Max Fish, Glastonbury

 

★★1/2

It's big and bold, fun and all about fish. It's Max Fish in Glastonbury, the newest eatery in The Max Restaurant Group. 

It's packed to the gills most nights of the week-but you guessed as much. After all, if founding father and mega-restaurateur Richard Rosenthal even thinks about opening a new restaurant, mouths begin to water and phones start ringing off the hook. We considered ourselves lucky to snare a 7:30 reservation for a Monday night.

Because Max Fish is two restaurants under one roof, we could have dined in the Shark Bar without a reservation but coming from afar and wanting to be assured of a seat, we opted for the slightly more formal dining room. Comfortably ensconced, we picked up a menu that knocked our socks off with a multiplicity of choices and intriguing information.

We learned that the broadbill swordfish steak is wild-caught on Georges Bank, the arctic char is farm-raised in Iceland, Dover sole will be boned tableside upon request, and the shellfish sampler consists of clams, Alaskan king crab bites, jumbo shrimp, mussels and Taylor Bay scallops. The menu also invited us to order "Fish Your Way"-poached, seared on a metal plate, char-grilled, with or without all manner of sauces.

Participation is the name of this game. If you opt not to play, you can order "Fish Our Way," leaving the creativity to the chef. For the most part, this is what we did. After all, I reasoned, I can cook fish my way at home. At Max Fish a master chef will whip up a culinary masterpiece for me.

Withal, as committed as I am to creativity, when I review a seafood restaurant I like to give it a little back-to-basics test. Crab cakes and clam chowder tell me a lot about a restaurant, so I ordered both. The waiter told me the crab cakes were 95 percent crabmeat and they tasted that way. Seasoning was subtle-hooray. Max's crab cakes let the sweet, delicate flavor of crabmeat shine through, while a take-it-or-leave-it scribble of gherkin-spiked aioli and crispy capers decorated the plate.

The New England-style clam chowder studded with chopped clams and diced potatoes was creamy, familiar, cozy. Both appetizers passed the test. High marks for both.

A more elaborate starter, yellowfin tuna tartare with mango, hearts of palm, avocado and a jungle of sprouts, was less successful. The tartare was lackluster and while pairing it with an exotic topping might have helped, an overabundance of julienned hearts of palm had a strong, briny taste that overpowered everything.

Oysters Rockefeller, on the other hand, were too bland, weighed down with cream sauce that was supposed to be flavored with Pernod. If so, there was too little to detect.

But these shortfalls proved to be just a blip on the radar. With the arrival of our entrées, joy reigned supreme at our table in Maxland. The star of the show was the Dover sole, expertly boned tableside and artistically arranged on an oval platter, crispy edges of fish positioned along the sides, fillets in the center, a portion of roe at one end, a char-grilled lemon half on the other. Sautéed haricots verts and a ramekin of mustard-seed beurre blanc completed the composition, which tasted as good as it looked. Dover sole à la Max Fish is a dining experience worthy of a special occasion. We amused ourselves inventing one-King Neptune's birthday!

Another stunner was black cod, glistening under an Acacia honey glaze, with a fringe of char trimming snow-white fish that fell from the fork in silky flakes. Bok choy bedding the fish was hard to cut and didn't quite work, but the celery root purée served alongside was heavenly. 

"Colossal Whole Shrimp Oreganatto" was well named. The crustaceans were indeed eye-poppingly large, even fierce-looking, legs and claws reaching for the sky. The tail meat, which pulled out easily, was tender, robust in flavor, strongly redolent of the sea-too strong, perhaps, for some tastes, but leagues away from cottony cocktail shrimp. 

It should be noted that carnivores need not go hungry at Max Fish. On offer are chicken, New York strip steak, filet mignon and rack of lamb.

For vegetarians there are vegetable sides and a daily vegetarian option that our waitress described to us so glowingly we decided to order it. A plump, flaky strudel stuffed with mushrooms and melting goat cheese arrived and was enjoyed by all. Served with fennel-and-red-onion slaw and red pepper coulis, it was a bargain at $16.95.

The nice thing about eating fish is that it makes you feel virtuous enough to order dessert. At Max Fish you can go all out, all the way out, with "Hot Fudge to the Max," consisting of caramelized bananas, vanilla ice cream, rich gooey chocolate fudge, roasted salted almonds and whipped cream with a cherry on top. 

Heroically, we resisted because we wanted the caramelized apple bread pudding made with toasted cinnamon brioche, the cabernet sorbet and the chocolate pie. As for me, awash in nostalgia, it had to be the Boston cream pie, which is not a pie at all but layers of vanilla cake put together with custardy cream filling. My mother-in-law made it from a recipe in Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cook Book, originally published in 1896. Thanks, Max, for bringing it back.

At Max Fish there are too many options to sample in a month or a week, much less in a day. We left dreaming of the ones that got away.

Max Fish
110 Glastonbury Blvd., Glastonbury (860/652-3474)

Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11, Sunday 4 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $4.95 to $14.95, entrées $16.95 to $32.95 (Dover sole $44.95), desserts $6.95 to $8.95.

Max Fish, Glastonbury

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