Try visiting a new restaurant these days and you'll be hard-pressed to find a server who doesn't deliver an opening soliloquy extolling the many virtues of the menu's fare. There's the heartwarming story of the sun-ripened, locally grown tomatoes; the detailed description of the sugar-sweet seasonal, organic strawberries; the chef's pride in sourcing humanely raised heritage pork; and a bet that these are without a doubt the freshest free-range eggs you'll ever taste. Rest assured, the entire meal is at once cruelty-, GMO-, pesticide-, hormone-, and guilt-free.
Such has become the cornerstone on which every new gastropub is built. You could say this farm-to-fork movement got its start with California cuisine, what is best surmised in four words: fresh, seasonal, local, and sustainable.
Before 1970, you couldn't find produce like arugula, crimini mushrooms, or microgreens in grocery stores. Likewise, most restaurants weren't ordering them from the national suppliers.
All that changed with chefs like Alice Waters, often credited as one of the pioneers of California cuisine and made famous for her desire to source only organic, locally grown ingredients. The founder of Chez Panisse, a restaurant that opened in Berkeley, California, in 1971, her menu was all the rage, consistently ranked among the world's best restaurants from 2000 to 2008.
Today, California cuisine has become the norm — only now we use words like craft, artisanal, farm-to-fork, and ethical eating. At its best, it's a clean approach to dining out, with chefs relying on local or seasonal items. (At its worst, it's a red flag for tiny portions served at astronomical prices.)
In South Florida, California cuisine found a foothold with restaurateur Dennis Max. When he relocated to the area in 1978, he recalls thinking the scene was ripe with opportunity for this new wave of establishments.
"A few restaurants were doing something close to what I was thinking, but not really," says Max. "I said to myself: 'This place is going to explode.' I knew it was primed and ready for that next generation, that evolution, of new American cuisine."
Above all, Max — who got his start in the industry in the early 1970s with national restaurant chain Victoria Station — says his goal was to incite inspired eating in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Max's first attempt to bring California cuisine was Raffles in Miami. He moved on to create his own brand of California-American cuisine with the opening of Café Max in Pompano Beach in 1984. Successful from the start, Max built on its foundation, following with a string of ventures including Maxaluna in Boca Raton and Brasserie Max in Plantation. In the 1990s, he joined forces with Burt Rapoport, opening Max's Grille in Mizner Park and — most recently — Max's Harvest in Delray Beach's Pineapple Grove.
Now, Max is looking forward once again. His goal, he says, is to bring about the next evolution of California cuisine with Max's Social House, which opened in downtown Delray Beach in the former Ceviche Tapas space (and, before that, the Falcon House) in January. Just a few blocks from the Atlantic Avenue restaurant row, the location offers a decided peace and quiet from the hustle and bustle of the tourist-trap streetscape.
Dubbed SOHO for short, the concept is an extension of the gastropub, says Max, but billed as tapas-style eatery with dishes that are meant to be shared with friends or family over several courses. With two bars (one indoor, one out), a living-room cozy interior dining space, and a large covered garden patio, the historic home has been rebranded as a "social house." A back wall has been fashioned into a statement piece of sorts, about 150 glass jars of house-pickled vegetables in neat rows. During a busy happy hour rush, this view is obscured by a swarm of patrons, transforming the cottage's cramped interior into a claustrophobia-inducing space with conversation so loud it borders on clamorous. On a quiet weekday afternoon, the outdoor patio presents a more peaceful mingling space, a mix of high-tops and tables positioned out of the sun and just far enough from the downtown congestion.
To execute the menu, Max matriculated Scott Pierce from Max's Harvest, who previously served as sous chef with several of South Florida’s best-known restaurants, including Da Campo Osteria by Todd English in Fort Lauderdale, Mark’s at the Park in Boca Raton, and Nevis in Fort Lauderdale.
