That's what's become of Maison Blanche. Just across the street from the Old Executive Office Building, it was once the kind of place where a spy would gladly trade his cellar of Bollinger for any briefcase that came through the door. It was the lunch spot where Art Buchwald established his regular table (after the Sans Souci expired in 1983). Its chef even did a brief stint in the White House.
Now it's been taken over by Gerard Pain, who installed his daughter to run his other restaurant, Georgetown's La Chaumiere. He's brought his wine expertise, and even by the glass the reds here do a steak proud.
He's left the dining room in the frumpy French style that's now an anachronism, with a parade of tufted, dark brown banquettes that may be leather but look more Naugahyde than Naugahyde. Overhead is a thicket of brass chandeliers, and at your feet are acres of red carpeting that misses being royal and instead is just loud. The American touch? A stuffed buffalo head over one banquette and enough American Indian prints to make the room look a bit like an old natural history museum.
Of course, the idea of a French steak house isn't a stretch for Washington. Les Halles was always bustling in the days when it was good. Even Italian steak houses seem to thrive, at least in the suburbs. But Max's is not a steak-frites kind of place. It's an American steak house. Shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, Texas cowboy rib steak, New York strip and a side of barbecue sauce if you request it. The effect, in this environment, is of Maurice Chevalier in a 10-gallon hat and bolo tie.
Anyone in his right mind would expect the food to be awful, but he'd be wrong. Max's has had at least three chefs in its first half-year, and it has as many flaws as a hound dog has fleas, but it has some good solid cooking, too. And better desserts than the more established steak houses.
I wouldn't start my meal by risking the lobster bisque. After trying a steak with a "cabernet sauce" that sort of kept its shape on my plate, I'd shy away from anything that requires finesse or subtlety. At least until dessert.
The cold appetizers are right out of the standard steak house manual: raw oysters or clams, silky smoked salmon, nicely seasoned steak tartare that seems hand-chopped, plus serious caviar or prosciutto with fruit. Hot appetizers, too, run predictably to clams casino and crab cakes.
It was the crab cakes that won me over. You can order them as an entree or appetizer, and they're creamy as well as crisp-edged, with the lump crab meat left to dominate. Clams casino is hard to ruin, and Max's hasn't tried. The clams are tiny, so the bacon takes charge, but everything is as fresh as it should be. Baked oysters are a tougher job, and these are partied up with spinach, hazelnuts and ginger applied with restraint, thank goodness. They're fine, just not as good as plain oysters.
Max's fails the Caesar salad test, but so do most steak houses nowadays. The dressing is heavy and excessive, and the croutons seem right out of the bag. But at least the chef is daring enough to top the salad with two crisscrossed anchovies unafraid of those diners who order this classic anchovy-spiked salad and then object to the anchovies.
The point of the place is steaks, though. And Max's are thick and weighty, as we have a right to expect for $30 a hunk. They are also accurately cooked, deep pink for medium-rare, dark red and char-edged for black-and-blue. The only slip-up in the cooking technique during my visits was a special of blackened steak that was seared but not properly singed on a superheated grill. In general, though, you can expect this kitchen to at least stoke its fire hot enough to caramelize the surface of your meat and to know when to snatch it from the heat. But why doesn't the meat have more flavor? More juiciness? It's very good steak, and if you order the New York strip, porterhouse or cowboy rib, it will be cooked on the bone. But it doesn't have the deep meaty flavor of the best in town. The burger at lunch, however, was everything you'd demand from a $9 hamburger, along with a pile of fries that were crunchy and faintly sweet, as only those freshly made from properly aged potatoes can be.
Unlike most of its steak house competitors', Max's steaks come with side dishes, though a waiter didn't warn us we were already getting potatoes when we ordered them a la carte. Max's also has outshined the other steak houses in the creamed spinach department at least under one of its three recent chefs. The recipe must read: Combine equal parts fresh, lightly cooked spinach, cream and chopped garlic. It has been sensational.
Although the fries were great at lunch, they were indifferent at dinner. But I'd definitely spring for the latkes. They are lacy and so crisp they shatter under the fork, and sweetly perfumed with onion. If Max's sustains this tradition, the kitchen could make its fortune just by giving latke lessons.
Like every other steak house, Max's serves lamb chops, veal steak and simple seafood dishes, topping the price range with Dover sole and lobster. Among the seafood offerings is a modern-day preparation of shrimp with pineapple salsa, the shrimp large and moist, the sauce far less cloying than it sounds. At lunch there's a rather routine meatloaf.
After an inch-thick steak and a platter of potatoes, dessert is surely not a necessity. And when the waiter promoted the profiteroles, I was highly skeptical. I felt like apologizing to the pastry chef for my skepticism after I tried them: They were light, crisp puffs, obviously freshly made. Filled with ice cream and drenched in bittersweet chocolate sauce, they were one of those desserts you can't stop eating even when you're full. The apple tart, paved thickly with chunks of apple cooked to a soft, caramelized mass, was barely sweet, far more sophisticated than I'd expect in an American steak house. It reminded me that under this hearty red-meat exterior, Max's was born speaking French.
Max's of Washington 1725 F St. NW. 202/842-0070. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.; for bar fare Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $30, entrees $9 to $25; dinner appetizers $5 to $32, entrees $18 to $35. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $75 per person.
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