As ye sow, so shall ye reap, the Bible tells us.
Of course, it also says, If thine eye offend thee, yank the motherfucker out, so it's probably a good idea not to take this biblical stuff too literally.
Still, when it comes to sowing and reaping and Dennis Max, the Good Book may be on to something. See, along with then-partner Burt Rapoport, Max is as responsible as anyone for having lifted South Florida out of the culinary Pleistocene era.
He came straight outta Southern California in the late 1970s with a trio of wacky-ass notions that were already in the process of revolutionizing the entire American dining scene. One was that American food — food shaped by the myriad cultural influences poured into our national melting pot — was nothing to be ashamed of, that it was a lot more than burgers and dogs and fries. Two, that menus shouldn't be driven by tradition, ennui, or whatever got humped off the Sysco truck but rather by talented chefs and quality ingredients sourced as locally and seasonally as possible, handled just enough to showcase their natural goodness. Number three was that restaurants didn't have to be staid, snobby churches preaching the gospel of Dining Too Fine for You, Peasant. They could be casual, affordable, fun, exciting, entertaining... loud, even. And — here comes the important part — they could still serve really good food. Nowadays that might seem as obvious as gravity, but back then, it was like saying Auguste Escoffier cooked with Hamburger Helper.
For a decade or so, Max and Rapoport were hotter than a foot-long spliff. But as tends to happen with these things, the spliff burns out, the high wears off, and then all you want to do is crash on the couch. Which is pretty much the way it went for Dennis Max. Though in the following years his Max's Grille in Mizner Park became a local institution, restaurants in Coral Gables and Palm Beach Gardens had the half-life of bacteria, and young hotshots like Michael Schwartz surged to the front of the local, seasonal, sustainable movement.
Then Max got the itch again, scratching the urge to reap the harvest of all those seeds he'd sown some 30-plus years ago. The result is the aptly named Max's Harvest, where the cozy ambiance, knowledgeable and efficient service, and food that chef Chris Miracolo (formerly of Himmarshee Bar & Grille) is knocking out of the park have in less than a month made it one of the hottest dining tickets in town.
Fire up the spliff again.
And since you know that in an hour or so you're going to be hungry enough to gnaw your own arm off, take this opportunity to order a pair of Miracolo's cheffified takes on 1950s suburban cocktail party munchies: deviled eggs ($4) and chips 'n' dip ($4). Of course, it's not likely your average Eisenhower-era suburban housewife used eggs from free-ranging chickens, goosing their deeply golden yolks with a sprinkling of earthy-exotic truffle salt, or bothered to fry her own potato chips to crisp, greaseless, rosemary-infused addictiveness and pair them with a rich, tangy onion dip studded with nifty bits of caramelized Vidalia onion. She, after all, was making junk food. This is junque cuisine.
Whether junque or more rarefied, it's cuisine that announces its provenance right there on the menu and on a chalkboard at the bar. House-smoked bacon, house-made tasso, house-made pappardelle. Key West shrimp, Cedar Key clams, local grouper, day-boat swordfish. Green Cay tomatoes, Swank Farms produce, Heritage Hen eggs, Palmetto Creek pork, the smack-yo-mama-succulent Akaushi beef from Jackman Ranch (more on that later).
You can practically trip over a dish here and fall face-first into something delicious. Like anything Miracolo makes with pig. That house-made tasso — a sneakily spicy, intensely smoky Cajun ham — drops a nuclear flavor bomb into a winy broth flecked with sun-dried tomatoes, corn, cilantro, and plump, juicy, fingernail-sized Cedar Key clams ($16).
Or chunks of gloriously fatty, ravishingly porky Heritage pork belly, glistening like piggy diamonds under a just-short-of-too-sweet bourbon-maple glaze and set off by sautéed peaches, peppery mustard greens, and itsy rings of deep-fried shallot ($12). Or even the BLT salad, whose planks of unconscionably good bacon cut as thick as a steak-house T-bone, tart-crunchy fried green tomatoes, and tongue-tingling black pepper-buttermilk dressing almost made up for the head of tired, wilted-around-the-edges baby romaine ($11).
The only dish that refused to work for me was an elaborate assemblage of fried Key West shrimp in a puffy, tempura-like batter over an insanely buttery corn and leek ragout with baby arugula, pesto, pickled pearl onions, and shards of piquillo pepper ($14). It was like a bunch of people standing around in a room but not talking to one another; nothing pulled all the disparate elements together.
Really, though, it doesn't matter, because Max's serves the finest steak in Palm Beach County. Honest. It's a cut hardly anybody has heard of, costs about half of what you'd pay for a slab of designer cow at any of our local temples of carnivorous consumption, and is so stupidly, mouthwateringly luscious that you know God was a meat-eater because otherwise She would have put all that goodness into tofu.
Actually, credit goes to Justin Jackman, who raises Akaushi (a type of Wagyu) cattle on his 5,300-acre ranch in Clewiston. The cut is called "bavette" ($25), a hanger steak-like hunk off the bottom part of the sirloin that, when cooked over high heat to caramelize the surface, sliced against the grain, and served no more than medium-rare, is to dedicated meaters what plastic surgery is to aging Hollywood actresses. Unfortunately, this beefy wonder comes with limp, listless fries that aren't worth the stomach space to consume; ask instead for some of those tasty house-made chips.
There's more too, like wild salmon that shows off Miracolo's ability to pair and contrast subtle flavors and textures. A coral-red fillet arrives with skin as brittle as ancient glass and flesh that flakes at the mere wave of a fork, gilded with tiny Dutch marble potatoes that taste like sweet earth, equally diminutive asparagus tips, nutty fava bean purée, and elegant, refined yuzu-truffle vinaigrette ($28).
Hand-cut pappardelle with spring lamb ragout is rather pricey at $22, but it does bring to the table at least twice that much in deep, unctuous, slow-cooked flavor, the lamb as tender as a baby's kiss, the mahogany-colored sauce studded with artichokes and peas, the whole thing scattered with salty-pungent pecorino.
The kitchen doesn't let up with dessert either. Pineapple upside-down cake ($8) is a sweet-toothed symphony of contrapuntal flavors — the faint taste of corn and vegetal nuances of olive oil in the polenta-olive oil cake, the sweet-tangy pineapple, the slight bitterness of caramel, the dreamy blandness of vanilla ice cream. House-made doughnuts ($9), however, are pure wickedness, circles of warm, airy, cinnamon and sugar-dusted temptation that will surely lead you down the path to even further depravity, like dunking them in little vats of crème anglaise and berry compote.
Dennis Max is back. And we're all reaping the benefits.