Burt Rapoport and Dennis Max have been operating restaurants in South Florida for 33 years. At their 5-month-old Burt & Max's Bar and Grille in west Delray Beach, the duo are once again adhering to their successful formula.
Forget the vagaries of modern cuisine. For better or for worse, this is American comfort food: meatloaf, fried chicken, pork chops, burgers and pizza.
The restaurant is exactly what growing west Delray needed. Families with young children arrive early, ordering from the pizza section of the menu ($12-$14). Groups of comfortably retired couples come next. And where did folks out here eat and drink at 10 p.m. on a Saturday before Burt & Max's came along? The beer, cocktail and by-the-glass wine list is excellent.
It is a stunningly comfortable restaurant, decorated like a modern ski lodge with beamed ceilings, wooden floors and a line of oversize red booths that run between the open kitchen and the 32-foot bar topped with a single slab of cypress. Ask for a booth when you make your reservation. The place smells like the oak used in the wood-fired pizza oven. A fire pit beckons diners to sit on the patio.
Appetizers are uneven. On one visit, most of the starters tasted like reheated bar food. Onion-soup dumplings ($9) are a play on onion soup and pot stickers, with Gruyere and onion-filled pockets served on an escargot plate with a bit of onion broth. But the dumplings had an odd taste and were unevenly warm. Wood-roasted chicken wings ($11) were cold. The short-rib empanada ($4.50) was dry, and a dish called rustic chorizo fondue ($12) with tortilla chips was a bowl of unappetizing, salty mush.
But on a second visit, appetizers were a delight. Ahi tuna poke ($17) was the perfect balance of texture and flavor with scallions, soy yuzu dressing and avocado offered with sushi-grade tuna. Roasted-tomato soup ($5) with goat-cheese croutons had a deep, comforting flavor. Max's classic chopped salad ($9) — one of the duo's most-enduring dishes on their Max's Grille menu in Boca — was incredible. It's a mixture of Asiago cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, chickpeas, celery, roasted corn and beans in a red-wine vinaigrette. The Just Made Crispy Chips ($5), taro and potato chips served with ranch dipping sauce, were the only disappointment. They tasted as if they had been made that morning, but hardly "just."
Burt & Max's serves some of the best branzino ($28) around. It's prepared a la plancha and served with sauteed spinach and an heirloom-tomato emulsion. The fish is crisp, but not overcooked. Likewise, blackened-mahi tacos ($16) start on a hot cast-iron skillet before being rolled in soft corn tortillas along with salsa verde and aji cream. Slow-braised short ribs ($16 small/$28 large) with Yukon gold mashed potatoes, crispy onion and red-wine-mushroom demi-glace are deliciously beefy. Simply Oak Grilled All Natural Pork Chop ($26) is simply wonderful. Grilled jumbo shrimp ($28) come with sweet and edamame succotash, jasmine rice and Caribbean dipping sauce.
There's something on this menu for everyone. One night, the cobb salad ($15) hit the spot. Protein, from chicken to sesame seared tuna ($5-$10), can be added to any of the salads. The 10-ounce Butcher's Blend Burger ($14) had a nice flavor, but we had a hard time finding our waiter to bring us an essential condiment.
Like those appetizers, service is uneven. The missing-without-mustard waiter insisted everything we ordered was a "great choice." But on that visit, food runners brought our entrees before the appetizers had been cleared. We had to ask passing staff to help the food runners. Service was seamless on our second visit.
For dessert, the Jumbo carrot cupcake with cream-cheese frosting and spiced pecan "crumbs" ($6) is what carrot cake should be: moist with a texture that's neither too soft or too dense. Frozen Mississippi mud cake ($9) is a shareable concoction, featuring layers of flourless chocolate cake, coffee ice cream, Heath bar, chocolate fudge and whipped cream. It's worth every decadent calorie.
Rapoport and Max clearly have a hit on their hands. I suspect we'll be eating at Burt & Max's for a very long time.
To view more photos of the restaurant, go to SouthFlorida.com/burtandmax.
jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him Twitter.com @FloridaEats.
Delray Marketplace, 9089 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach
Hours: Dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Self-parking or $3.50 valet