October is National Cookbook Month. Bet you didn't know that, didja? It's also National Pickled Pepper Month, National Adopt-a-Dog Month, National Cosmetology Month, and National Sarcastics Month -- but none of that concerns us here. We're thinking only of glossy hardbacks full of new recipes, clever anecdotes, helpful hints; cookbooks to fall asleep in bed with, to display on our coffee tables, and maybe, if we're brave enough, to throw open on our kitchen counters and smear with buttery fingerprints.
Such a tome is Chef Dean James Max's new seafood cookbook, A Life by the Sea ($40, from www.3030ocean.com). By the time I'd finished drooling over its glossy pictures of mile-long bridges and Florida stone crabs prepared four ways, not to mention the many shots of Chef Max in some sun-dappled field brooding over Homestead tomatoes, I was ready. Not ready to actually cook anything, mind you, but certainly to pick up the phone and see if I could get Dean Max to talk about why the wahoo sashimi at his restaurant, 3030 Ocean at the Marriott's Harbor Beach Resort, is just about the most delicious thing I've ever put in my mouth.
Max grew up on a farm in Virginia. But he's really a Florida boy at heart -- you can still hear faint traces of a surfer accent in his attenuated vowels. Dude, he spent his formative teenage years pulling killer moves in Stuart! With a crate of tangerines under one arm and a longboard under the other, Max worked for his dad's produce brokerage when he wasn't chasing waves; he ate fish caught off the side of a dock and vegetables culled from local farms. That halcyon boyhood has made him a maniac for simplicity.
Marriott's Harbor Beach Resort, 3030 Holiday Dr., Fort Lauderdale/2601 Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach
Dinner Monday through Sunday from 6 to 11 p.m. Call 954-765-3030./Dinner daily 5:30 to 10 p.m. Call 954-782-0606.
But what Max means by "simple" might entail something like this: a slab of black grouper, rich and lustrous as alabaster, lightly glazed, bejeweled by sweet golden corn kernels, an emerald-hued mini-bunch of broccolini, pale hearts of palm, a dab of the silkiest potato purée, and a single tiny beet glistening like a ruby within a sheer platinum setting of curry-coconut sauce. At 3030 Ocean, this "simple" dish will set you back $29. Or you can buy his new cookbook and learn how to make it, or something like it, yourself.
The point, reiterated in both Max's cookbook and at his 5-year-old restaurant, where the menu changes daily, is that if you start with great fresh ingredients, there's no need to cover up foods' natural beauty with heavy coatings and sauces.
"I'll give you an example," he says over much background pan-clanging, when I catch up with him by phone at 3030. "Take a BLT. It's the simplest thing in the world, right? If you make it with Wonderbread and a green tomato and some grocery store bacon well, you know what happens. But if you take some Nueske smoked bacon they smoke it themselves, just the right amount and put it on some artisanal crusty bread and you add some homemade aioli, farm fresh tomatoes, and crisp romaine lettuce, it'll be the best BLT you've ever had."
Garbage in, garbage out, eh? Still, I've spent way too many hours pawing through the aisles of specialty stores for precious, weird ingredients (try finding "ramps" in South Florida) in vain hopes of satisfying the sadistic taskmasters who write contemporary cookbooks. I'm skeptical of this organic/slow food/seasonally conscientious thing whenever it threatens to turn my life into a scavenger hunt. Happily, Max's cookbook operates under the assumption that the reader prefers relaxation mode above all else. For Max, you begin with the best food you happen to have, and then you arrange your recipe around it no more high-maintenance dinners. This cookbook helps you get creative. Once you understand the qualities of individual fish and a little bit about contrasting tastes and textures, you can wing it.
A Life by the Sea is organized into sections, grouping together seafood with similar qualities. Under "soft/delicate/sweet/lean," for example, you'll find skate, halibut, turbot, and Dover sole. In theory, at least, you slope down to your local fish market. You see that their snapper looks old and dry, but they've got excellent turbot, right off the boat. So you buy the turbot. But say your local produce stand is out of the cauliflower that goes in Max's turbot recipe. Well, you can switch it out and use your turbot in the Dover sole recipe instead, cooking it with mushrooms and asparagus; or with the skate recipe, which calls for leeks and lentils. Here's a cookbook that actually teaches you how to think about cooking fish instead of only how to slavishly follow the convoluted recipe of some windbag celebrity chef.
