Simon's Symbiosis

In a previous life, when I wrote for a travel magazine, I kept up a running argument with one of the advertising sales representatives. "Without the revenue I bring in, you wouldn't have a job," she'd tease after locking up an account such as American Express.

"Without the text I create," I'd fling back, "you wouldn't have a product to sell."

Of course, we were both right. Call it codependency. A magazine simply can't publish without revenue, just as it can't exist without stories. Much as we were loath to admit it, we needed each other.

Some of the best restaurants experience a similar dynamic. Executive chefs, with their creative menus and kitchen skills, often feel uniquely responsible for the success of the establishment, while the restaurateur, operating the financial end of things, can feel certain he's the one holding the business together. The result is an uneasy partnership, a tension that is often communicated to the diner.

The presence of this peculiar vibe usually indicates that something about the eatery will soon change. Normally that change means the chef finds a new position. And while I try not to take sides, I admit I more readily follow a chef than a restaurateur.

Chef Kerry Simon has been easy to follow. Highly visible -- a good cook with good looks -- Simon has always made well-publicized if seemingly abrupt moves, from his post at Blue Star in the Raleigh Hotel to Starfish to Max's South Beach. I liked him best at Max's, where the upscale-diner feel of the place complemented his urban-cowboy creations; and the business, judging by the packed reservation book, was apparently booming.

So I was unprepared for the whispers I heard last spring that something was going awry at Max's, and wondered why I hadn't sensed the vibe the last time I dined there. I was delighted to realize why: In a slight twist on the dissolution of a partnership, this time it was the restaurateur, Dennis Max, who was departing. Everything would change -- the name from Max's to Mercury, the decor from black and dark woods to black and silver, the owner from Dennis Max to Kenneth Jaworski. Everything would change, that is, except for the chef. Kerry Simon was staying put.

I think Dennis Max is a great restaurateur, an excellent judge of culinary talent and a good manager, and I'll eat in any of his restaurants if I'm in his vicinity. But for me it's always the chef who makes the magic happen, and I was eager to see how Simon would work with Jaworski. The two collaborated on a new modern American menu that puts Jaworski's Eastern European heritage into the stylish mix. But aside from a couple of items, such as duck-stuffed pierogi and caviar accompanied by Polish vodka, the only departure I could detect from Simon's past style was the increase in prices -- the entrees range from $16 to $32, but only two main courses are actually under the $20 mark. The menu seemed a distillation of his South Florida experiences, culling the successful recipes (with the exception of meat loaf, which doesn't appear this time around) and deleting the failures. As a result, the silver-curtained Mercury, a sleekly minimalist, comfortably lighted, high-ceiling space, is Simon at his creative best.

The duck-stuffed pierogi appetizer is the first item on the heavy list (I mean that literally -- the menu is made of metal and looks like the positive proof of a photographer's plate). Served with a roasted mushroom sauce and and a warm cabbage salad, the two turnovers were eye-catching. They were also mouth-watering -- chunks of dark, juicy duck in a crusty, puffy shell reminiscent of an empanada. The vibrant mushroom sauce and sweet mild cabbage were ideal partners.

We also enjoyed a starter of caviar pie, a crisp potato pancake topped with sour cream, chopped egg, green onions, and more sour cream. The top layer comprised four different types of "caviar" in pielike wedges: bright orange salmon roe and three flavored caviars -- black jalapeno, golden citron, and neon green wasabi (this one was replaced with Tabasco at my second visit). A knowledgeable waiter informed us ahead of time that the flavored fish eggs were tobiko, the tiny roe from flying fish often used in Japanese restaurants, which took well to the spices. Truth be known, I missed the pungency of real caviar (only eggs from sturgeon can be legally sold under this designation), but as long as diners are informed of the difference, I have no real complaint.

A mellow starter played off the Vietnamese spring roll. Chunks of grilled lobster tail were partnered with mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, cooked rice noodles, enoki, and avocado -- all of it wrapped in rice paper and served cold. It was exquisitely fresh, but the lemongrass dipping sauce, which looked like typical sweet-and-sour and tasted like it too, lacked any defining character.

Steamers appeared differently than promised on the menu. Rather than cooked in Anchor Steam beer and served with drawn butter, the dozen and a half whitewater clams were drowning in buttery sauce and garnished with wedges of grilled bread. The tender little nuggets were tasty and fresh, though the sauce proved too briny. Roasted red and yellow pepper soup was also too salty, but delicious nonetheless. The puree of yellow peppers met the red peppers halfway across the bowl. In the middle, a parcel of grilled radicchio contained an oozing square of smoked mozzarella.

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