At service-impaired Max's, food is the whole ballgame

July 29, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

If you've been to an Orioles game recently, you've probably passed by Max's at Camden Yards. Formerly Nates & Leons, the restaurant occupies the corner of Howard and Pratt streets across from the ballpark. On game days, the front courtyard is a sea of people, with grills smoking, beers flowing and music playing.

That's why we picked a night when the O's were out of town to visit the restaurant. It was quite a different scene. Between songs, a two-piece band outside called to people passing by, "Have a beer. You're going to make us look bad." Inside, we had our pick of tables, each with a view out double-high windows onto Howard Street, and a view of large, nearly naked men on television. Sumo wrestling is as popular here as baseball.

Owners Ron and Gail Furman and Fred Jacobs picked this year's opening day at Camden Yards to debut Max's. The Furmans also own a restaurant by the same name in Fells Point, where the list of beers on tap runs to 62. According to Ron Furman, there are 52 at the Camden Yards location, but only about two dozen beers were on the list we were given. Not that we're complaining. Two dozen beers is two dozen beers.

Max's certainly is convenient to Camden Yards, but is a meal here worth a trip on nongame days? We were surprised that it was, but there are a few caveats. Don't expect great service, or much in the way of atmosphere, unless you consider cigar smoke drifting from the bar a plus. It's better to think of Max's as a bar that pays attention to its food. (Its chef, Christina Miller, previously worked at Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico restaurant in New Orleans.)

It's not often that a pub serves fresh, plump oysters fried so greaselessly in cornmeal breading. Try six of them as an appetizer with ruddy-dark cocktail sauce, or on an oyster po' boy with remoulade sauce.

Of course, there's barroom fare like burgers and nachos. I liked the juicy, meaty flavor of the hamburger patty. We tried it with melted Cheddar and crisp bacon on a soft kaiser roll, with golden fries on the side. Crispy fried tortilla chips were good enough to eat on their own, but that wasn't necessary with our nachos platter, covered as it was in bean-and-beef chili, salsa, fresh tomatoes, sour cream, jalapenos and, somewhere underneath, melted cheese.

Instead of chicken wings, we sampled jerk chicken strips -- moist skewered chicken breast, rubbed with herbs and given a turn on the grill. They didn't have the deep marinated flavor or heat of real jerk chicken, but paired with a salad, they'd make an appealing, light meal.

Max's cream of crab soup is full of crab meat, and the pleasantly thin base is seasoned with nutmeg and minced onions to complement the sweetness of the crab. The jumbo lump crab cake is not bad, either. Our favorite crab dish, though, was the deviled portobello. Two roasted mushroom caps were topped by a rich crab mixture that got its sharp flavor from mornay sauce. Broiled till golden brown, they looked just like crab cakes until we cut into them: soft, rich crab on top; moist, meaty mushroom below. Our only complaint? For $16.95, this entree clearly should come with a few side dishes.

We especially thought so once we tried the addictive chopped and buttered red-skin potatoes and crisp-tender green beans served with our 12-ounce strip steak. The juicy steak was good, but the vegetables were so wonderful we could have made a meal of them alone.

The biggest problem with our meal at Max's was our waiter, who managed to impose himself on us to the point of distraction. By the time we got to a trio of standard desserts -- a soft-centered pecan pie being the best of the lot -- I knew more about his problems than I do about those of some friends. The excessive conversation, and apologies for service gone awry, pushed our patience to the max.

Want to suggest a restaurant for reviewing? We welcome your input. Send e-mail to kathhigham@aol.com or write to Kathryn Higham, Newsroom-Fifth Floor, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

Max's at Camden Yards

300 W. Pratt St.

410-234-8100

Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$7.95; entrees, $3.95-$21.95

Food: **1/2

Service: *1/2

Atmosphere: **

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 07/29/99

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