Not a restaurant
At 10 on a Thursday, when the kitchens of other restaurants are closing, Max's Wine Dive is just getting going. But then again, Max's is not a restaurant. It's a bar -- a bar with a fantastic wine list and some of the most over-the-top, hedonistic food in Houston.
I had never been to Max's because it is so crowded on weekend nights when I usually eat out. But this Thursday, we wanted food after a party. And although Max is mostly just a bar, it had some tables open.
We could tell the other customers had been there a while. The laughter was loud. Guys still wearing suits from work had their ties loosened and big grins on their faces. Twenty-something girls in jeans stumbled in the door as though Max's was a just stop on a Washington Ave-wine-bar crawl. Slightly drunken conversations spilled over from one table to another. And some 40-year-old ladies were trying to take over the big juke box -- plugging in some horrible 1980s crooner, synth pop, as an antidote to the guys who had previously loaded it with Cream and The Doors. Was a fight brewing?
Although Max's may feel a lot like Kay's or La Carafe, it isn't. Max's wine list is better than 95% of the restaurants in Houston. It is a sprawling, diverse list with a great selection of international wines. Every price range from $20 to $300 is well represented. The markup from retail is reasonable. And the list includes a lot of small production wines that you do not see on other lists.
Max's has a lot of wines by the glass. If you commit to 2 glasses, you can drink any wine on the list by the glass. It is a great way to experiment.
For me, a good wine list makes it hard to decide. I considered a Californian Merlot, an Italian Amarone, and a French Chateauneuf du Pape, but I ultimately landed on a bottle of a wonderful small-production wine from the Prioriat region of Spain. It retails for $65 at Specs. At Max's, it was only about $25 more.
We were many glasses behind the other patrons, but this wine was a good way to start.
Decadent salad, Houston's best pot roast, and a Big Ass Brownie
Max's menu offers the kind of dishes you might not try until you have had a few drinks. Because I was sober, I did not order the exotic fried pigs ears with molasses glaze or fried alligator with spicy Thai glaze. Because I had not lost my inhibitions, I was not about to order something loaded with fat, like Max & Cheese (pasta with truffle cream, gruyere, and parmesan) or the Rib Basket (baby back ribs with hoisin glaze).
Instead, my wife and I soberly ordered "safe" dishes -- a Wedge Salad and a Pot Roast. Yet they were not safe. They were decadent re-imaginings of ordinary dishes. Normally, a wedge salad is a quarter head of lettuce served with a blue cheese dressing. This one came with some dressing, and a giant chunk of stinky blue cheese. And bacon. Lots of fresh bacon. An out-of-season tomato and under-ripe avocado did not add much, but the combination of pungent cheese and bacon and crisp bread was so hedonistic that I forgot it was a salad.
Max's serves pot roast. Hallelujah! As I said back in March, "Now maybe some fine restaurant will have the guts to serve a fantastic pot roast." Max's has done it. And its "Damn . . . Yankee Pot Roast" may be the best pot roast I have tried. The secret to a good pot roast is braising the beef for a long time over a low heat so the fibers break down, the meat becomes tender and the colagen melts into a gelatinous sauce. Sure, Max's pot roast does all of that that, and much more. Max's reduces the rich sauce (with wine?) to a deep dark brown color with a lacquered texture. Visually, the sauce is stunning. Plus it tastes great. I found myself scooping it up with the beef, with the root vegetables on the side, and with the hedonistically buttered slices of Texas toast.
After these dishes -- and the Prioriat -- all hope of restraint was gone. We ordered a "Big Ass Brownie" with some tawny port. This brownie was about 5 inches x 5 inches. Wisely my wife cut off about 3/4 of the brownie and packed it to go. It was predictably rich and gooey, but we tasted a bit more sugar than intense chocolate. The best part of the dish may have been a scoop of gelatto made with Dulce de Leche -- the product of boiling milk and sugar to caramelize them.
Please don't go
There are a lot of reasons not to go to Max's. It is crowded. It is hard to get a table at peak times. It is loud. It is not cheap (a hot dog costs $14; my pot roast was $24). And there seems to be nothing healthy on this menu. I don't know if I would enjoy Max's on a regular basis.
Yet last night, in a noisy bar, I had some of the best food I have had this year. And after I do penance by eating health food at the nearby Dharma Cafe for a week, I want to go back to Max's. Please don't go, so there will be a table there for me.