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Max in Sherman Oaks gets retooled and soaks up good vibes
On a warm Indian summer night in Sherman Oaks, my friends and I occupy a corner table framed by fashionably rusty metal trellises on the sidewalk terrace in front of Max. Outside, couples stroll by, some walking the dog, others, friends out for dinner together, turn in to the door. If any street in the Valley is Main Street, it's Ventura Boulevard, and for six years Max has been a fixture of the neighborhood.
Times have changed, though, and Max has changed too. In July, the upscale Cal-Asian fusion restaurant closed for renovation and reopened a scant two weeks later -- ready or not. As one waiter tells the tale, they were still mopping up when he arrived for his first shift at the new Max.
Given what's happened to the economy in the last couple of months, owner-chef André Guerrero, who was born in the Philippines, has made an especially prescient move. The original Max was a minimalist all-white box with a high-concept fusion menu. The new Max is drenched in warm colors and has more of a casual, everyday appeal. In fact, Guerrero is now keeping the place open most days from 11 a.m. straight through to the dinner hour instead of closing between lunch and dinner. His new menu could be dubbed global bistro and includes a rousing list of small plates and nibbles along with more traditional main courses. The dishes are all squarely in the comfort food zone, which is exactly what I'm thinking we need right now.
You might want to start with an order of his silky, potted chicken liver pâté served in a glass with croustades, or toasts, on the side. That may be taking a page from Palate in Glendale, but why not, if it's such a good idea? Julia Child would be proud to see something she introduced to Americans in the '60s making its way back onto restaurant tables.
Guerrero is on a pickle-making kick too. Check out the blackboard scrawled with the day's specials, where you'll find the pickle of the day, usually an appealing mix of vegetables -- maybe pearl onions, green beans, okra, cauliflower florets and more, for just $3. The pickles make a nice accompaniment to many of the main courses. Or simply enjoy them as an updated relish plate.
Guerrero also owns the slow food joint, the Oinkster, in Eagle Rock, which may be what inspired his steamed pork bun appetizer: two steamed Chinese buns, each wrapped around a hefty slab of braised pork belly and embellished with hoisin sauce, crunchy cucumbers and a little kimchi with hot-sweet mustard for heat. These are great for sharing, even four ways. So are the lamb tacos, pita bread stuffed with warm, spiced ground lamb patties, parsley salad, cucumbers and a cool yogurt sauce.
One night as we're wolfing down the fried oysters presented with a crock of house-made tartar sauce covered with tiny pickled veggies, we hear whooping coming from across the street. In front of the Great Greek restaurant, a mass of bodies, maybe a dozen in all, are gyrating, dancing arm in arm down the sidewalk. It's a little more sedate on this side of the street, though we do love the car with a RISK TAKER license plate sidling up to the curb, checking out the action (not much this late) and deciding to move on. Guess the guy didn't want to take the risk -- of what? A good meal?
Guerrero has got the Japanese idiom down. Ahi tuna towers are five big bites -- each a crunchy rice cake topped with ahi tuna, fiery wasabi tobiko (flying-fish roe) and a thatch of julienned nori (dried seaweed). I liked the generous shrimp spring rolls too, with their fragrant cilantro-mint dipping sauce. Crab dumplings, though, are a bit gluey, and on one visit, the market salad, an otherwise lovely mélange of vegetables, is utterly bland.
A simple bargain
If Father's Office in Santa Monica or the Helms Bakery complex seem too far to go for a blue cheese-lavished burger, Max offers a version every bit as covetable. The beef is Angus, juicy and flavorful, embellished with homemade Thousand Island dressing, arugula leaves and sliced heirloom tomato, along with Cambozola cheese, caramelized onions and pickles. Rococo, to say the least.
Note that it comes with deep-gold Belgian fries ($6 if ordered as a side). So that's dinner for $17. Add in a glass of wine from the one-page, mostly California list, or, even better, one of the beers, and you can get out for close to $25 before tax and tip. Try the West Coast IPA from Green Flash Brewing Co. in San Diego or the Boont Amber Ale from Anderson Valley Brewing Co.
Guerrero is a highly trained chef, and he's got fancier main courses too, including a chilled ramen noodle dish that's light and refreshing on an Indian summer night. It's simply chilled noodles, julienned carrots and cucumbers, mushrooms, poached chicken, sprouts and scallions in a bright-tasting soy wasabi sauce. New York pepper steak is decisive, hammered with peppercorns and served with sautéed spinach. Hanger steak comes already sliced (something I think should be mentioned on the menu) in a deliciously creamy mustard-shallot sauce with a side of buttered cauliflower, a steal at $17.
One night, I like a veal stew special served over buttery noodles, but it inexplicably has some raw pearl onions thrown into the mix. Everything is so tender and subtle that the raw onion dispels the mood of the dish and leaves you wondering whether it's intentional or a mistake. Another night, Australian suzuki (explained as sea bass) makes an understated entrance with shrimp sauce drizzled over the top, to add a note of rich funk to the firm, white fish. If you prefer birds, go with either the roasted chicken or the duck confit -- both just what they should be.
The chef plays up his Philippine heritage with desserts. If you haven't already, try the pear and candied squash halo-halo. For the uninitiated, it's an exotic sundae that piles on vanilla ice cream, caramel flan, coconut milk, pretty little jellies and sweetened nuts to delicious effect. Calamansi orange budino features fluffy citrus sponge pudding with candied orange peel and vanilla bean ice cream.
Calamansi (a hybrid of mandarin orange and kumquat), by the way, looks like a small orange but tastes more like a lime.
Pretty terrific for a neighborhood place.
Here's one chef who has realized that being known as a special-occasion restaurant doesn't always work to his advantage. So he's reinvented Max and given it a more welcoming, relaxing everyday life. Smart move.
13355 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 784-2915; www.maxrestaurant.com.
Cozy restaurant turned bistro with seating on a wide sidewalk terrace and a bar at the back. The crowd is mostly local, longtime fans of chef André Guerrero.
Friendly and pleasant, sometimes inexperienced.
Dinner starters, $6.50 to $10.50; main courses, $16 to $27; sides, $2 to $6; desserts, $6.50 to $8.50.
The daily pickle, potted chicken liver, market salad, steamed pork buns, lamb tacos, shrimp firecrackers, Angus burger, short ribs two ways, duck leg confit, pear and candied squash halo-halo, calamansi orange budino.
Serviceable one-pager, mostly California, with a handful of wines by the glass. Corkage fee, $12.
One on the sidewalk terrace.
Open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Wine and beer. Valet parking, $3.50.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
See a photo gallery of scenes and dishes at Max.