By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
By Sara Ventiera
Trace the family tree of South Florida's serious superchefs and you'll find that our local restaurant scene is as incestuous as a Renaissance monarchy. And the Merrie Olde King who's had relations with just about every member of his culinary family is a dude named Dennis Max. Maybe you've heard of him?
Or maybe you've eaten at one of his restaurants. Max's Place. Maxaluna. Raffles. Carlos and Pepe's. Prezzo. Or any one of the Max's Grilles, which are spawning like tropical tree toads all over Florida. Dennis Max plans to open ten more Max's Grilles in the next several years. And his ex-partners at Unique Brickell Group, who also own franchises called Max's Grille and Max's Beach Place, an identical name but with a different, far less expensive menu, are also plotting to take over the world; even as we speak, they're drawing up plans for expansion into Pompano Beach and beyond. That little cabal was once associated with Sforza Enterprises Inc., a company Max briefly directed, which morphed into SEI Restaurant Group and opened My Martini and Sforza in West Palm Beach in the mid-'90s. Confused yet?
Max started, or at least had his arm buried up to the elbow in, a movement in Florida cuisine from which our foodie scene has never recovered. Call it New Floridian or Floribbean if you must; it accounts for the ubiquity of Cal-Italian restaurants in every strip mall and any restaurant with the word Grill or Grille attached to it, all the way to the Cheesecake Factory. Think of the mush of Pan Asian/Mexi/Grill/Italian that characterizes the great bulk of Florida menus and you'll see what Max and his cronies hath inadvertently wrought.
So much for the history. So what's going on at Max's Grille these days?
January is the 14th anniversary of this old Boca goat. And coincidentally, Max's son Tucker Max has his own reason to celebrate: His latest book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, published January 1, has already made the New York Times bestseller list. The apple does not fall far from the tree, eh? Dennis Max is almost as well-known for his womanizing as he is for his pistachio-crusted grouper (his ex-wife Patti once made him sign an agreement that he'd pay her $5 million if he ever cheated on her again. It goes without saying that Patti is now comfortably established). It seems Tucker's no slouch in the slap-and-tickle department either. If you want to channel little Tucker, whose book charmingly details his high jinks at Max's (this is the bathroom where girlfriend X blew him; this is the bar where Tucker played the famous Breathalyzer game with "fake-breasted Jewish women"; look out that window and you'll see the parking lot where Tucker and Miss Vermont USA... etc), there's no better place to do it than over a shot of vodka ($8.63) and a plate of Max's cold-water oysters ($13). Other than that, there's scant reason to venture back to Max's as far as I can tell. Maybe the two new Max's scheduled for Coral Gables and Palm Beach Gardens will raise the bar. But this place has a lot not going for it.
For instance: The clientele. The falsely breasted have not, evidently, moved on to the next trendy watering hole. And neither have the falsely nosed. It's fascinating to see so many women wearing not only identical shoes and carrying identical purses but sporting the same schnozzle. Every plastic surgeon in Boca must have the layout for that sniffer. I don't want to sound like a snob, but this is not my kind of crowd. The desperate housewives, the shriveled codgers with one foot already in hell, where, we can only hope, along with Tucker, that the booze will be flowing freely these folks were lining up long before you and I got there. They're three-deep at the bar and crowding every table. And since Max's doesn't take reservations for parties of fewer than five (although you can call ahead to get put on a waiting list), you're going to find yourself window-shopping in Mizner Park clutching a beeper the size of a Fendi handbag. And there's nothing in any window that you'd remotely want to buy for any reason whatsoever.
