Although many of the classics have remained on the menu at Max's Wine Dive (i.e., the Texas "Haute" dog, Southern fried chicken, gator beignets), Chef Michael Pellegrino has updated his selections for the spring to include many lighter, refreshing options.
"My goal was to create a menu that is gourmet with hints of comfort," he explained. "I've chicken fried everything, dipped it in chocolate, and served it with gravy, but I wanted to go in a new direction for the spring. I'm very big into spring and summer."
The first thing you'll notice about Pellegrino's food at is how beautiful it is. Upon seeing one breathtaking dish after another placed in front us, my friend busted out her camera phone, exclaiming "it's edible art. You could frame this and hang on it a wall".
Some of the dishes are decidedly perfect for spring, such as the surprisingly satisfying English cucumber salad with tzatziki dressing. English cucumbers are blended with roasted red peppers, breakfast radishes, mint, watercress and carb-free lotus root croutons. The result is an intense burst of delicate flavors that harmonize instead of competing. Then there's the green tea melon gazpacho with scallop and shrimp ceviche served in a halved avocado topped with a smattering of crunchy glass noodles.
But perhaps my favorite was the shrimp cocktail. Chef Pellegrino's goal was to make a shrimp cocktail that was tasty and "not boring". With three jumbo shrimp cooked to the perfect doneness, sitting proudly on top of thinly sliced avocado carpaccio and flavor accompaniments such as tasso ham-infused honey, red onion, cilantro and Meyer lemon, this may be my new go-to item.
Keep in mind that this is still meat-heavy Max's, and Pellegrino does not forget this fact. Crispy potstickers are stuffed full of hearty venison with a smoky mushroom dipping sauce. A wonderful meatloaf is kicked up with a topping of red curry gravy and a side of saffron-infused potatoes and bacony haricot verts. Another stand-out of the night was the Berkshire pork chop with smoked sea salt, balsamic-enriched red cabbage and smoothly sweet juniper-apple sauce. Served with a big knife sticking out of the chop, this is an entrée made for sharing.
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The gourmet element is clearly present in all of the new dishes with a supplementary element of hearty, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food that you expect from Max's. Pellegrino excels at mixing in unexpected flavors into his traditional dishes, while maintaining the integrity of the original. Yes, there may be juniper in the applesauce and honey in the shrimp cocktail, but what you taste are your favorite classic dishes executed perfectly. The menu is varied enough that you could bring a date, a friend, or even the family and everyone would find something that they would be beyond pleased with.
Asked to describe his new menu in his own words, Pellegrino said simply, "It's multicultural. It's Houston."