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The Max Factor

You gotta admire -- maybe even envy -- Dennis Max. The South Florida restaurateur, along with his partners, wife Patti Max and Burt Rapoport, have created a veritable eatery empire. Their company, Unique Restaurant Concepts, runs more than a dozen dining emporiums and bakeries from Orlando to Miami. The restaurants range from high-profile places (Astor Place in South Beach) to mid-level spots (Max's BeachPlace in Fort Lauderdale) to low-end cafes (Max's Cafe & Coffee Shop in Boca Raton).

When Max and Rapoport opened their second restaurant, Raffles, in Miami in the late '70s (the first was Carlos & Pepe's in Fort Lauderdale), they were credited with bringing the "California movement" to South Florida. They served fresh, seasonal ingredients in regionally influenced combinations at a time when Fort Lauderdale was still into frying fish. They later split temporarily, and Max opened the nationally lauded Cafe Max in Pompano Beach (which later became Darrel & Oliver's Cafe Maxx) with his bride, Patti.

Then Max and Rapoport reunited in the late '80s and ushered in a new kind of operation: the restaurant group. The three Prezzos and four Max's Grilles (including one in Orlando) differ from chains in a couple of ways. For one thing, they're not franchised; the Maxes and Rapoport are strictly hands-on proprietors. For another, the menus, while somewhat formulaic, aren't static; each Prezzo and Max's Grille features an experienced head chef who's encouraged to put his own mark on the restaurant.

In fact Max has a casting director's knack for spotting talent; he's set up such award-winning chefs as Oliver Saucy, Mark Militello, and Johnny Vinczencz. So while the kitchen in the inaugural Max's Grille in Boca Raton might offer maple-mustard-glazed salmon, the newest Max's Grille in Weston serves its fish with a light, soy-flavored, barbecue sauce. Either way, customers count on the fish being day-boat fresh, succulent, and moist, as ours was out in the sawgrass belt.

I won't give a blanket statement about Max's restaurants. I've had some terrific meals in some, mediocre meals in others, particularly where service is concerned. But I've never had a lousy repast, probably because Max is known to pull the plug on any restaurant that's financially draining the business, such as Max's South Beach in Miami-Dade.

I don't think Max will be pulling out of Weston anytime soon. His real estate agent's instinct for location has served him well, as usual; I've been waiting for someone to realize the potential of the Weston-Bonaventure area for years now. Forty thousand sophisticated suburbanites can't live on Italian food alone. The eclectic American cuisine at Max's Grille is a shot in this long-suffering culinary arm.

One of the biggest -- and tastiest -- influences among the fare at the 260-seat upscale diner, which opened in mid-October, is Asian. Executive chef Keith Rennie turns out savory, plump pot-stickers, filled with minced chicken. Another hearty appetizer was his meaty, barbecued short ribs, which were stacked atop each other as precariously as a house of cards. But we didn't have to worry about them tipping over, because we demolished the pile quickly. A main course of pad Thai, a nest of flat noodles flavored with ginger and yellow curry, was terrifically pleasing despite some slightly overcooked jumbo shrimp.

Otherwise, Rennie, like other Max's Grille chefs, specializes in regional American fare as contemporary as the restaurant's clean-lined, cherry-wood furniture and Deco-inspired, black-and-white terrazzo floor. Meat loaf, pork chops, grilled spring chicken, roast duck -- these are the mom-and-pop-type dishes Max and company usually update. A bit more cosmopolitan was the pistachio-crusted grouper, a rich and tender main course with a lemony bite.

A turkey burger -- a healthier take on the sirloin burger, topped with Maytag blue cheese -- was a little too well-done for my tastes, but the accompanying shoestring French fries were a crisp treat, reminiscent of the pommes frites found in French bistros. We also indulged ourselves with a main course of filet mignon, an inches-thick steak that was perfectly medium-rare and served with creamy, garlicky "smashed" potatoes. The eclectic mix is a Max trademark.

Max's Grille runs daily specials, including a flatbread of the day, which we found to be the only real misstep. The crunchy bread was topped with too many items: Parmesan-flavored sour cream, chorizo, roasted red peppers, Jack cheese, and mixed lettuces coated with a champagne vinaigrette. Remove the salad, and the cheesy bread could be seriously delicious. Like the main courses, the dish was substantial in size and could possibly prevent customers from ordering the sinful creme brulee pie, custard wrapped in phyllo dough, for dessert.

The restaurant accepts reservations only for parties of six or more, so I gathered a flock of friends to ensure a table. I thought I was being tricky, but others apparently had the same idea; many large parties filled the partitioned dining room, and a cooperative serving staff handled each with aplomb, despite the newness of the restaurant.

But even if patrons have to wait for a table at the bar, they don't seem to mind. The night we were there, most patrons knew each other. After they were seated, they table-hopped endlessly. I haven't witnessed that much kissy-kissy since I dined at Wolfie's Rascal House in Boca Raton. But then the raucous crowd is probably a good omen for Dennis and Patti Max and Burt Rapoport, who once again have broken fresh ground on familiar turf.

Max's Grille. 2210 Weston Rd., Weston, 954-217-0212. Lunch Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. till 3 p.m; Friday and Saturday from noon till 4 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5:30 till 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday from 5 till 11 p.m.


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