By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Not to be confused with the nearby Max Grocery and Max Aquarium, Mr. Max is a concentrated burst of authentic Japanese as attention-getting as wasabi, the nasal-clearing hot mustard that usually accompanies sushi.
Which brings us to the first clue about Mr. Max's traditional fare: it doesn't serve sushi. A Japanese friend accompanied me on this trek through what I cross-culturally joked was "down-home Japanese"--a comment met by a blank stare from her. She said she always knew a restaurant was Americanized if it served raw fish atop or rolled inside rice. Japanese cooks aren't considered qualified to prepare sushi unless they've trained under a master for five years. It's a highly ritualized food style that's been co-opted by Westerners because of its presentational appeal. So unless she had the license to prove it, Momma wouldn't serve you sushi back home.
The menu at Mr. Max--each item scrawled in Japanese across little rectangles of colored paper and pinned to the wall--is also shorn of yakitori (grilled, skewered meat or vegetables served so expertly at Greenville's Teppo) and tempura (deep-fried shrimp or vegetables), which is bound to eliminate a large cross-section of Americans who think they know their way around a Japanese menu. Ditto the atmosphere, which might be described as cramped--the place holds only a small bar lined with chairs and a platform with four sunken tables. If you plan to sit at one of these, you will remove your shoes (slippers are provided for those necessary treks to the restroom or bar).
Personally, I found that the stark, office-style walls and ceiling added an appropriate corporate theme for a food whose country of origin has so often been written about by outsiders in terms of business competition. It seemed a nice, neutral alternative to the scrolls and bonzai trees and Noguchi-style stone sculptures with which many Americanized restaurants bombard patrons--paradoxically, a confrontation of culture from a nonconfrontational culture. The proliferation of Japanese businessmen, whose laughter grew more raucous with each round of sake, jackets off and shirt collars loosened, charged the establishment with a reassuring, in-crowd electricity.
So, Mr. Max isn't any great shakes for atmosphere or location. Yet my three dining experiences there have ranged from the mouth-wateringly expert to the...well, let's just say I've eaten things at this restaurant I'll probably never try again. But I'm grateful to Mr. Max for an unforgettable--if, to these Occidental taste buds, not exactly edible--experience.
Let's start with the items friendliest to Western palates. Both the karubi (grilled beef) and the shioyaki (grilled, salted salmon) were exquisitely prepared. The amoebic ovals of ribeye beef were succulent and savory despite having been cooked well into the medium range. The salmon, in particular, was a revelation--it broke apart into large, tender flakes under the slightest poke of our chopsticks.
Moving slightly eastward and away from the stove flame, the uncooked fleshes were equally victorious. Tuna sashimi (raw fish without rice) sat flirtatiously on its black tray as fat, elegant pink slices. Tuna has been my least favorite selection at sushi bars because the texture has often seemed mushy, but here the sashimi offered the right degree of resistance. To avoid an international incident, keep your tuna away from your miso (a soybean paste mixed with wheat and yeast). After I'd spread a little on the fish, my Japanese friend looked at me like I'd just bombed a village.
Tataki was cold beef slices, raw in the middle, served in a vinegar sauce on a bed of onion slices. It was tastier than carpaccio, a similar dish drizzled in olive oil and served at Italian restaurants.
One of the more authentic Japanese entrees served at Mr. Max reminded me in appearance of a banana flip, the scary plastic-wrapped dessert that tends to linger on the racks beside gas station registers. Onigiri is a dark green folded seaweed strip stuffed with rice and, isolated in the very center, salmon. The abundance of white grains tended to leave the whole enterprise overstuffed and under-flavored for me, but that just made the salmon seem more precious each time I tasted it.
Two other foods can be filed under the culinary description "interesting..." and left there to gather dust, as far as I'm concerned. My friend, whose English is far better than her confidence in speaking it, asked me if I'd like to sample natto, a vegetable she referred to as "rotted peas." After a short bilingual tango for the right adjective and a consultation of an English translation menu, we discovered that the more palatable--though not necessarily more accurate--adjective is "fermented." Natto arrived as a small mound of green pulp in a beautiful porcelain dish. While adding a dash of soy sauce and stirring it around with her chopsticks, she informed me that many Japanese don't like this particular preparation. The word "fermented" led me to believe that the peas would have a vinegary taste, but the flavor wasn't sharp at all, just thick and vaguely sour and--dare I say it?--composty. I instantly formed a kinship beyond language barriers with that segment of the Japanese population that refuses to eat natto.