At SOHO, he imbues the menu with a good dose of reality — if he can't get it locally, he'll source it nationally, but never outside the States — and also with serious technique, evidenced by whimsical dishes like his banh-mi Kobe hot dog prepared with sriracha aioli, jalapeños, house-made stout mustard, and a Brussels sprout kraut.
Like Max, Pierce is dedicated to the Social House creed: Bartenders hand-press fresh juices for the bar's craft cocktails, the draft selection features mainly local beer, the meats are heritage-bred, and the cheeses and produce are American-grown and artisanally produced. It's the same eye-roll-inducing spiel you hear everywhere else, of course, and one glance at the menu and the first instinct is to categorize it with every other restaurant that has opened in town.
You'll see Pierce thinking outside the standard culinary box, however, with a brilliant starter idea called "Walk the Plank," SOHO's cocktail and appetizer presented in tandem, served on a wood board. The pairing changes each day, a way to coax your palate into the meal ahead. On a recent trip, a short glass of sriracha- and cilantro-laced tequila is delivered beside a trio of cheese-stuffed cherry peppers and a few slices of pickled green tomatoes, a vibrant prelude to our meal.
More of Pierce's dedication to simple starters continues with "Ice Breakers" — five small plates that include chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon and served with a piquillo pepper sauce, warm olives marinated in citrus and chili, and a creamy pimento cheese spread served with toasted bread and more of those thick-cut pickled tomatoes.
The pickle jar is not what we expect, however, cucumbers sliced thin and rather bland. They're meant to be piled atop more of the same crusts of toasted bread with a dollop of locally produced whey butter, and both are mellow enough that thick slices of bread override the delicate ingredients. The cured meat and cheese board, however, is a highlight — enough to share among a table of four with a varied selection of each, served with pickled vegetables, bread, and an earthy apple-based jam.
Appetites piqued, move on to "Small Talk," where you'll find the ubiquitous octopus à la plancha, steamed mussels, and Old Bay, parsley, and lemon-scented chilled shrimp. The pork belly ramen leaves you wondering exactly how one shares a bowl of soup with the table, but when it arrives rich and fragrant, you won't mind if no one asks for a taste.
Grazers can find comfort with several salads prepared — and priced — for group sharing. They highlight the best of Pierce's produce sourcing, the best in what's seasonal from across the country, everything from the heirloom tomatoes in the burrata salad to the arugula dressed in an ascerbic lemon vinaigrette.
The "Comfort Zone" creations are where this menu makes its mark, opening with a smoked and roasted half-chicken, served with a honey-hot sauce and buttermilk mashed potatoes. Beef comes in the form of a Wagyu flat-iron steak, that hot dog, or a burger blend of rib eye, filet, and chuck that's braised in veal bone marrow and topped with beef-broiled onions and two-year-aged cheddar.
When we visited, Pierce was fervent about the slow-braised short rib, a small slab of meat swimming in a pool of natural jus and served alongside a palm-sized skillet of handmade pasta mac 'n' cheese. The doughy tubes of pasta are the highlight, submerged in a liquid bath of melted cheddar and Provolone. The short rib is more tough than tender, though, the rich demi-glace its only redemption.
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The only real complaint about the place is that some of the larger sharing plates aren't all that shareable. But it's a problem only if it prevents smaller parties from taking part in dishes like the $25 heritage pork chop or the $24 skillet-roasted mahi. These dishes aren't pricey, but with so much creative fare to sample before them, it could stop a couple from moving past the appetizer-styled plates, possibly never delving into Pierce's deeper dishes.
In Palm Beach County's new darling small town, Max's Social House certainly appears to be a welcome newcomer, guests swarming to try the latest Max concept. The only lament, says Max, is that he feels that he missed the boat on Miami and South Beach.
"That should be me down there, helping to pioneer this idea. I missed it," says Max. "But I feel like we're on the cusp of something new and different here in Delray — the refinement of the gastropub. And Max's Social House is certainly a part of that next generation of dining."
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.