Colorful tattoos, handlebar mustache and calm but vivacious energy, Chef Michael dei Maggi holds court at MAX's Wine Dive like the king and the court jester all at once.
As he excitedly delivers plates of food then recites the dishes and their ingredients like a giddy yet brilliant schoolboy, his passion for his work becomes quickly apparent. A few media-types, food lovers and industry insiders got a firsthand glimpse of this during MAX's spring menu preview last week.
MAX's current menu can be construed as a bit...well...all over the place (the appetizer section alone has a confusing mix of English, French, Cajun and Southern items alongside Asian-inspired pork ribs), in addition to being pricy for the sake of being pricy. I've been harsh towards MAX's in the past for these very reasons. But with each fresh, vibrant bite we nibbled, it became clear that dei Maggi is tightening MAX's up, making it into more finely-tuned machine. For the first time, I felt like the food was living up to the price. And, finally living up to its name, these were all dishes that could be enjoyed with a great glass of wine.
large dose of food porn sampling of dishes from the new spring menu can be seen below the jump.
While MAX's has always relied heavily upon a menu based around Southern favorites with a twist, it had recently become seeded with items that seemed strangely out of place. Dei Maggi has mercifully removed those from the menu while retaining such favorites as the Fried Egg Sandwich and the Coca-Cola braised pork belly. He's also incorporated solid dishes like chicken-fried lamb chops with collard greens and "Gulfspacho," a twist on the standard gazpacho that's redolent with oysters and other assorted fresh Gulf seafood.
As you can see, some of the rather childish naming conventions -- Frickin' Chicken Fricasse, for example -- seem to have stuck around (I guess it wouldn't be a "Wine Dive" otherwise?). But on another bright note, he's retained MAX's original obsession with incorporating as many local and organic items into the dishes as possible.
The artisanal cheese plate isn't a new addition, but the refreshing trio of cheeses works well on a spring menu. Creamy brie and sharp blue on a bed of prosciutto and roasted peppers are enjoyable, but the real standout is an unassuming morsel of delicately buttery, nutty cheddar that's been rubbed in an intoxicating blend of espresso and lavender. The only problem with the cheese plate: there isn't enough to share with your friends; bloodshed may erupt if attempted.
The new menu leans briskly on seafood, which is mostly obtained through Airline Seafood. The salmon twice is an fascinating creation of dei Maggi's that features incredibly fresh salmon carpaccio and tiny glass, wire-hinged jars filled with a creamy salmon rillete (pictured above). Thankfully, there is enough of this to go around for a group.
An example of one of the better names, The Whistlestop Special consists of seared New England diver scallops atop an organic fried green tomato, fried to a satisfying crisp in cornmeal. Warm Meyer lemon butter and Rio Grande grapefruit give the scallops a sweetly tangy kick in the side, while the downy scallops themselves seem to melt into the crunchy tomatoes.
Frickin' Chicken Fricasse finds half a roasted chicken atop a lively bed of corn, pea and bean succotash. Despite the title, this is a grown-up dish gives off a slight whiff of nostalgia with its soft white beans and succulent chicken with a crisp, rustic skin. You can really judge a joint by how well they roast a chicken, and MAX's is more than holding its own in that regard.
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Although soft striped bass wouldn't be my first choice of fish to cook in a bag (arctic char, for one, would be a better -- if non-local -- choice), this one manages to come through thanks primarily to the garlicky zucchini and green beans underneath and the blow-your-skirt-up tangy deliciousness of the homemade pesto.
A thick, flavorful strip of South Texas Hereford beef manages to still be quite juicy despite being dry-aged. The idea of serving it alongside a roasted marrow bone will come together nicely once MAX's gets the hang of roasting the bones without destroying the delicate marrow inside. The savory steak fries, however, have little room for improvement.
The only dud of the evening were the red velvet cupcakes, which were oddly dense and shallow in flavor. The cream cheese icing, on the other hand, has every other cupcake shop in town beat -- fluffy, rich, creamy and finely textured with a few coarse grains of sugar on top. Once they get the cupcakes themselves right, this will be a dessert to remember.
MAX's seems to be going through a maturing process under the guiding hand of Chef dei Maggi. The dishes are becoming more intelligent and subtle, the menu a sleeker Southern beastie, but the same whimsy that made MAX's popular in the first place has remained intact. I can't wait to see what summer brings.