My favorite time to eat at restaurant Max, the glitzy new restaurant located inside the equally glitzy and equally new Hotel Minneapolis, is at lunch.
The crowd -- and there is one, a reassuring sight given the current economic climate -- is well-dressed and prosperous-looking, as if everyone is in the middle of a job interview or on the verge of closing a deal. It looks as if the restaurant has already developed a devoted lunch following, primarily because diners know that they can rely upon chef Matt Holmes to impress his noon-hour guests with lively editions of what often could be lunchtime snoozers.
Cobb salad. A dullard, right? Not here, since Holmes cleverly tarts up its familiar foundations -- egg, chicken, bacon, avocado, a gutsy Minnesota-made blue cheese -- with a bright pesto, then wraps the whole enchilada inside a lettuce shell. It's unexpectedly pretty, and I for one am a fan of the good surprise. His idea of a pulled-pork sandwich works for me: Generous chunks of mouth-melting pork are slathered, Asian-style, with soy and hoisin sauces and topped with slow-cooked onions.
When it comes to the turkey club, the welcome tweaks include pancetta stepping in for bacon, and a zesty pesto aioli subbing for mere mayonnaise. In Minnesota, "shrimp" and "egg" in a sandwich title are invariably followed by "salad," but not in the House of Holmes: The eggs are treated dashimaki-style (a soft and fluffy Japanese omelet) and topped with shrimp and dainty micro greens; it couldn't be more appealing.
So it goes with nearly all the menu's seven salads and 10 sandwiches. Holmes wisely knows to leave some basics alone, which means, for example, that the burger and the BLT are done straight-up, with careful attention paid to the quality of the toppings (provolone, avocado and caramelized onions) in the former, and cooking the thick-slab bacon just right in the latter.
Starters fall into two categories. Best are the flatbreads, rectangular cracker crusts liberally topped with like-minded ingredients (get the chicken with roasted vegetables, or the shrimp with asparagus and cilantro). They're meant to be shared, but I wouldn't mind hogging them to myself. The one misstep is the pair of wildly unbalanced soups. Memo to the Max kitchen: One reason why saffron is so danged expensive is because a little goes a long way.
Lunch also includes a half-dozen entrees, most culled from the dinner menu, and they remind me that I'm less impressed with the restaurant when the sun goes down. At dinner, the menu grows exponentially, grabbing a greatest-hits list of salads and flatbreads from lunch and adding a dozen appetizers and six lavish entrees. The numbers become a bit overwhelming.
Too much variety
What seems inventive earlier in the day can feel overwrought at dinner. At first, Holmes' dizzying displays have a bowl-you-over capacity. I admire how he approaches pork three different ways on the same plate, demonstrating the meat's (and his) versatility; he does a similar number on duck, with similarly winning results. His rack of lamb is reason alone to visit, the meat singing with rich lamb flavor and accented by a cool mint-tomato compote. A New York strip, cooked precisely to order, gets the kind of steakhouse embellishments that are designed to put the beef front and center, where it belongs (and for $44, that's exactly where it should be).
But from there I wanted to cry "uncle." For example, yellowfin tuna, painfully overcooked, is lost under competing curry-cilantro flavors, and does anyone find pink risotto (tinted by the juice of red beets) attractive?
Sometimes a more watchful eye would do a world of good. There's a clean, contemporary version of lobster Thermidor (including a swell risotto peppered with smoked corn and surrounded by a pool of lobster broth), but the meat had lost its succulent bounce; for a stratospheric $65, it's not unreasonable to expect more.
Other issues seem easy to solve. Substitute snappy shrimp for soggy, flavorless ones. Don't overcook the mussels, and yank the croquettes out of the fryer faster. Ramp up the duck rolls' flavor profile. Do something about the mushy pastry in a fine mushroom tart. Trim the tab on the lovingly composed cheese plate.
Holmes redeems himself with his daily dinner specials. In my mind they're the restaurant's peak eating experience, in part because they avoid the rest of the menu's hyperactive nature. They're also prepared with obvious care. One night he was offering a massive, slow-cooked, on-the-bone pork shank, with traces of citrus and ginger sneaking into each fabulous fall-apart bite. It was one of the most satisfying dishes I've encountered in months.
A substantial autumn-vegetable risotto (his risottos are terrific) took the chill off a drizzly early November night. On another visit, stringozzi (a pasta) blanketed in a hearty lamb sugo rivaled Isaac Becker's signature version at his 112 Eatery. No fuss, no overkill, just uncomplicated goodness.
Thanks to the city's longstanding aversion to historic preservation, a comparable space does not exist in downtown Minneapolis: a baronial expanse punctuated by a grid of massive, fluted columns of gleaming Italian marble that stretch heavenward to a coffered ceiling. Pre-FDIC, such lavishness was standard operating procedure, the way banks conveyed a sense of impenetrable security to their depositors.
Because the room has been removed from the public consciousness for such a long time -- it spent too many humbled years as an office cubicle farm -- many Twin Citians are probably unaware that this knockout was quietly biding its time behind the unassuming yellow brick walls of what was once the Midland Bank Building.
Pushing the limits
Three cheers to the Morrissey Hospitality Group for reclaiming this piece of the city's past and giving it a hopeful future. But somewhere along the way, something got lost, as if the Midland's chief assets were viewed as liabilities. In its conversion from bank lobby to restaurant, the room's momentous sweep has been subdued by haphazard subdivisions; a monotonous putty color does its very best to flatten the ceiling's eye-catching intricacies, and many of those Greek-temple columns are inexplicably obscured by bizarre, lilypad-like petals of crimson-colored glass.
"You have got to let this go," said my friend, with some concern in his voice, when I began to brainstorm plans for a late-night stealth mission involving power tools and a dumpster. "You're a restaurant critic. Shouldn't you be concentrating on the food?"
Yes. No. OK, maybe. Sure, we go to restaurants to nourish ourselves, but we don't dine in a vacuum. Ambience matters. In Morrissey's defense, the Midland-turned-Max has its charms: a plush ruby and brown color palette, minimalist furniture, gauzy drapes and gently diffused natural daytime light. Still, the misstep is a surprise, given that the company's track record includes some of the Twin Cities area's most distinctive restaurant interiors, including the timeless St. Paul Grill, the romantic and energetic Pazzaluna, also in downtown St. Paul, and the country estate charm of Tria in North Oaks.
Desserts embrace one of my favorite trends, the just-a-few-bites sweet. Max's versions, at $2.50 a pop, sound great on paper -- raspberry limoncello mousse or chocolate-peanut butter cake, carefully spooned into tall shot glasses -- but most have a vacuous, over-refrigerated quality. There's a smaller selection of larger desserts, but other than the pleasant sorbets and ice creams from Stillwater's Liberty House Cafe and Creamery, I can't recommend them. The bar's highly drinkable cocktail list fares much better.
As we left the restaurant one night, my MasterCard still stinging from the pounding it had taken, I encountered a pet peeve of mine -- although in the restaurant's defense, it's not an exclusive-to-Max issue. As a tonic to the neighborhood's tough parking situation, the hotel thoughtfully provides a valet service. For $9. Despite how that price gets lopped to $5 for diners investing in entrees (not that any of the polite doormen asked to see my receipt), I had to wonder: Even though I had just dropped $100 a head on dinner, I've still got to pony up for parking?
Come on. For a company that prides itself -- justifiably -- on superior service, this is no way to milk every customer's wallet to the max.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757