For instance: The menu. Max's has rolled out a "new" menu, one still focused on (per its website) "imaginative yet moderately priced food that draws adventurous diners without intimidating those with traditional tastes." Ah so. I don't know when a $35 strip steak or a $28 fillet of sea bass became "moderately priced." Admittedly, these are the high-end dishes. But starters averaging $10, main plate salads running as high as $18, and daily specials hovering on the $25 mark do not make for "moderate"; they make for "pricey," even by Boca standards. Unless you go in and order a chicken sausage pizzette ($9) and a Coke, you'd better hope somebody else is paying. As for "attracting adventurous diners," the new "comfort-food"-focused menu isn't going to be quite as thrilling for most of us as, say, bungee-jumping in Chonburi. Unless your idea of a total adrenaline rush leans toward eating chicken wings ($10.50), calamari ($9), sesame seared rare yellowfin tuna ($11.50), pizzas ($9 to $10), shrimp cocktail ($15), sirloin burger ($10.50), caesar salad ($7.50), and meatloaf ($15). I have nothing against comfort food, but it would be tough to come up with a staler roster of restaurant grub. If you walked randomly into 40 restaurants in Florida, closed your eyes, pointed your finger at the menu, and picked one dish from each, you might come up with a list just this "adventurous." The only thing Max's web description gets right is "without intimidating traditional tastes." I definitely didn't feel intimidated.
For instance: The presentation of the food. There was a time, many years ago, when building a layered entrée was fun and classy. A chef who wanted to send out something snazzy might put down a pool of aubergine-colored sauce, then a layer of sautéed broccoli rabe, then a layer of cranberry-infused smashed potatoes, then some sautéed onions, then a nice piece of steak or fish, and then a little garnish of something. Cool, right? So you'd take a bite, and if you got the layers on your fork, you'd have a little taste of everything. In the past decade, this concept has been pounded harder than one of Tucker Max's bimbos. You couldn't flail a dead horse any deader than to send out an entrée like this today. At Max's, we had two on a recent visit. Our 16-ounce Delmonico steak ($29) was a genre classic: a pile of sauce, asparagus, "roesti" potatoes, steak, and crispy shoestring onions. Everything tasted pretty good, in a mooshed-together kind of way, except for the steak, which beyond the accouterments had no flavor at all. This was an entrée as distant from the integrity of an Alice Waters dish as 1971 Berkeley is from, well, 2006 Boca.
Potatoes shredded, smashed, puréed, pulped, lyonnaised, scalloped, roasted, julienned, frenched are all over this menu. At Max's, you're never far from a spud. They came with the grouper special too ($24): pink sauce, layer of sautéed Swiss chard, layer of mashed potatoes with medium whole shrimp, layer of sautéed onions, piece of grouper. The generous portion of grouper was dry. The chard really should have been de-stemmed. But the potatoes were freaking delicious.
For instance: The pairings of flavors. I'm not one to dis a plate of calamari, even if I've eaten roughly 1,000 pounds of the stuff since 1995. Buttermilk battered calamari and zucchini ($9) at Max's is really yummy crisp/chewy and perfectly seasoned until, that is, you make the mistake of dipping it in the "spicy tomato sauce." I can't believe anybody in the kitchen has actually tasted this Prego spaghetti sauce-cum-Tabasco, or what passes for it. Hideous. The "lemon caper aioli" is lots better. But "aioli"? How quaintly 1990s.
The sauce problem resurfaces with the fresh oysters ($13 for a half dozen). The mignonette sauce served with these (they were ice cold and plump) is too vinegary. Cutting it with a little oyster liquor or wine would have helped.
Why this crowd of high rollers would need to turn to their food for "comfort" anyway is an open question. Here in the American heartland of Boca, women two decades my senior have bodies like high school cheerleaders; the men are richer than Jack Abramoff and mostly not yet indicted. But to follow the theme through to its bitter end, we ordered the apple pie ($8) for dessert more like a pot pie, with a crust not flaky but of a thick, chewy, cookie-dough consistency and a scoop of absolutely scrumptious vanilla ice cream, tasting homemade. Our bill for two, with a martini and a single glass of wine, including tip, came to $132.
But it was money well-spent. Over dinner, I came up with the title of my next best-selling column: I Hope They Serve Mashed Potatoes at Max's. This one's a no-brainer.