Cooking With Attitude
If you've been reading the newspapers, you've probably assumed that restaurateur Dennis Max has been taking a beating. His private life looks to be a shambles -- wife Patty departed after catching him cheating on her one too many times. Word is Patty got a hefty settlement because of a legal agreement (something like a post-nup) the pair had signed last time Max strayed. Gotta say it: You go, girl. This is the new millennium. Dogs ain't allowed, even if they do have a nose for good food.
As for his public life as a master restaurateur, which has always seemed charmed, that too appears to have suffered. Last year Max unloaded almost all his signature Max's Grilles, including the popular Weston venture and the location in Las Olas Riverfront. He split with a subsidiary company formerly known as Sforza, which had operated several previous Max properties (Sforza and My Martini Grille) before that corporation, now known as S.E.I., decided to embark on its own. And his long-time partnership with the nationally known Aspen chef Nick Morfogen disintegrated after five years, along with their restaurant Nick and Max's (formerly Maxaluna's) in Boca Raton. Morfogen is now wowing regulars at 32 East in Delray Beach.
Feeling sorry for Max? Don't bother. However desperate his situation might seem, Max has never been one to take losses any way but in stride. And his stride is in top form -- confident, even cocky -- at the Addison in Boca Raton, a phoenix built on the ashes of negative publicity.
On the other hand, bad word of mouth might not stop there. See, I'd even go so far as to call the attitude that pervades the new eatery arrogant. The Addison, a six-month-old restaurant and banquet facility for functions of fewer than 80 people, is located in the house of the celebrated turn-of-the-last-century architect Addison Mizner. Mizner was responsible for introducing the Spanish-Mediterranean style to Boca Raton, and he designed his own personal dwelling with an eye for courtyards, loggias, Jerusalem tile floors, mosaics, and "pecky" cypress ceilings. (He's also dubiously honored in Boca Raton by having a shopping center named after him.)
Fast-forward a hundred years or so, and you'll find that the sprawling Mizner den has been subdivided into several businesses, of which the restaurant is one. Formerly an Italian eatery, it had lain dormant for four years. Max's restaurant company, Unique Limited, had the challenge of renovation and restoration, which it undertook in accordance with the guidelines set forth by the local historical society. Yet manager Fred Gushue has the gall to claim that they've "improved upon Mizner's dream." He also tells me I "can't write an article about it until [I'm] shown around" -- as if dining there weren't sufficient. I hear Mizner redesigning in his grave as I write, and I'm about ready to flip, too.
For as much as I hate (read: love) to nitpick, Gushue's imperialism is beyond pretentious. He wouldn't give me the names of Max's partners, though they're no doubt a matter of public record. He was indignant when I asked about the restaurant's barely visible sign, located at the top of an archway after you turn into a compound that looks more like a school campus than a place to eat. (Forget about finding it at night.) Even simple questions like how many seats the multiroom place had resulted in pregnant pauses, as if he were weighing the value of the information and my worthiness to receive it.
Unfortunately the haughty manner doesn't end with him. Gushue calls the Addison an à la carte, reservations-only restaurant, which is fair enough if the place intends to honor reservations or to hire enough staff to deal with a full or overflowing house. But on a recent Monday evening, we waited more than 30 minutes for our table, and when we approached the hostess to inquire about the holdup, she snapped something like "You'll know your table is ready when I come and get you." Ten minutes later she found us to inquire, "Are you sure you don't want to dine outside?" as if we'd already been asked our preferences; we hadn't. Can you say "uppity snit"?
