Restaurant Reviews

To the Max

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"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.

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.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd