The "Texas Haute Dog" at Max's Wine Dive, the wildly popular new wine bar and restaurant on Washington Avenue, goes for $14. It's a grass-fed beef frankfurter on a Kraftsmen bun, topped with "house-made" pickled jalapeños, venison chili, cotija cheese and crispy fried onions that look remarkably like the Durkees canned onions of green bean casserole fame. The dog is served on top of a pile of hand-cut frites (that's French for French fries) that have been garnished with more venison chili.
The slogan on our bartender's black T-shirt read: "Haute dogs and Shiraz?...I'll take two!" Other T-shirts worn by employees advertised "Kobe Burgers and Cabernet" and "Fried Chicken and Champagne." Ever the sucker for a good advertising slogan, I ordered a glass of red wine to go with my hot dog. That was one of several mistakes I made on that visit to Max's.
My first miscalculation became apparent when the giant cone of frites I ordered as an appetizer arrived at the same time as the "haute dog" and the "Kobe burger," both of which came with enormous sides of frites. "You should have warned me," I told the bartender as he tried to clear a space for all of our food at the crowded bar.
"I figured you liked French fries," he shrugged. People drinking wine on either side of us looked displeased by the amount of space our many plates were taking up. I told the bartender I wanted to send the towering cone of frites back, although I would be happy to pay for them. He took them away and gave them to a couple of pretty girls sitting a few stools down the bar.
In deference to my attractive dining companion, I tried not to gawk. But it was impossible to ignore the six young women sitting side by side along the short side of the bar, all of them dressed to impress. Why this "wine dive" is such a singles magnet is a mystery to me.
But whatever the appeal, there is a certain ambience about a singles' bar that is not entirely conducive to the unrestrained enjoyment of food. As Planjam.com advises in their dating advice forum for singles: "Avoid ordering messy or sloppy food; you definitely don't want that huge burger with extra mayo dribbling down your face."
Max's haute dog was awesome, and so were the fries. And I mopped my chin frequently with a napkin so that my dining companion wouldn't notice the messy goo dribbling down my face. But once the pickled jalapeños and cumin-scented chili hit my palate, wine appreciation time was over.
I had picked an inky red called "Balandran" from Max's list of wine-by-the-glass specials. The list described it as "a delicious Rhone Red aged in new oak barrels with a blast of dark fruit and spice," and it was all that. But blasts of "dark fruit and spice" are no match for the ballsy flavors of jalapeños and chili. After one bite, I wanted a frozen margarita or a cold beer. Max's Wine Dive does sell beer. But what was I supposed to do with the glass of wine I just paid $12 for?
My dining companion and I had agreed to split the dog and the burger. The burger consisted of a half pound of juicy ground Kobe, cooked medium-rare as specified. It was topped with triple cream brie, house-pickled jalapeños, tomatoes and organic lettuce, and served on a Kraftsmen brioche bun. It was an excellent burger -- as well it should be for $18.
My dining companion got a glass of Saracco Pinot nero, an Italian Pinot noir that Max's by-the-glass list described as "an Italian drop kick to the mouth." It had a bright cherry-like flavor and a light red color with none of the over-oaked gravitas too often found in American pinots noirs.
The brie burger went better with the red wine than the chili dog. And as an avid home pickler, I admired the craftsmanship that went into the homemade jalapeños. But why a wine bar decided to get into making their own jalapeños, as opposed to say cornichons or fresh mozzarella, I have no idea.
We finished up, and the bartender took our plates away, which drew the attention of those around us. We had acquired our places at the bar by grabbing the stools when we saw a couple paying their bill. Now, there were a lot of people crowded around us waiting for the same opportunity.
The restaurant's stained concrete floors, brick walls and exposed ductwork ceiling give the place a casual vibe, but it's so crowded and noisy, it's hard to have a relaxing conversation. So we walked over to the other end of the shopping center, sat on the outdoor furniture on Molina's patio, ordered a couple of rounds of frozen margaritas and kicked back.
On my second visit to Max's Wine Dive, I resolved to do a better job. First, I invited a single male friend to go with me. Maybe Max's Wine Dive needed to be appreciated as a meat market rather than an eatery. I also decided to pair the food and wine according to common sense rather than the slogans on the restaurant's T-shirts.
My colleague Trent Steele ["How to Be Famous in Ten Easy Steps," April 27, 2004] and I found a couple of empty bar stools as soon as we walked in the front door. We ordered a bowl of mussels and a couple of glasses of white wine to start off. Trent was sitting on the very corner of the bar. I was to his left. To his right, an elderly man and his wife sat on either side of an attractive young woman. The young woman beamed at Trent and struck up a conversation. It seems they had met some years ago. The older woman turned out to be her mother. Soon, Mom got up and traded stools with the daughter so that the young woman could be closer to Trent. They talked incessantly.
He barely noticed when our mussels arrived. "Lone Star mussels" at Max's are steamed in Lone Star beer, with fresh lime juice, garlic, shallots and fresh serrano slices. The mussels are tasty enough, but it's the butter and cream they add to the broth that makes you want to pick up the bowl and drink it. The mussels came with several slices of Texas toast, cut on the diagonal. We dunked all those and sent the bartender back for more.
With Trent distracted, I got the lion's share of the mussels. This was working out perfectly.
Trent was drinking "Four Bears" Sauvignon blanc, which the wine list described as "crisp, dry, with citrus fruit and a hint of lemongrass." It wasn't nearly as tart as a good fish wine should be, but it was a decent aperitif. I got a glass of Luna Miel Albarino that was sensational. The wine was high in acidity, so it cut through the shellfish and cream flavors brilliantly
Last December, when I asked the manager of Oceanaire Seafood to recommend an oyster wine ["Half Shell Face-Off, December 26], he poured me a glass of another Albarino, this one from the Nora vineyard in Spain. I can't say I remember the Nora well enough to compare it to the Luna Miel, but I can say that Spanish Albarino is one of my new favorite white wines.
When our glasses were empty, the bartender sold me on a bottle of an unoaked Australian chardonnay which he claimed was as tart as the Albarino. It wasn't. But we drank it anyway.
Our entrées were a bit of a letdown. "Redfish, shrimp and grits" featured some cornmeal-coated fried shrimp and a nice chunk of fried redfish, but the grits, which were hardened and cut into a square like polenta, were sadly tasteless. Or maybe I've been spoiled by the shrimp and highly seasoned grits I have eaten at upscale Southern eateries like Central Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi.
The "fettuccine and fungus" entrée suffered from an identity crisis. The pasta sauce was timid, with a little tomato and a little cheese and a little butter, but no dominant flavor. It wasn't terrible, but I wouldn't order it again. And I love mushrooms.
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It was a little embarrassing to eat a lot of messy food in front of so many people. There were some entrées, like chili cheese fries topped with fried eggs, which I wouldn't even attempt to eat at the bar. I wish I could get some of this food at a diner, or somewhere I could eat it without inhibitions.
Executive chef Jonathan Jones has put together a terrific Texas "dive" menu, and wine buyer Michael Housewright has assembled a collection of cutting-edge wines that's light years ahead of most wine lists in the rest of the city. Unfortunately, these two exemplary efforts aren't entirely in synch with each other. I love venison chili and pickled jalapeños, and I love wine, but together?
I would have asked Trent for his thoughts on how well the menu harmonized with the wine list, but he was preoccupied. The rest of the throng at Max's Wine Dive didn't seem very worried about it either. Mostly they were drinking wine and socializing. And judging by the plates I saw passing by, the few who ate anything got hamburgers.
Before we left, Trent and the young woman entered each other's phone numbers into their cell phones. He said he liked the place a lot.