On a clear, beautiful spring evening, I cruelly descended on Max's with a barbarian horde of food writers, chefs and service professionals. It was a mean and unruly crowd, unfit for public display, and a walking headache for any restaurant's staff and chef. But partners Maria Renteria and Mark Connell (who also wears the chef's hat) fielded the gruff invasion without blinking.
New Mexico's confounding seasonal shifts make early spring a particularly difficult time to demand innovation and excellence from a restaurant that relies on the availability of fresh, local ingredients. The Santa Fe Farmers Market is swinging, but is still a ways away from bursting with abundance and variety. New Mexico's food producers are improving every year, but we're still a far sight from large-scale, four-season local production. What would Connell deliver—a platter of onions with some radishes and greens?
No, that wouldn't do. But what about tucking sweet cipollini onions, baby carrots and wild mushrooms into a truffled embrace with a rabbit confit and topping the whole thing with perfect, flaky pastry dough? Yes, a rabbit potpie. Not only was it delicious—especially as the crust began to dissolve against the fatty confit and the plush, left-of-tame rabbit flavor—but also a smart, hearty winter dish just giving way to the youngest garden bounty of the season. Connell's potpie was transition caught on a plate.
The baby beet and citrus salad was a light, vibrant affair with none of the heaviness that beets sometimes imply and, served with a garnish of thin "beet paper," it showcased Connell's talent for plating surprising beauty and sculpted flavor.
Of course, some people are turned off by a few of contemporary cooking's conventions, like sous-vide meats and the use of foams. I appreciate the otherworldly tenderness of items prepared sous-vide, but generally prefer a good sear and well-maintained moisture. One friend recently remarked to me that foams—emulsified liquids that typically rely on blending soy lecithin to bind fat and water—make her think of a big pile of spittle, not something she wants on her plate. There's no doubt that the world suffered through a brief moment of foam saturation, wherein too many restaurants were doing too many stupid things with foam (although not in Santa Fe). That quick fad is largely behind us, allowing earnest chefs like Connell to use the technique judiciously and to generally good effect.
My ill-behaved party was briefly pacified by the wonder of a two-hour egg (cooked at low temperature in a circulator), served with both creamy and crispy polenta and a mushroom foam. The foam delivers immense flavor, but without the heaviness of a sauce—the result is a divine richness without a crippling gut bomb.
And this is the fundamental condition at Max’s: a litany of dishes ripe with compounding flavor combinations. They encourage an eager, anticipatory hunger, then a wanton blitzkrieg of devouring and, finally, a remarkable satiation, rather than a regretfully over-laden panza. Of course, when eating without a barbaric horde at Max’s, there’s a lot to be said for slowing down and managing your feast with careful attention, meditative tasting and deliberate exploration—exactly the way Connell prepares it.
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