When Mark Cupolo closed his Victor Grilling Company, he swore he'd never go back to brown sauces and steaks. He had a dream of something simple, maybe pizza. But he was soon working at Max, serving up the fancy vittles again, happy to be working for and with Tony Gullace, and sleeping better without the worries of ownership.
A year ago, when Gullace sniffed the wind and opened Max Chophouse, the choice of Cupolo to run it was a natural. "Besides the personal friendship that exists," says Gullace, "Mark's talent and professionalism made him the perfect choice. We take for granted that the steaks will be great, but what sets Max Chophouse apart is what Mark does with appetizers, salads, sides, and desserts."
For years, VGC was the place in town for steaks, and Cupolo is a master at pickin', cuttin', and cookin' 'em. He seems to have ESP about getting the doneness right for almost any customer. He smartly took my wagyu flank just beyond the rare I asked for to take the edge off that rich cut. For my sister-in-law, Mary Harris --- a dyed-in-the-wool well-done beef eater --- he cooked a tenderloin enough without turning it to wood, even keeping it juicy. The man is good.
There's kind of a code among serious cooks that steak should never be cooked beyond medium-rare ("Rape of cuisine!" as Tony Shalhoub says in the film Big Night). But Cupolo believes that different meats and cuts are best cooked differently, and talks about there being what he calls "well done done well."
That kind of thoughtfulness marks everything Mark Cupolo does. He has a rep for stubbornness, and he certainly has opinions. But my experience with the man is that he listens well, takes in all the evidence around him, and truly considers what he does.
So, when the fork meets the plate, what does it all mean? Well, as Gullace says, every part of the meal will be excellent. Mark's famous corn chowder, delicate and unthickened, floored Mary ($6). It will be gone too soon, but something wonderful will have replaced it. Gravlax, a Swedish cured salmon, was spectacularly balanced by marinated red onion and chive crème fraîche ($11). The Caesar salad had a thick dressing, and wasn't as strong on the anchovies as I like, though most would disagree ($7).
The concept, of course, is steaks: 11 or 6 oz. filet mignon ($35/$23), 20 oz. Kansas City strip (bone in, $35), 18 oz. rib eye ($33), or the absurd 80 oz. porterhouse ($80). Each is cooked to your specs, and served with your choice of sauce: blue cheese butter, salsa verde, mustard peppercorn, homemade steak sauce, or creamy horseradish. Cupolo says it's deceptively complex getting the steaks done properly and handling the various sauces. You wouldn't know it out in the dining room.
Speaking of the room, it has a considerable buzz (loud, even). Another sister-in-law complains that the other Max has no atmosphere, meaning (I think) that it doesn't excite her. At the small Chophouse, with every table full and its busy bar; you feel like you're in a city with more expensive real estate. The staff is professional, helpful, and a little bit hip. For some, all this will be a plus; for others, not so much.
You don't have to have steak. My wife loved her monkfish braised with fennel, peppers, tomatoes, and white wine, then drizzled with a saffron aioli ($24). That was a special, but there are also duck, lamb, and scampi on the menu.
Though not a big steak eater, I did try the steak frites ($25). Cupolo calls the wagyu flank "a superior product," and I won't argue. Lean, tender cuts like tenderloin are often bland, but this is a rich, warm experience for the tastebuds. Cupolo broils it, then slices it in wide, thin pieces that he layers on a mountain of spectacular fries (that soak up the jus). The top slice is the seared outside of the cut, absurdly flavorful. I'm a convert.
The Chophouse makes just a few desserts per evening, all in house. On my review trip, we had a rice pudding with an almost risotto-like consistency, with fruit on top. Cupolo likes making his own ice creams and sorbets, and you'll always have those as options.
Mary --- who is exacting --- complained upon arrival about the "oppressive" curtains at the front. Mark actually concurred, saying it was a bit "funereal." But Mary's complaints ended there. Pricey? Why, yes. But Max Chophouse displays Tony Gullace's flair and Mark Cupolo's culinary standards, and it's easy to understand its popularity. Taken on its own well-defined terms, it's a smashing success.
Max Chophouse 1456 Monroe Avenue, 271-3510. Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.
The final Chef's Day of 2005 at the Rochester Public Market will feature cooking demonstrations by Legends Grill, The Seasonal Kitchen, and Ristorante Lucano. Saturday, October 1, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in front of the Market Office.
--- Michael Warren Thomas of www.SavorLife.com.