I've heard Kerry Simon thinks I hate him. If he harbors that suspicion, it's probably due to the unfavorable opinions I expressed in these pages about Starfish, the restaurant he launched with partner Debbie Ohanian in 1993. But really, it's nothing personal. I was crazy about his Blue Star, the crown jewel of the then-newly renovated Raleigh Hotel. But pastel-pretty Starfish's pretentious ambiance was a bad match for his (grilled) meat-and-(mashed)potatoes style. To make matters worse, the fetching Simon spent as much time posing for ads as he did in the kitchen. Now, though, with his name inscribed upon the heavy glass door of the nine-month-old Max's South Beach, the 40-year-old Simon seems to have settled into his South Beach niche.
And what a niche it is. A magnificent mahogany bar focuses the eye immediately; booths, banquettes, and bistro chairs, all done in black leather, echo the dark wood while white linens and a varnished stone floor add chic contrast to the Washington Avenue space vacated by the failed Cassis. Purposefully dim lighting makes it difficult to read the menu, but it's a small tradeoff: Here atmosphere is everything.
Some credit for the 90-seat bistro's appeal must go to partners Dennis Max and Burt Rapoport (Simon owns a minority share in the business), the team that practically baptized South Florida with New American cuisine in the Eighties A Cafe Max (now Darrel & Oliver's Cafe Maxx) in Pompano Beach, Maxaluna and Max's Grille in Boca Raton, the Prezzo chain, and Max's Place in North Miami, which Mark Militello subsequently bought and renamed Mark's Place. But Simon, a Culinary Institute of America grad whose Miami Beach career was preceded by stints in New York at Lutäce, Lafayette, and the Plaza's Edwardian Room, is king of the kitchen.
His big-city training and down-home attitude toward food fit neatly with the New Yorkish surroundings. Our bread basket included Parmesan-dusted flatbread and buttery housemade drop biscuits, delightful accompaniments to the appropriately labeled "chopped salad, the whole fridge, and Gruyäre, too." Tossed in a darkly sweet balsamic vinegar, the salad was sufficient for two and comprised shredded romaine, chick peas, diced carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, beets, jicama, and celery, plus chunks of mildly pungent Gruyäre, all served upon a plate dusted with black pepper.
The salad's heft -- the chef has never been shy when it comes to dishing it up -- was a sign of things to come. A barbecue duck quesadilla appetizer rivaled the size of a Mexican restaurant's entree. Of course at a Mexican restaurant it would have been called a burrito, which is what it most closely resembled: a flour tortilla plumped as thick as my wrist with duck, a tangy tropical fruit salsa, and chili-spiced black beans that were firmly textured and seasoned to perfection.
A starter of fried calamari demonstrated a sense of humor, though I'm not sure I entirely got it. Spilling out of a tipped-over Chinese take-out container, the squid was escorted by a harem of sauces -- ginger-tomato, wasabi-mayo, and lemon-basil -- with a pair of paper-wrapped chopsticks crowning the pile. But the Asian presentation was upset by the squid's white cornmeal breading; neither the ginger-tomato nor the wasabi sauce worked. What did work was the squid itself: crisp, hot, and so tender it could have been a love song.
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Same went for an entree of salmon tandoori. In all honesty, I'm a little sick of the pink-fleshed fish, which seems, unfortunately, to have replaced snapper as the fish of choice even in South Florida. But I've never had it this way, rubbed with a mixture of ginger, garlic, ground coriander, fresh cilantro, honey, and a reduction of tomatoes, then oven-baked at a high temperature to a shimmering gloss. The exterior, almost candied, kept the moist flaky fillet from being rendered overly dry. Side dishes of warm black bean salad and a tangle of cayenne pepper-and-flour-encrusted onion rings were equivalent achievements.
Another roasted main course, marinated loin of pork, was a treat, the juicy, cumin-accented meat enhanced by cinnamony slices of stewed apples and an inspired, smoky hash of sweet potatoes. This serving was filling, but nothing compared to the sixteen-ounce grilled rib-eye steak. Should you have the courage to order this magnificent cut, the carnivore in you will be well rewarded. Glazed with maple syrup, the succulent meat had a distinctive sugary edge; what little of the plate that was left uncovered by the rib eye was filled on one side with creamy and sticky basil mashed potatoes, while a white corn sauce spiked with wine and cream lined the other. Finally, buttermilk-battered onion rings erupted from the center of the steak.
The owners seem to have abandoned their aim to run a restaurant where no single dish costs more than $20, and although the combination of high quality and generous portions ensures good value, it's possible to plunk down a fair amount of cash. With that in mind, we tried a tuna burger, at $12.95 one of the lower-priced entrees. The coarsely ground fish was shaped into a hefty circumference, grilled, and served on a kaiser roll with sliced red onion, tomato, and lettuce. A good idea, but executed poorly. The tuna tasted fishy to the point of being suspect, the roll stale. A good soy-wasabi sauce wasn't nearly enough to come to the rescue, and neither were even-better side servings of waffled potato chips and stir-fried squash, onions, and peppers.
The only other low point in my two visits to Max's came early in one meal, when we were left sitting A minus bread and water and with our menus closed -- for more than twenty minutes while our would-be server attended to parties that had been seated after ours. Dessert, though, banished all disappointment from memory. Even better than a delicious cheesecakey banana cream pie (sweets at Max's generally echo Simon's philosophy of updated nostalgia) was a slice of goodwill the kitchen sent forth to atone for the staff's earlier inattention: a complimentary and decidedly decadent bittersweet chocolate bombe. In my book, a little chocolate goes a long way toward forgiveness.