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The difference a week makes 

Two very different visits define Max at the Gallery

I picked Max at the Gallery for review this week in part because it was a sure thing: with any of the restaurants that bear the Max name you can be certain you'll have a good, perhaps even great, experience. The brand, established by chef and restaurateur Tony Gullace with the opening of Max at Eastman Place in 2002, stands for good service and dependable quality. So when I took my family to the Memorial Art Gallery for brunch a couple Sundays back, I was anticipating something special. I'd read the menu in advance and had already placed my order in my mind before ever setting foot in the door: fried chicken and waffles for me ($15), a croquemadame ($13) for my wife, and some fruit for my 5-year-old dining companion, who would inevitably end up eating half of my entrée, too. It was just past noon when we sat down and our very friendly waitress told us that they kitchen was already down to its last order of fried chicken. I scooped it up quick.

I want to tell you that brunch was great, but it wasn't. While we waited for our entrees, a waiter delivered popovers to the table, placing them carefully on our bread plates with a pair of shiny tongs. Warm and a bit too crusty on the outside, the popovers were cold -- almost frozen -- inside, clearly not made fresh that morning. When it arrived, the chicken, too, seemed less than fresh, the coating soggy rather than crispy and much darker than I would have expected, as if it might have been dunked in the fryer again to freshen it up. The waffle underneath it was nearly flavorless. The only thing that saved it was the pepper and maple syrup-infused butter drizzled over the top. The worst offense, though, was the fresh fruit cup -- a measly cup not even half full of under-ripe chunks of melon and pineapple for $4.

On the other hand, the massive croquemadame was worth every nickel. A traditional croquemadame is not much more than a grilled ham and cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg. Well done, it's delightful. The chef at Max took his inspiration from another sandwich, the Monte Cristo, and put his ham and Gruyere sandwich on French toast before sliding the requisite egg on top. Although the menu claimed that the sandwich was topped with mornay sauce (cheese sauce, to those of us who don't quote from Escoffier regularly), the chef instead finished the dish with a peppery, rich country gravy -- a nice complement to the other ingredients.

Brunch can be hit or miss, and I had high hopes for my second visit for lunch several days later. But here, too, things were uneven. The squash soup ($3 cup, $7 bowl) we ordered had a nice combination of flavors and just the right amount of ginger and spice, but had the consistency of pumpkin-pie filling. The French onion soup, one of the simplest soups to make well, was a disaster: cloyingly sweet, sitting in a syrupy dark-brown broth that tasted overwhelmingly of sherry, I couldn't eat more than a few bites. We also ordered a BLT ($9) and a patty melt ($11). The melt was fine, if a bit overdone, well grilled on a good seeded rye bread. The house-made chips on the side were crunchy and well seasoned. The BLT -- applewood smoked bacon, baby arugula, and tomato dressed with basil aioli on toasted brioche -- tasted good, but it looked like it had been assembled by throwing the ingredients at the bread from across the kitchen. Leaves of arugula fell out of the sandwich on the way to the table, and the overcooked bacon hung over the edges of the bread. The flavor was fine. The presentation was sloppy.

That's where things stood two Thursdays ago. The review was written up and ready to send in, when I heard from a friend of a friend that the chef at the restaurant had been replaced. Rather than trashing a restaurant based on old news, I decided to see what sort of difference a week and a new chef could make. I hadn't been seated for more than a few minutes before I overheard a lady at the next table kvelling over the quality of the quiche, praising its custard-like texture and flavor. One of her companions was waxing lyrical about her salad. Around me, I noticed that the tenor of the dining room had changed from previous visits: people were smiling, the volume of conversation was a bit louder and more energetic than I'd heard it before. Something had clearly changed.

In the interest of fairness, I ordered more or less the same meal I had had the previous Thursday: a BLT, and a cup of French onion soup. Claiming indecision, I also ordered a cup of the tempting-sounding curried lentil soup. The lentil soup arrived first, and it was every bit as good as I had hoped. French lentils, carrots, onion, celery, and a bit of turnip, along with bits of savory ham in a screamingly fresh stock seasoned with just enough curry to complement but not overwhelm the other ingredients. The onion soup was also delicious, sporting the right ratio of caramelized onions to salty, rich broth with just a hint of sherry on the finish. The multigrain crouton and a sprinkling of chopped chive for color were a nice touch, too.

The real revelation, though, was the BLT, which looked like it had been assembled with a spirit level and carpenter's square and then cut with a laser. It was almost too pretty to eat and stuffed full of perfectly cooked and selected ingredients -- a thick layer of crisp but not overdone bacon, beautiful deep red tomatoes, golden-brown slices of toasted brioche. Then I noticed that the chips were still hot from the fryer. What a difference a week makes.

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