Décor in a restaurant sets tone, a mental hip check for the subconscious. The initial impression needs to be a good one; anything after is affected by that first look. Max's on Broad has ambience and visuals in spades. Distinct tile floors, shabby chic wooden furnishings and a long zinc bar are charming and round out a decidedly European feel. Dining space is premium and every inch of it is packed, on every visit, including upstairs with romantic exterior wall-to-wall window seating.
An immense beer and wine list looks to be carefully assembled and yet curiously is missing the vintage years of the wine. Our server is green, showing a cork from one bottle torn in half and then proceeding to do the same with ours. However, she endearingly flusters her way through cheeses and halts us midorder to let us know that the skate special is no longer available due to its propensity to spoil easily. Settling on entrees from a large menu split between courses, we half-yell and half-talk at her. Dinner unfolds unevenly, though the dining room clears out relatively soon after we arrive. On another visit, our server is distracted and lost in the throngs of fellow waiters.
An oyster pan roast ($14) is, primarily, a delectable chunky potato soup with very few oysters and an overwhelming amount of bacon. The absence of shellfish doesn't faze. Even a nonoyster fan gets a good bread dunk into the "soup jus." At the other end of the spectrum, waterzooi (a traditional Belgian stew, $32) is crammed with rockfish and a large pile of cold lump crab meat. Broth is all butter and cream, a cholesterol dream.
Pomme frites ($7) show up in the now-ubiquitous cone, on one visit thin and crispy, the next two, fat and pulpy. Sauces to accompany the fries are noteworthy. Herb aioli is striking acidic to provide good balance to the oily crisps. The pear and arugula salad ($12) is magnificently large with tomatoes, arugula, underripe pears, cucumbers, carrots, strawberries, pecans, onion, and an unassuming goat cheese, slathered in a tart passion-fruit dressing. Osso buco ($32) is tough and overcooked, saddled with sweeter than necessary beets and viscous demi-glace. Mashed potatoes border on pasty.
The tilefish ($26) is overcooked and approaching tough. It is served with a captivating and bright truffle-corn purée (with nary a trace of truffle), four spears of asparagus and a crunchy potato gratin. French onion soup is salty, beefy and beautifully presented, a repeatable experience. Conversely (in a season that does not bear tomatoes or basil), the tomato-basil is essentially a bowl of marinara repurposed as soup.
House-made s'mores ($7) are thickly textured and round, evoking a dark chocolate cake with marshmallow afterthoughts. Cream puffs ($7) are whimsically plated but their soggy pastry detracts from a better than average custard interior.
Brunch is low key with dense Belgian waffles in varied formats and complex constructions of eggs Benedict. At lunch, a croque-madame ($13) stacks thinly sliced ham and a well fried egg over almost stale French bread, attractive but insufficient. With such a gorgeous interior, immense potential, and oh-so-easy valet parking, this hopping spot stands to be a destination among restaurants in Richmond.
A little leg up to help food details measure up to the space details will round out the kinks and provide an enlightening experience. The arrival of chef and partner Carlos Silva is a sign that some of these issues may be addressed sooner rather than later. After all, pretty is as pretty does. S
Max's on Broad
305 Brook Road
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.