When Max’s Harvest opened in 2011, the then au courant restaurant, just off Atlantic Avenue in downtown Delray Beach’s Pineapple Grove district, touted a farm-to-fork menu of new American cuisine. Accolades poured in for the sibling of Boca Raton’s Max’s Grill, both then owned by veteran restaurateur Dennis Max and partner Fred Stampone.
Seven years later, the place was half empty on a recent weekend night. An oversize mirror and suspended Edison bulbs accentuate the bare banquettes lining the walls of the main dining room, which is flanked by cozy front and back patios. An open kitchen buffers vacant seats and draws the attention of diners fascinated with the behind-the-scenes activity.
Three of the four appetizers we ordered appeared at our table in record time. One, called Roasted Roots ($14), offered a flavorful combination of golden beets, shaved tricolored carrots and toasted pistachio with whipped feta and golden raisins to tame the peppery bite of frisee, arugula and harissa vin. A vinegary bed of pickled sweet peppers and ginger ponzu made a perfect foil for the rich, creamy black truffle, roasted corn and king crab filling in a serving of king crab wontons ($17). Buffalo alligator ($15) got a welcome twist with a kick of ‘nduja hot sauce, blue cheese and pickled celery, but the crispy miso-buttermilk batter was trumped by the spicy smokiness of the Calabrian condiment.
Caramelized pork belly ($15) straggled to the table just as my tablemates finished their first course. Fortunately, the squishy, pillowlike bao buns swaddling tender planks of glazed pork finished with pickled cabbage and garlic-miso aioli were worth the wait. A food runner acknowledged the snafu, apologized and assured me there would be no charge for the tardy buns.
Other than that, everything seemed to be flowing smoothly. The open kitchen orchestrated orders that were expedited by the wait staff in a calm manner. But at one point, a second chef began his shift by berating a server in a tone better suited for a reality-television cooking show. It was not behavior suited for the real world, particularly when exhibited in full view of patrons who were essentially paying the buzzkill’s salary. Ironically, an inspirational sign just above the chef’s head on the kitchen wall preached “patience.”
Three diver scallops ($34) with a perfect golden-brown sear rested atop a puree of sunchokes topped with bitter greens, butternut squash, what may have been overcharred sweet potatoes, sautéed apples and gastrique. It was pleasing in spite of the distinct fall trimmings on a spring night.
Brining and sous vide make up the St. Louis-style 96-hour ribs ($28) preparation method. To no surprise, the spice-rubbed meat fell off the bone, but the corn succotash lacked the char promised by the menu. Collard greens, a tad too sweet for my taste, completed the dish.
The evening’s fish special, pan-seared wahoo ($36), was tender and moist with crispy edges, potatoes and roasted broccoli. It was one of the evening’s simpler, lighter dishes, and one of the most delicious. Crispy fingerling potatoes and foie demi-glace surrounded a dry-aged New York strip ($50). Edges of unrendered fat and an overall lack of flavor, tenderness and doneness for the medium-rare request made the price difficult to swallow.
Capping off the night was an ultrasilky smooth coconut semifreddo ($12) decorated with blood orange and sesame brittle but thwarted by a bottom layer of dry vanilla cake. Peanut-butter bombe ($12) lacked finesse with its thick chocolate coating giving way to gelatinous, spongy, peanut-butter mousse. A dry, overbaked shortbread garnish and an overabundance of crushed pretzels and caramel sauce hurt the cause, while a peanut tuille never made the plate. Sinful, warm ricotta doughnuts ($12) rolled in cinnamon sugar scored high points all around, but the ramekins of pale, espresso-dark-chocolate sauce and dulce de leche went untouched.
The overplayed farm-to-fork concept felt muddled, and even though it was a slow night, the restaurant’s execution was off. General manager Pete Stampone, who has been with the restaurant since it opened, later shed some light on the issues.
“We make four major menu changes throughout the year,” Stampone says. “We spread the changes out gradually over a few weeks, changing four to five items a week as not to overwhelm the kitchen.”
Stampone says changes were put in place the week after my visit. The scallops, for example, now have a lighter profile marked by lemon bread crumbs and an English pea beurre blanc. Korean barbecued short rib with housemade kimchee, pickled daikon and chile-glazed potatoes has replaced the New York strip, and at nearly half the price.
Near the end of our visit, the check arrived with my bao buns still on it. The server also presented us with a $25 gift certificate, saying it is “given to everyone who spends over a certain amount [$150].” I doubt I’ll return to Max’s Harvest before the two-week expiration date, but I am curious to see if seasonal changes prove to offer a reviving, new beginning for the restaurant.
169 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach, 561-381-9970 or MaxsHarvest.com
Cuisine: New American
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-9 pm. Sunday; brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Street, lot, valet
Kids: Highchairs, kid-friendly items, no specific children’s menu