Or maybe your fishmonger doesn't have any fresh Florida wahoo. In that case, you throw down your cookbook and drive right over to 3030, where Max will dish up that wahoo you're craving, for $12, as raw sashimi. Pale rounds of fish overlap on a rectangular plate, bare but for a dusting of crunchy sea salt, coarse peppercorns, and a touch of champagne vinaigrette. A tiny, tart salad made with finely diced Savoy cabbage, whole toasted pecans, and an earthy, unbelievably yummy white truffle-oil aioli, comes with it. If I lived nearby, you'd find me bellied up to the bar every night at precisely 6 p.m. opening time, wailing for my wahoo.
"Wahoo is usually really dry," Max says. "People try to cook it, and it's awful, and they say, 'I'm not serving this.' But when it's just barely seared, it eats like tuna. You give it a little acidity, add some spice, and it just wakens your tongue up. Once you get used to these clean, simple flavors, which we owe at least partly to the Japanese, it's really hard to go back to eating heavy foods again."
Once you get used to Dean Max's food, it's hard to go back to eating any other food at all, unfortunately. To see if I'd Max-ed out, I forayed over to Café Maxx in Pompano Beach to find out what Chef Oliver Saucy was up to with his fall menu. As you know, Saucy is the dean of Florida's New World Cuisine he's been at it now for well over 20 years. The man has received a lot of well-deserved praise and many prestigious awards, and he has a big heart: He has long been an advocate for the organic, the seasonal, the locally grown, raising millions for hunger relief through Share Our Strength.
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A culinary saint, a great chef all the harder, then, to pick nits with his establishment. We could have opted for "light fare and small plates," but instead we leapt into hearty, fatty, autumnal dishes seared foie gras with pumpkin flan and candied pecans over spinach ($17.95) followed by tapenade grilled swordfish with oven-roasted plum tomatoes and parmesan-saffron risotto ($26.95). We also tried an herbed Belmont goat cheese tart with poached pear and crimson grapes ($9.25) and then a New Zealand elk chop on toasted cashew rice pilaf with curried apricot pear chutney ($37.50). Every dish was perfectly executed. But this food felt, frankly, a little passionless, a little rote. And yes, more than a little heavy.
I've been eating foie gras like a madwoman since pushy vegetarians started making rumbling noises about banning its production and sale. I close my eyes, take tiny bites of this manna from heaven, and pray that the pitiful ducks and geese who gave me their bloated livers are now in a kinder, gentler otherworld. With Saucy's pairing of sweet pumpkin, salty sautéed spinach, and crunchy toasted pecans, his foie gras is rich, expensive bliss. But this dish hasn't changed much since I sampled it years ago at Café Maxx, and maybe it needs to come out of rotation. It's starting to feel stuffy, old-fashioned, and out of the loop.
Ditto for the elk and the swordfish clubby, clueless foods, hunkered stubbornly down on their china plates while life goes on elsewhere. They are the Dick Cheneys of the gastronomic world. Whether swordfish is still overfished and/or highly poisoned with mercury is controversial, but however fresh the fillet itself, there's nothing fresh about the idea of swordfish, much less risotto and plum tomatoes. And elk? The chop tasted fine, if you like a faintly gamey rare meat tarted up with fancy, heavy chutney. Elk may conjure visions of crisp autumn hunting seasons for some, but for me, it just calls to mind the musty trophy heads in my Great Uncle Dudley's game room. Elk is just not hip.
A fair criticism? Does everything have to be trendified? I'm probably not Café Maxx's target audience anyway, and I'm aware that I must sound impossibly jaded. But there really wasn't much on the menu to keep me from stifling yawns shrimp scampi ($26), chardonnay steamed mussels ($10), mango-glazed mahi ($26.95), or blue cheese and pine-nut-crusted rack of lamb ($41.50). Even the place itself is unwelcoming and impersonal the waitrons so brisk and professional, you wonder if you're being served by androids. On a busy Saturday night, nobody seemed to be having a very good time. Except, that is, for two boisterous ladies behind us. Apparently meeting for a long-overdue reunion, they ordered an expensive bottle of champagne and cackled away delightedly through their entire meal ("Giiiirl, you told him what???") These were clearly the kind of ample, gussied-up women who make their own fun wherever they go. The rest of us may need a little help from the kitchen.