With its low self-esteem and high urban blight, Hartford is the ultimate underdog city. Sad City Hartford documents the joys, sorrows and eccentricities of New England's Rising Star.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hartford Food Guy Reviews: Max Downtown

My wife and I decided to get married at Max Downtown because it is quite simply the best restaurant in town. What makes Max Downtown the best is its remarkable consistency. The food is always at least very good and the service is almost always excellent. Indeed, in the last five years I have probably been there at least once a month for either dinner or lunch (often on business) and I can think of 2 occasions where the food was merely good and perhaps 3 occasions where the service was less than excellent. That's a really good track record and not easy to accomplish given the number of tables, how many seatings they tend to do in a typical service, and the standards to which Max Downtown aspires.

Unlike a lot of the places my wife and I like to eat, Max Downtown is fine dining and it stands up very well to the stringent standards against which I rate top-of-the-line operations. First and foremost the service is excellent. Although there is turnover in the waitstaff (perhaps more than you'd like to see), the servers are always very knowledgeable about the menu and many of them have an excellent understanding of the extensive wine list as well. The management is solid, and you will see suits moving throughout the dining area, seating and speaking with customers, and keeping things moving. Even the bus boys (and girls) are extremely efficient, perfectly dressed, and very professional. This evening was no exception. We we immediately greeted and seated, the shift manager paid a courtesy visit to wish us a happy anniversary and to check in, our waiter was well-versed on the menu, efficient, extremely attentive (without being obnoxious), and the table was cleared between courses with no delay and a minimum of fuss.

As usual, the food was very, very, good. In fact, it was absolutely wonderful. My wife started with the braised short rib cannoloni with crispy shallots, truffle vinaigrette, forest mushroom sauce ($11). I had a bite and it was a great balance of flavors and textures.

I started with the duck confrit flatbread consisting of foie gras pate, grilled red onions, watercress, cranberries, and balsamic-fig glaze ($12). I love foie gras and this serving was very, very, very good. Happily, my foie gras was not only very good, but there was also a more than ample portion, with 8  pieces of flatbread, each well-supplied with delicious foie gras.

For our salad course, my wife had the Autumn market salad, with roasted sugar pie pumpkin, local apples, beets, frisee, endive candied walnuts, pomegranate vinaigrette ($10 ) while I had the chopped salad, which I had the night we got married. It comes with Gorgonzola cheese and sherry mustard seed vinaigrette ($9). A chopped said salad is a pretty basic thing, but it needs to be cold, crisp, and well-mixed, which mine was. The Gorgonzola and vinaigrette are a nice combination of contrasting flavors and textures and are a great compliment complement to the salad. I have had the Autumn market salad before and I loved it, though my wife was not as excited about it as I.

For dinner, we both had the same thing - the grilled New York Strip Steak entree with melted midnight moon macaroni and cheese, watercress, crispy onions, truffle vinaigrette, red wine jus ($29), which is not to be confused with the aged New York Strip a la carte ($35) from the "Chophouse Classics" section of the menu. Our steaks were both top shelf cuts of beef which literally melted in your mouth. They were also cooked absolutely perfectly (medium rare for my wife and rare for me).

In fact, beef is probably the signature dish of Max Downtown and the menu has nine (yes, nine) different cuts from which you can choose. I have had most of them and you really can't go wrong.

The mac and cheese was also a great touch and there was just enough to get the taste of some wonderful cheese, but no so much that it filled you up or distracted you from the excellent steak.

We also split a very nice 2005 brunello. It was a little young, but our waiter was more than happy to decant the bottle, which allowed the wine to open up nicely. It had a strong cherry note and it was very smooth.

For dessert, my wife and I each had a glass of frangelico (a delicious almond-flavored Italian cordial) and we split the maple budino ($9.95), which is a wonderful concoction consisting of maple syrup, eggs, vanilla, and cream. It was was accompanied by a pair of lovely pizzella (an Italian waffle cookies) and some biscotti. It was a very nice way to end a delicious meal.

Finally, the decor of Max Downtown is definitely upscale, but not overly pretentious. The interior is spacious and well-appointed in a very modern New York steakhouse style. The lighting is always appropriate and the background jazz is a perfect tempo and not too loud. 

Frankly, the only thing that takes away from the atmosphere  is the overly casual attire and attitude of many of the customers. While my wife and I aren't snobs by any means it is depressing to see adults walk into a fine dining establishment wearing jeans, sweaters, and sneakers, with their similarly attired bratty eight-year-olds in tow. Come on!

In fact, working on this post I read quite a few on-line reviews of Max Downtown. While most were favorable, some were critical, often of the prices (too expensive), the atmosphere (too formal), and/or the staff (too stiff and/or too arrogant). Understand, however, that even though it has sister restaurants, Max Downtown isn't a chain like Ruby Tuesday's. It isn't even say the First & Last Tavern, which is a great neighborhood restaurant with good food. Max Downtown is a fine dining establishment. It is expensive, it is formal, and it really requires some appreciation of upscale cuisine and good wine to truly enjoy.

My wife and I don't always (or even often) want that kind of experience, but when we do, we head straight over to Max Downtown, because no one in these parts does it better.


  1. Nice review. In your opinion, how does Max Downtown compare to Restaurant Bricco?

  2. Wholeheartedly agree on Max, and the appalling attire of many patrons.

    Frangelico is hazel nut flavored.

    Chopped salad, not said.
    Complement, not compliment.


  3. If you want beef, go to Mortons.

  4. A while back, they had a special 3 course meal for $25. The food was downright awful. Lobster bisque had no lobster in it and tasted like it came out of a can. Salmon was overcooked. Staff was both overly friendly and snotty. If you are going to offer a special rate like this to entice customers, you need to serve decent food. Use cheaper ingredients but make something that's well prepared. I had been there previously and also been underwhelmed. Bad steak. Will not go back

  5. HFG, you write a lot about what is "fine dining" and what is not "fine dining." It would be good to get a clarification on what that means to you. It's confusing. Enjoy your reviews.

  6. This post has more typos than you can shake a stick at!

  7. How could he have missed this one:

    "For desert, my wife and I each..."

  8. The only way "desert" is correct is if he was saying: "He got his just deserts."

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