Saturday, December 6, 2008

Max Amore, Glastonbury, CT December 2008 Grade: B+

Joanne and Amy write:

Believe it or not, Amy and I are bargain hunters and coupon clippers. We even share coupons so they don't go to waste. Like back in the day when kids traded baseball cards, Amy and I spread out our spoils and trade coupons. You have 20 percent off Bed and Bath? I've got buy-one-get-one at Bath and Body! Of course the often more interesting offers are the free appetizer or BOGO entree deals we come across. How lucky for us that our dinner last night came about because of a deal we didn't even go looking for. Rather, it fell in our laps. Well, in our email boxes--as had the Restaurant Week advertisement that lead us to Max's Oyster Bar a couple of weeks ago. In this case, on Monday after school, we both got an email about the Max Restaurant Group Prix Fixe dinners this week. 3 courses for $24.95. Yay, us! This time, we chose the more suburban Max Amore, in Glastonbury. This time we were also a little more indecisive about what to order, despite seeing the menu in advance.

The options for first course were Caesar salad or soup. I chose the Caesar salad. While we waited, I picked at dish of marinated olives which were quite fruity and flavorful (Amy doesn't like olives, so I didn't have to share). We were also served a basket of two types of bread and a head of roasted garlic. I prepared a slab of foccacia with garlic and dipped in some olive oil that was on the table and things were looking promising. Then my salad arrived. At first glance it looked like a decent Caesar, but once I started, was a bit disappointed. Perhaps the most disappointing detail was that there were no Parmesan shaves or shingles in sight, not even any matchstick shreds. Rather, the salad was dressed with grated Parmesan that was unable to temper the slightly too pungent anchovy and garlic dressing. Finally, the croutons were more stale than crispy. So we were off to a tepid start. Well, figuratively, but Amy can tell you about that.

I was hungry and couldn't wait to dig into the cup of Tuscan white bean and pancetta soup I ordered to start. I should have waited, because it was so hot that I wished I had an asbestos lining in my mouth. When it cooled down enough for me to actually taste it, it had good white bean flavor with a hint of smokiness. It also had a hearty mix of small diced carrots, celery and pancetta that was all the more sublime when I dipped the country-style Italian bread into it. A bowl of this soup with that bread would have made for an amazing meal in itself.

I didn't finish the soup because I was very much looking forward to my interesting entree of "Gobetti con Anatra," described as pasta with duck confit, roasted butternut squash, fresh sage, and sweet potato cream. The waiter placed the dish in front of me and the smell of spices (was it the nutmeg? maybe the cinnamon?) made my mouth water. Again, I couldn't wait to dig in. This dish had the perfect balance of sweet and savory: sweetness from the squash, spices and cream sauce; savory from the duck and the sage. It also had a skillful blend of textures, with the al dente pasta mixed with no-too-firm squash and fork-tender duck. This was the ultimate duck pasta dish, and the best, most unique one I've had in a long time.

I should have gone with my initial instinct and ordered the chicken parmigiana rather than be dissuaded from doing so by the server, who was "sick of serving chicken." That is to say, Amy won. In that restaurant game of sampling each other's dinners, deciding whose is best, and coveting another meal: Amy won. My salmon dish The fish itself was good and cooked well, but the preparation had a disconnect. The polenta on which the salmon was artfully placed looked and tasted more like scrambled eggs than polenta. The plum tomato sauce resembled and tasted more like a helping of canned, diced tomatoes, and frankly--even if it was a great sauce and my palate missed that--didn't seem to compliment the salmon. The leek and roasted pepper tapenade was a few juliennes of leeks and peppers that tasted mostly like roasted peppers. I pushed them off to the side with the tomatoes and ate the 5 haricot verts that sat between the polenta and fish. I couldn't help but long for the wonderful preparation of salmon I had at Max's Oyster Bar a couple of weeks ago. But honestly, if all I had was the piece of salmon and a full helping of green beans I would have been more content. At least there was dessert.

We wised up this visit and got one of each of the two dessert choices: creme bruciata (which is Italian for creme brulee), and flourless chocolate cake, so we could taste them both. The creme tasted as good as the one we had at Oyster Bar - it was chilled and creamy and topped with that delightful burnt sugar. Unfortunately, the presentation was lacking, as the dish sat atop the raspberry sauce which ended up smudged and hidden rather than acting as an enhancement. The tiny "Nilla-wafer" sandwich cookie accompaniment was dry and tasteless. The flourless cake had the consistency of a not-quite cooked brownie, which is to say, it was awesome. It was topped with a deep chocolate ganache that was countered with an equally tasty Tahitian-vanilla gelato that packed a powerful punch of flavor by itself.

For Amy it was a hit, for me a miss, but overall it was a good dinner experience. Our service was good (although the server was flat) and with wine and tip, we had three courses at this high-caliber restaurant for $60 apiece. While we acknowledge this is not cheap, it's actually a great deal in a place where entrees alone range from $15.95 to $31.95. To the Max Restaurant Group we can only say, keep doing what you're doing!

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