Max Au Triangle, 233 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. Reservations, 550-8486. Open for lunch Monday--Friday; for dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for 2, $60-$120 (food only).
Max is not packed. This is a surprise, for chef Joachim Splichal is one of the stars in the Los Angeles food firmament. It is also a disappointment, for when Max opened three months ago it gave Los Angeles an entirely new interpretation of modern dining.
Fine dining in this town used to take place in an atmosphere of almost hushed reverence, and good restaurants were the kind of places that made you nervously keep your elbows off the table. Then the noisy new restaurants sprang up as an antidote to all of that, and their casual insouciance was so appealing to the public that older restaurateurs began grumbling about the decline of fine dining.
Now along comes Max, a restaurant that is serious but not stodgy, quiet but not conservative, a place that preserves the dignity of haute cuisine while discarding the pretensions of old-style restaurants.
You know the minute you walk in the door that something different is going on here. The restaurant occupies an unenclosed airy perch that floats above a new arcade, looking more like a stage set than anything else. The elevator is enclosed in a little tower, and you step off into an interior landscape of etched glass and mirrors.
Motifs are used almost musically, slyly repeated here and there. Curtains are draped dramatically about, enhancing the theatrical effect, and if you look carefully you will find the curtain motif repeated in plaster as a sort of architectural joke. Just below the ceiling an open grid makes a dramatic swoop, giving the room a brash, modern air. It is not until you sit down that you realize that despite the hard edges there is comfort where it counts; I have never encountered a cozier chair.
Comfort is everywhere. While some restaurants manage to make you feel as if you should be trying to please them, this one makes it clear that they are eager to please you. The sommelier makes intelligent suggestions (on one occasion recommending a $17 wine in place of a $40 wine), and the waiter hands you the menu almost reverently, as if he cannot wait for you to see the riches contained therein.
The menu itself is lovely, rather like a fan, and when you open it you find a long list of completely original dishes. This is a chef who loves strong flavors and is fond of cooking traditional ingredients in new ways.
Opulent smoked salmon is stuffed into a Paris-Brest pastry, looking like the world's most elegant bagel and lox. Baby bagels, in fact, show up covered with nuts and served with a fabulous terrine of duck liver. Chicken breast is rolled into a "Napoleon," the meat itself substituting for the pastry. Each dish has one surprising element, one unexpected flavor. Eating Splichal's food is like going on a little treasure hunt, for this is a cuisine of constant discovery, and it makes the repetitiveness of California Cuisine seem rather tired.
The chef could not quite bring himself to leave the construction of a menu to mere diners, so he has created six set dinners ranging from $35 to $55 per person. These include a stringently vegetarian five-course meal, a spa menu guaranteed to weigh in at less than 600 calories, and Lobster, Lobster, Lobster, which offers three courses of you know what. Faced with the many astonishing choices on the menu, the easiest option is simply to order one of these meals. It is also the most economical--the five-course Menu Gourmand, which costs $50, adds up to $66 ordered a la carte.
On my first visit, I chose this and then perversely asked if I could make a substitution in one of the courses. Without missing a beat the waiter replied, "everything is possible"; I was immediately seduced. But this is hard food to resist.
"This is a chef who has the ability to make food taste good," said my most discerning friend, happily tasting that duck liver terrine, followed by superb crab-stuffed ravioli, the filling light inside gossamer pasta, the sauce pungent with sun-dried tomatoes. It was a complete delight to eat.
Next came filet of John Dory, the fish slightly toothy against the paper-thin rounds of buttery potatoes and the verdant smoothness of the spinach. A thin saffron sauce acted as a flavor catalyst, transforming each bite, changing the tastes.
Now came Ceylon tea and pear liquor blended into an earthy sorbet that tasted like biting into an icy autumn. It is a taste that resonates in your mouth, and I find myself thinking about that taste again and again. Certainly it was the perfect pause between the sea and the fields, the fish before, the lamb that followed.