I'd also expect a place like the Addison, with a restaurateur like Dennis Max behind it, to be prepared. But the hostess explained on the way to our table that only two waiters were serving our particular room. The restaurant had actually left tables sitting vacant because the staff couldn't keep up, and when you're talking main-course prices that range from the 20s to the $50 mark for certain specials, that's just not acceptable. Nor were the sweat that had formed on the upper lip and brow of our particular server, the 15 minutes it took to get our drinks (iced tea and club soda, despite a fairly priced and internationally varied wine list), the 20 minutes we waited for bread, and the half-hour delay before we ordered. And I don't know what kitchen management was thinking at the time, but after the waiter proudly announced the $51 market price for the two-pound Maine lobster stuffed with crabmeat and spinach, a house specialty, he confessed that the restaurant had ordered only two such crustaceans for the evening. He needed to check first to see if they were still available. I'm sorry, but two? For a 200-seat restaurant? C'mon. As it turns out, he misquoted the price of the lobster, which was $52 on our bill, and he neglected to bring shell-crackers, a bowl for discarded parts, and a cloth to wipe our hands afterward until we requested them. For $26 per pound, I'd expect more professional treatment.
Then again, I think the place has potential.
Why? It's easy enough to explain. Executive chef Jeff Sacks' food is tantalizing. He's taken basic steak house fare and given it an edge -- filet mignon carpaccio is updated with a truffle vinaigrette, for example, and a filet mignon main course is slathered with sweet onion- blue cheese gratin and napped with a port wine sauce. The results are neither fussy nor precious but provocative.
Even salads are beautifully designed. A tomato-and-mozzarella plate, a commodity that appears all over South Florida, was uplifted by its inclusion of both yellow and red tomato slices, a pile of baby greens, and a well-balanced black-olive vinaigrette. Another first plate, the warm pecan-crusted goat cheese, was accompanied by baby greens; thinly sliced roasted beets; and zesty, slightly salty pancetta vinaigrette, which complemented the nutty, pungent cheese immensely well. Even a ubiquitous crab cake was atypical because of its lack of filler; dressed with a mustard-cayenne "butter" (more like a sauce), this one was pure lump crab. We only wished that it had been served warmer than room temperature and that it had been a little larger than a silver dollar, to justify its $15 price tag.
One of the best entrées we sampled featured a tremendous 18-ounce bone-in rib eye, which we thought rather reasonably priced at $32, considering its size. The lustrous beef was at once firm and tender, exuding juice with every cut of the knife. It was laid on a bed of mashed potatoes whipped with smoked cheddar cheese and was sided by three ramekins filled with "jus," horseradish cream, and rich creamed spinach topped with panko (coarse Japanese bread crumbs). Despite the success of this dish, we had two complaints: The jus was really a barbecue sauce, and one of the ramekins was so badly chipped it looked as if it came from a flea market. Incidentally, decorative candleholders, left unlit on our table, were also in poor shape -- so cockeyed that we were tempted to place sugar packets underneath one side to shore 'em up. We couldn't help wondering if some of the tableware had been brought over from former restaurants.
We had no such reservations about the double-cut pork chops, served with braised red cabbage and the cheddar-whipped potatoes. The perfectly medium-rare pork had been glazed with cider and topped with an apricot-apple chutney -- fine winter fare, even in South Florida. A black-grouper main course sounded better than it tasted; crusted with crabmeat and shiitake mushrooms, the fillet was dry and unappealing. The roasted-beet/artichoke/fingerling-potato hash that accompanied it was a misnomer -- not hash at all but an assortment of roasted vegetables -- and the crispy leeks that topped it were flat and greasy, as if they had been flash-fried much earlier in the day.
When we were first led to our table, the hostess inquired whether we were celebrating a special occasion. No, we replied, we were just hungry. But we soon discovered why she asked. At least three separate parties sang the "Happy Birthday" song to one of their members during our meal, and I can understand why they chose this venue to exult in having being born -- the pastries and cakes were fantastic. An apple tarte Tatin was almost caramelized and came with vanilla-bean ice cream. Even better, café royale, a multitoned flourless chocolate cake, tasted like Godiva candy, the chopped-pecan crust adding texture to the rich fudge. With desserts like these, it may seem almost childish to hold a grudge against the Addison. If only the staff -- from the manager on down -- were half as sweet. Because in the end, I'd rather be called immature than subject myself to such spotty treatment again.
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