Wind From The East
French-California with a whiff of Japanese makes a tasty fusion.
Thursday, June 12, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Flour Power: Max''s rolls, baked fresh daily.
I mourned the recent passing of Chopsticks, a hole-in-the-wall, more-or-less Asian diner/resto on Forest Avenue that served inexpensive stir-fried lunches and donburi bowls.
But in true cloud-with-a-silver-lining fashion, chef Max Muramatsu stepped into the breach and, on May 1, opened Max''s Grill. He hasn''t changed the decor significantly--it''s still desperately minimalist, and that''s a fancy euphemism--but the food is simply sublime. More than that, it''s interesting, and in the best possible way: It is clear, with every dish, that someone in the kitchen is evaluating every ingredient, every taste combination, every cooking technique with the utmost care, and is presenting on each plate a complete and gentle vision. Flavors are intense without assaulting the palate; unusual spice combinations surprise without startling; the food is fun and delightful, but not precious or trendy.
That someone in the kitchen is Muramatsu himself, a Tokyo-born, French-trained chef who worked in Maxim''s of Paris (Tokyo) for 15 years before moving to Carmel in 1989. He was the chef at a short-lived Ocean Avenue experiment called Brasserie Q-Point, and then worked as executive chef at Anton and Michel''s in Carmel for seven years before leaving this spring to open his own restaurant.
On a recent Wednesday, I stopped by for dinner with two girlfriends. The place was about half-full, which is admirable considering both the mid-week timing and the fact that Max''s is just a month old. Word has spread.
The menu changes every two weeks, but not entirely--a couple entrees are added and a few others disappear, to take advantage of seasonal variations in produce and fish. We ordered two appetizers--Dungeness Crab Cakes ($6) and Tempura Ahi Tuna Rolls ($7.50)--and a Warm Baby Salad with Shitake Mushrooms ($6.50), and split everything three ways.
The crab cakes were almost entirely crab, with almost no bread filler, although bits of red and green pepper and a little corn gave the dish an almost Southwestern personality. It was light and flavorful, and there was no need for the accompanying capers-and-tartar sauce. The salad was fresh and delicious, dressed with just the right amount of sweet pomegranate vinaigrette--tasting almost like the more familiar raspberry vinaigrette, but sweeter and slightly exotic.
The tempura tuna rolls sounded so odd on the menu I might not have ordered them, but did so on a tip from my good friend Pedro. They were scrumptious. Imagine a tuna sushi roll, sticky rice on the outside, dipped in tempura batter and quickly fried so the tuna is just seared and still raw in the middle--a piece of candy that one dips in soy and wasabi and pops in the mouth with a slice of pickled ginger. Yummy.
A sushi plate shows up as a full entree on the menu, and I was tempted after the appetizer, but then thought--why? There are plenty of straight Japanese restaurants around, so perhaps it would be best to experience Muramatsu''s French-inspired offerings. Instead, we ordered the Broiled T-Bone Steak Fiorentina ($19), Confit of Duck with Housemade Ravioli ($15) and Fricassee with Prawns, Scallops and Clams ($16.50). They were splendid choices.
The steak was slathered in a tapenade of wild mushrooms that added an intriguing musky flavor, and served atop a bed of fresh sauteed spinach. The meat was an intensely flavorful cut, perfectly broiled, and an example of how a simple dish can be elevated, without fussiness, by strict attention to detail.
In a departure from the usual heavy preparation of duck confit, Chef Max shredded his duck meat and presented it almost like a warm salad, but with a sweet and tangy orange sauce laden with a spicy fruit relish. It made me smile, as did all of Max''s dishes. Four homemade ravioli stuffed with duck meat and mushrooms rounded out the plate.
The fricassee of seafood came in a delicious noilly-herb cream sauce flavored with plenty of fresh tarragon--again, an unexpected and tasty surprise. Homemade gnocchi provided good sopping-up fodder. The scallops, unfortunately, struck the only false note of the evening, for although they were perfected seared, they were marred by a disturbing metallic aftertaste.
Note must be taken of the fresh Italian-bread rolls brought to our table, rich and yeasty, and all baked daily by Muramatsu (how could he have anyone else do his work?). In fact, before he opened Max''s Grill, he turned to his friends at the Palermo Bakery and asked them to teach him how to make their Italian-style bread, spending a few nights there in training as if he were a cooking student instead of a master chef. What wonderful eagerness to learn!
The wine list is small and intelligent, and most reasonably priced. We chose a bottle of 2001 Joullian Zinfandel, one of my favorite and hard-to-find local reds. At $23, it was a steal.
No room for the Hawaiian Mango Mousse Cake ($5), for which slight I was roundly chastised afterwards by Pedro during the post-meal discussion. I''ll have it next time.