Restaurant Max has impressive fare despite heady marketing

From bank to banquettes: The refurbished Restaraunt Max
Alma Guzman

At Restaurant Max one evening, the waitress was describing the menu—New American cuisine...a mix of global influences—and I was thinking, Yeah, yeah, been there, done that. Ate the ahi tuna tartare with chili-citrus sorbet and cilantro oil. I started spacing out a little, staring up at the canopy of artsy light fixtures, which looked like a tangle of red glass lily pads. I half expected to see the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland perched up there smoking his hookah.

"You can eat however you choose," the waitress continued. "They're calling it 'lifestyle cuisine.' Whatever your lifestyle is, that's the way you can eat it."

"Wait," I stopped her. "Lifestyle cuisine? What does that mean, exactly?" The waitress smiled politely and shrugged. My friend gestured toward the adjacent table, where a man in a suit shared steak and lobster with his blond-coiffed, wrinkle-zapped trophy. "I don't know that I have the lifestyle to eat this cuisine," he joked.

The waitress and I laughed, but there was some truth to what he said. In trying a little too hard to be inclusive, Max's marketing mantra had the opposite effect. When I read the phrase, "You will be surrounded with fresh food and drink selections that confirm your lifestyle choices..." I felt confused and uncool, like I didn't get the joke. What did ordering the chicken have to do with condo-dwelling or same-sex marriage?

Fortunately, the ambiance at Max is better than its promotional slogans. Located in the Minneapolis Hotel in the hundred-year-old Midland building, Max bears resemblance to another new-ish hotel restaurant in an elegantly restored financial institution, Bank at the Westin. Who knew how quickly vault-as-wine-cellar was at risk of becoming a cliché?

The Midland's neo-baroque marble columns and ornamental ceiling have been updated with contemporary, ruby-hued furnishings that make the space feel more welcoming, particularly the roomy striped booths, which are wide enough to seat six—though a party of two could lay back and stretch out, I suppose, if that were their "lifestyle."

Restaurant Max is operated by Morrissey Hospitality Companies, which also runs several other metro eateries. While the menus at the Morrissey restaurants vary—Tria's chicken pot pie, Pazzaluna's linguine alla pescatora, the St. Paul Grill's surf & turf—they all riff on an upscale-casual theme, with their clubby dining rooms, sociable staff, and approachable fare. Max is perhaps the showiest of the clan, and it's starting to look like the City Hall/Courthouse cafeteria for all the municipal movers-and-shakers it attracts. Its menu was designed by a team of Morrissey's chefs, and it's executed by Matt Holmes, a native Minnesotan who cooked most recently at the Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix.

The restaurant's lunch menu features fancier versions of familiar soups, salads, and sandwiches. The tasty grilled cheese, for example, comes with thick-cut bacon and truffle fries. The flatbreads are made from dough stretched nearly as thin as a sheet of puff pastry. The one I tried, piled with ground beef and veal, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and cheddar cheese, was rich, cheesy, and as comforting as a casserole—though far better seasoned than what Midwestern moms tend to put on the table.

I liked Max's spinach salad, too, which was topped with pear, bacon, and a buttermilk-blue cheese dressing with the same addictive tang as Cool Ranch Doritos. The Napa cabbage salad was less successful for several reasons: watery honey-soy vinaigrette, skimping on accessories (almonds, sesame seeds, and toasted ramen noodles), and slices of chicken breast that tasted as dry as quilt batting.

Fortunately, I washed the salad down with a spritzer called the Gatsby's Daisy, a refreshing mix of lavender, tarragon, and cranberry juice. Max's cocktails and mocktails are served in bulb-shaped glasses with colorful bits of, say, crushed raspberries, fresh sage leaves, or sliced serrano chiles that make them look as pretty as snow globes.

At dinner, I had two very different experiences at Max, depending on how I ordered. The night I chose entrées that paired one protein with a couple of sides, I had a terrific meal. The red curry ahi tuna accomplished the not-so-easy feat of making such a ubiquitous fish seem interesting. The accompanying beet risotto and braised fennel with orange and hazelnuts ran the risk of competing too much with the fish, but all the flavors played off one another and the plate came out perfectly balanced. The pomegranate marinated rack of lamb took a similarly successful, aggressive tack, pairing the meat with mint-tomato jam, caramelized Brussels sprouts, and pearls of farro studded with bits of pancetta. In both of these dishes, the protein covered a generous portion of the plate (a sign, perhaps, that guest-room revenue can help offset ingredient costs). For those who like to swing by Burger King to fill up after a fancy dinner, keep these dishes in mind for your next special-occasion meal.

The other evening, when I approached the meal as a do-it-yourselfer and ordered only dishes with dipping sauces, the result was nearly the opposite. A crispy duck roll appetizer seemed a little lacking without its orange-cherry hoisin sauce. The skewered ham and cheese croquettes looked good—in fact, they looked like mini-corn dogs, right down to their red and yellow condiments—but their serrano ham/manchego cheese interior was so salty that even slathering them with red pepper puree and ginger mustard couldn't have possibly rendered them edible.

By the time I got to the entrées, which paired three meats with three dipping sauces, I felt a little overwhelmed by all the mixing and matching. The Pork Trio, for example, consisted of braised ribs, a spice-crusted loin, and a block of pork belly almost the size of a chalkboard eraser. The tender ribs and the smoky loin were good, but the belly pushed the dish's limits. Typically I'm a fan of the soft, fatty tummy: The pork-belly buns at New York's Momofuku are last-meal-on-death-row caliber. But in this case, the portion seemed obscene—were they expecting Jabba the Hut for dinner?—and the taste was so swiney (in the way mackerel tastes fishy) that three dipping sauces couldn't salvage it. When I called up Holmes, he told me that this dish is on its way off the menu ("pork belly's a tough sell"), which I'd have to say was a good decision.

I'd also recommend that the kitchen reconsider the Duck Three Ways. The roasted breast and smooth slice of foie gras both hit the mark, but the duck pâté tasted like a wet gym sock—mealy instead of creamy, with a slightly sour flavor. The miso and huckleberry sauces didn't do anything to help it, and the vanilla teriyaki was so cloying it activated my gag reflex. In theory, I'm all for giving diners choices, for variations on a theme. But these dishes made me wonder if energy might have been better spent on perfecting the dish's main element than on fussing with so many superfluous sauces.

That said, I think Max's "have it your way" theme is quite successful with its wine and dessert lists. The user-friendly, mainly Californian wines are grouped from lightest to most full-bodied and may be ordered in bottles, flights, or three sizes of by-the-glass pours. This style of flexible tasting also makes sense with the shot-glass desserts (if that sounds familiar, you've probably had them at Bank at the Westin). The sampler-style treats work because each one is as good as the next. And why choose between butterscotch oatmeal cookie, lemon lavender pie, or double-chocolate cake when you could have them all?  

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