I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like to run a restaurant for five years. Or 10 years. Or the 25 years that Darrel Broek and chef Oliver Saucy have been operating their namesake Pompano Beach cafe.
At the risk of offending the restaurant's longtime fans, to me, Café Maxx runs like a very-high-end diner. It starts with the cooking smells that waft out of the kitchen, and the gregarious exchanges between staff and guests. Broek and Saucy work the 132-seat room. We didn't feel unwelcome, but maybe on a second visit, our waiter will at least attempt to develop some rapport. Clearly, we didn't get the TLC that familiar guests receive.
Call it Club Café Maxx. Any restaurateur would be happy with this kind of popularity.
"We have a very well-heeled clientele," Broek says. "They're very, very loyal."
That's because the food at Café Maxx is superb. Servings tend to be oversized, which certainly makes the prices a little more palatable.
We started with a slice of caviar pie ($10.95): sour cream, onions, hard-cooked eggs and three kinds of caviar, including crunchy tobiko caviar. It's been on the menu since 1985, and is perfect with cocktails. (But what kind of bar doesn't stock Chivas Regal?)
Next up was Szechwan beef Napoleon ($12.95), crunchy beef with wontons and sweet-chili-vegetable slaw. Conch-and-seafood-vegetable chowder ($14.50) was watery and tepid, and quickly returned to the kitchen. Mediterranean chopped salad ($10.95) was just fine, but chopped it wasn't. The red onions were served in rings! But this sun-dried tomato vinaigrette would be great on just about everything, including the mixture of radicchio, arugula, feta, tomato and cucumber.
Lobster mac and cheese ($18 half or $35 whole) was an herby blend of penne and cheese and crispy bacon that I'd call a splurge well worth every calorie and gram of fat. Several of the pastas were appealing, including braised veal cheeks in a winter-vegetable risotto ($18/$38) and duck-and-smoked-mozzarella ravioli ($18/$36).
Sweet-onion-crusted hog snapper ($37.95) was a perfect taste of Florida seafood. But on this night, it was red meat that called to us. Three-peppercorn filet mignon ($47.95) was incredibly well seasoned and served with three-cheese potatoes and a shallot thyme compound butter. Rosemary-lemon-feta-crusted lamb chops ($46.95) — four chops to this dish — were outstanding. But because some were thinner than others, they weren't all cooked to the same temperature.
Including pasta, there are 23 entrees on the menu plus specials. Saucy likes big flavors, and his menu runs from grilled braised-beef short ribs ($42) and macadamia-nut-crusted sea scallops ($36.95) to chimichurri center-cut skirt steak ($41.95) and orange-and-Grand Marnier-glazed duck breast ($36.95). There's much thought to plating here. Duck comes with sweet potato and sun-dried-fruit bread pudding. Those short ribs are plated with cheesy sun-dried tomato polenta.
His menu is the definition of "new American," with influences from around the world and a focus on fresh ingredients.
Deciding on dessert was just as difficult as choosing something from the savory side of the menu, because everything sounded so good. So we settled on deep-dish-bourbon-and-chocolate-pecan pie ($8.50), which could have had more nuts, but was clearly made with top-quality chocolate. Strawberry-rhubarb cobbler ($8.50) had a spectacular pistachio-biscuit topping and peach ice cream.
Landscaping and parking at the plaza where Café Maxx sits was recently updated. Broek says it was the first upgrade since 1984, when he went to work for Dennis Max, who originally opened the restaurant.
Inside, the honey-colored wood on nearly every surface makes the restaurant feel more like a Northern roadhouse than a sophisticated Florida cafe. Maybe that's part of the coziness its regulars love.
2601 E. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free valet or lot