Burgundy is often called a feminine wine when compared to the sturdy maleness of Bordeaux. The gratin of lamb seemed astonishingly masculine after the light, feminine flavor of the fish and the saffron. Here was solid meat (the lamb is as good as any I have had), sitting on a puree of mild, almost sweet garlic lightly tinged with thyme. A thin hollandaise had been brushed across the top. On the side sat a delicately stuffed zucchini blossom, as if to emphasize that this robust country food had been tamed and refined before being brought into the dining room.
Finally there was white chocolate ice cream, so soft in the mouth that this cold substance tasted like something warm. A real tour de force.
With the meal we drank a 1983 Sancerre from Domaine La Porte, a fresh, grassy wine that defines the term green in relationship to wine. It cost $19. We followed this with a 1978 Chateau du Tertre, as good a $30 wine as you are likely to find on a wine list.
The sommelier is proud of his list, and he presents the cart of after-dinner drinks with enormous care, lovingly touching each bottle as he says, "This is a wonderful Calvados, and here is a rare aged Grand Marnier. . . ." Listening to him, you want to drink your way through the cart.
As I was sipping that Calvados, I suddenly remembered that the lot in which I had parked my car was about to close. The waiter overheard me and said, "Give me your keys, I'll send someone." I gave him my keys, and when I walked out the door to find the car sitting in front of the restaurant, I felt more pampered than I have ever felt in my life.
Over the course of the next few months, I returned to Max four times, eating my way through the menu. With one exception, one evening when the food all seemed to taste the same (the soup, for instance, reappearing as an almost identical sauce), I have always left feeling as if I were in the hands of a master. If there is a more exhilarating dining experience in Los Angeles, I have not had it. Here are a few things that I know about Max.
For the rich and the thin: Splichal makes something called "Beverly Hills Spa Cuisine." One evening the 585 calories consisted of a wild rice salad filled with peppers and fresh tomatoes, and so entirely delightful that you began to feel guilty. Surely he must be cheating? This was followed by halibut in a fennel sauce, followed by sliced oranges. Everything was wonderful, but I couldn't help thinking that at $40 this is an expensive way to diet.
Claws: Lobster, Lobster, Lobster was my least favorite of the set dinners. The terrine of lobster in its red pepper puree looked like a Venetian paperweight. The soup was beautiful, a giant butterfly made of wild rice with lobster "wings" was placed before me, and then topped with a bisque that was the essence of lobster. Next came an equally beautiful strudel of lobster and chanterelles, but at this point it was the last thing I wanted to look at. It was all a bit fussy for my taste, although I should mention that one of my companions nearly swooned over the soup.
Adventures: There are a number of really unusual foods on the menu. Try them. My last encounter with cockscombs was when Alain Chapel scoured the California countryside to find them, and I thought Splichal's version of the chewy morsels was even better than Chapel's. The combs themselves are little triangular shapes, here sitting in a very reduced burgundy sauce enhanced with little onions. The "Napoleon" sounds equally exotic, and turns out to be a very rich mousse chicken liver wrapped up in white chicken breast, with the most marvelous cubes of aspic twinkling on the side. It is served with little rounds of toasted brioche and a salad of mache.
Pure Corn: Splichal seems to be as fond of corn as he is of lobster, and he uses it inventively. There is a warm corn mousse with clams and chanterelles that looks vaguely like nursery food, and tastes simultaneously sweet, salty and slightly pungent. You find corn mixed with truffles and potatoes in an unusual salad, and again in specials like spaghetti with corn and asparagus and pureed tomato.
Bargains: The crayfish bisque is a textbook version, poured over little tubes of macaroni that have been meticulously stuffed with crayfish mousse. A single bowl is rich enough to make a satisfying meal, and at $5 I'd put it on the list of the town's great bargains.
Night and Day: I like the way the restaurant looks in the daytime even better than the way it looks at night. All the little details of the room suddenly pop out, and the room seems somehow warmer, friendlier.
Just desserts: Get them. There are 24 desserts on the menu, and I've liked everything I've tried. A coconut sherbet with pineapple in white rum and chocolate sauce stands out as particularly irresistible. I can't think of a better way to end a meal at this remarkable restaurant.