The Empire Strikes Back

Houston's, T.G.I.Fridays, Tarpon Bend, City Cellar Bar & Grill. Blame Dennis Max for the glut of casual-upscale restaurants threatening to overrun every privately owned casual and upscale eatery in Coral Gables. After all, it was his formula of posh interiors and accessible, reasonably priced contemporary American food that made him king of South Florida restaurateurs in the mid-Eighties. His empire at that time included Café Maxx, Brasserie Max, Maxaluna, Max's Place, and Max's Grille — seventeen venues altogether. Like all empires, this one dissolved, but you can't keep a good Max down: Dennis is staging something of a comeback via his most successful franchise, Max's Grille, which has already been established as a popular Boca Raton restaurant for fourteen years. There's also a branch in Palm Beach Gardens, and plans for more are in the works. This past January, Max's Grille debuted in Coral Gables.

Max's blueprint for mass-appeal dining is practically guaranteed to please. First he provides a stylish and sophisticated setting. The Gables location is 7000 soaring square feet of ochre-tone space, with terrazzo floors, mahogany-clad walls, booths, banquettes, an open kitchen, and oversize lamp shades looming overhead. A floor-to-ceiling wine display separates this 185-seat dining room from the bar and lounge area up front.

A bubbly bar scene is the second piece of the puzzle, and apparently it is already in place: During our visit, the stools were filled with casual upscale singles, upscale casual singles, upscale or casual singles, and some folks who were simply interested in having a drink, not an encounter. A glass wall by the bar opens to the street, and on weekends the overflowing social scene spills out onto the sidewalk.


Max's Grille

2 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables; 305-567-2600.

Open for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:00 to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:00 p.m. to midnight.

The dining room likewise extends outdoors, with tables providing alfresco seating for 80. This brings us to the third component of Max's strategy, a bill of fare rife with classic modern restaurant dishes that have proven popular time and again. Executive chef here is Patrick Broadhead, though John Belleme oversees culinary operations at the various outlets. Belleme, who began his career at Maxaluna in 1988, is only one of a long line of luminary local chefs who first took flight under Max's wing; others include Mark Militello, Oliver Saucy, Johnny Vincenz, and Kerry Simon (since relocated to Vegas).

Max rarely brings inspiring cuisine to the table, but simply put, the food here tastes good. Fried rings and tentacles of calamari came crisply crusted in a light, airy buttermilk batter, intermingled with delicate, paper-thin circles of fried zucchini. Moist morsels of duck, tucked into three miniature corn taco shells, pleased with a fiery Napa coleslaw — even if a "chile-lime barbecue sauce" in which the bird was to be tossed sounded mostly the sweet noise of hoisin. A cool cocktail of plump, jumbo shrimp or a seductive selection of sparkling cold-water oysters present clean, refreshing, not-to-be-missed options with which to begin your meal, as does a crunchy wedge of iceberg lettuce laced with creamy, chunky Maytag blue cheese dressing. A mainplate caesar salad with warm, juicy strips of organic rotisserie chicken was also praiseworthy. The romaine leaves, lightly wet with a dressing aggressively accented with anchovy and grana padano cheese, came laden with a busy but blissful blend of diced tomatoes, ripe avocado, bacon, and crunchy hazelnuts. Just about anybody would find starters and salads such as these to be agreeable, which is exactly what Max aims for.

Everyone likes pizza, too, but that doesn't necessarily bode well for the "pizzettes" served here. The narrow, rectangular flatbreads come creatively crowned — one topping features wild mushrooms, roast garlic, fontina cheese, leeks, and truffle oil — but as savory as the flavors might be, these flimsy breads make a meager surrogate for the real thing.

Max's Grille bills itself as a "modern American bistro," which seems like a fair enough description, but this place is also, as the name suggests, a grill. And who among us can't enjoy a sixteen-ounce Delmonico, thirteen-ounce center-cut New York strip, filet mignon, or churrasco-style skirt steak imbued with the smoky aroma of smoldering oak chips? Well, yes, vegetarians, but you get the point. We certainly relished two juicy pork chops sprinkled with rosemary needles, but two of three accompaniments were absent — apple cranberry relish and mustard pan sauce. That's not good, and neither were hunks of weakly flavored zucchini and yellow squash as a substitute for the fruity compote. A stiff stack of mashed potatoes was nothing to write home about either.

Specialties of the house convey a canny, concise choice of poultry, pastas, and fish. Orecchiette pasta was flawless, the firm little cups embedded with chopped, housemade chicken sausage; bitter, bright green broccoli rapini; a splash of olive oil; a touch of garlic; and papery flecks of pecorino cheese. Max's signature meat loaf drew approval around the table as well, the thick slab moist and well seasoned; the same graceless mashed potatoes and squash were served as sides. Least satisfying entrée proved to be a macadamia-crusted fillet of yellowtail snapper, its finely ground nut coating limp and pale, the pineapple-poblano salsa on top a vinegary distraction. Excepting three of the steaks, entrée prices range from $16 to $25. These days, that's not bad.

Desserts follow the same path of least resistance as everything else on the menu, but the well-trod selection of key lime pie, ice-cream sundae, et cetera, is so familiar it breeds contempt. Still "almost world famous apple pie" brought a tall cylinder of buttery crust filled to the brim with subtly sweetened apples, drizzled with caramel sauce, and chaperoned by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. And flourless chocolate cake was even better — warm, not too sweet, and as softly luxurious as a souffle. You can't please all the people all the time, but Max, and Max's Grille, sure give it a try.


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