Dennis Max's latest venture, Max's Place, is now open in Bal Harbour Shops, in the space where Petrossian used to spoon out caviar. Things haven't been altered much inside, which is fine, because the tall ceiling, neat cherrywood trim, and plush banquettes make for a handsome and comfortable dining room; outdoor tables form a mirror image of Carpaccio's alfresco dining scene across the way. Petrossian was a formal and expensive establishment, while Carpaccio is informal, and entrées there rarely top $20. Max's Place is even more casual than Carpaccio (neither place uses table linens, but the latter's waiters wear jackets and ties, not Gap shirts), and prices range midway between the Russian and Italian numbers.
The service, if we put it nicely, is casual as well. If we put it honestly, it's lousy. On our first visit, we were never offered bread or water (on this account we'd have done better in prison). The waiter quickly brought both out upon request --while we were delving into appetizers -- but apologized for the paltry basket of not very fresh bread: "It's the end of the night, so we don't have much left." This was shortly after 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday, three hours before closing. To be fair he didn't have much time to set us up properly because our starters arrived about three minutes after we ordered them. On the other hand, he did have ample occasion to fill our water glasses during the meal, but never managed to. Neither did anybody else. The problem isn't understaffing, as a veritable herd of hostesses, waiters, and servers, all amiable enough, were hanging about in unobservant bliss.
One of the appetizers, crispy duck tacos, was gorgeous, four small corn shells arranged around a tall mound of sprightly slaw with an impeccable cilantro-leaf garnish on top, small pools of mango sauce brightening the plate. Unfortunately those duck tacos were delivered to the people seated next to us, who evidently were friends of management. Ours looked like a cafeteria version of the same item. The tacos themselves were toothsome, overflowing with morsels of soft-as-down duck in a dark, spicy chili-lime barbecue sauce. The slaw, however, was a minor clump of dull napa cabbage, red peppers, and mango: no sauce, no cilantro.
We were just finishing the tacos when main courses arrived, at which point I began to suspect we were unwitting participants in some believe-it-or-not contest to see how rapidly a table of diners could be turned over. Two of the three entrées were succulent successes, starting with a fresh and flawlessly prepared sea bass. A light miso-glaze browned the top of the flaky fish, which was propped up on a bed of barely wokked snow peas, red peppers, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and bean sprouts in a sweet ginger vinaigrette. Our mix was mostly sprouts, yet I couldn't help but notice that management's friends were privy to many more of the other vegetables. I was thinking that come dessert, I'd slide my chair up to their table.
Chili-crusted rib eye, a gigantic wedge of meat on a curved protruding bone, was anchored to the plate like a confiscated murder weapon being presented to the jury. Cooked a perfect medium-rare, the luscious beef was grainily coated with a robust but not piquant spice mixture of chili, cumin, and garlic, served with creamy red bliss "smashed" potatoes and two dipping sauces, creamy horseradish and tamarind. A smidgen of grilled vegetables, mostly red onions and red peppers, with one knob of undercooked eggplant and a smaller shred of undercooked yellow squash, also accompanied the dish. It's clear that potato gnocchi are homemade; no commercial firm would ever forward such formless dumplings. Still they were reasonably buoyant and possessed an emphatic potato flavor that paired well with peas, asparagus tips, and "baby portobello" mushrooms (fancy words for the regular white button variety). A promised "truffle emulsion" lacked both truffles and emulsion.
On a return engagement, we began things with the Chef's Pagoda, a trio of daily changing appetizers stacked atop one another on a three-tiered wrought-iron stand. The bottom plate on this night featured two rock-shrimp enchiladas, served lukewarm so the cheese topping them had taken on a plastic nature. I might have been more impressed with these at a Texas Taco Factory, but there was nothing to warrant their being featured on a higher-end menu, other than the novelty of rock shrimp. The middle tier held a small swatch of lemon- and olive oil-dressed arugula leaves with smashed truffle-oil-imbued Yukon potatoes, the earthy, elementary flavors coming together in a natural and agreeable manner. Soup sat on the top level -- you had to take it down to see what was in the bowl. What was in the bowl was a sparkling lobster broth spiked with ginger, red curry, and rice wine vinegar, and three wontons sparsely filled with lobster meat. Delicious, but the presentation was puzzling. Not every couple who shares an appetizer is intimate enough to feel comfortable slurping from the same soup bowl. What about two businesspeople meeting for the first time over dinner? And why create potential resentments by placing three dumplings in a soup being shared by two? Finally they neglected to bring us spoons, and we had to wait quite awhile until we could catch someone's attention. The same problem occurred during a prior visit, when it seemingly took forever to secure a steak knife. With a $20 dinner, perhaps I'd be more forgiving. For $50? Bring me my damn knife and spoon!
Chocolate soufflé didn't quite live up to the raised expectations inherent in this dessert. The chocolate flavoring was deep and strong, the center properly gooey with brown molten liquid, but the texture of the cakey outer part was denser than it should have been, and the accompanying sauces, chocolate and vanilla, were presented thick and cold in small metallic side cups. Loved the crme brélée pie though, and you will too, especially if your favorite part of a fruit tart is the custard, which is piled two-inches high in a hard sweet crust and topped with a thin brittle sheet of caramelized sugar. Fresh blueberries and raspberries dotted the custard, with additional berries served on the side.
Dennis Max has compared the elusiveness of restaurant success to that of film: "Every movie is not great. That's the nature of it." In general I enjoy Max's places, but while much of the cuisine here is praiseworthy, if service doesn't improve, this particular Place will be remembered as his Ishtar.
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