|Chicken, bacon, and cheddar rolls are glazed in maple; (ERIK JACOBS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)|
Baldly taking chocolate to extremes
Sugar overload at Max Brenner
Pastry is an art form. Its basic building blocks — sugar, flour, eggs — can be coaxed infinitely to surprise and delight. An airy meringue flecked with citrus zest, a deep and bitter bite of chocolate. The confectioner’s hands can build layers of nuance and subtlety in every flavor.
But for each Ingmar Bergman there’s a Michael Bay, each “Last Supper’’ a velvet Elvis. In some hands, rock ’n’ roll is a dark, brooding force. In others, it’s treacle for tweens. The interpreter of the art makes the call.
Max Brenner is an interpreter of sugar — a character who exists as an outline drawing on company materials, the glabrous figurehead for a chain of restaurants specializing in sweets, its tagline “Chocolate by the Bald Man.’’ He began as a composite of founders Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner, who started a small shop in Israel. The restaurants, now owned by food and beverage company the Strauss Group, have since undertaken a sticky, surefooted march to Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, New York, Vegas, and beyond.
Now the trail of chocolate footprints leads to Boston. A branch opened on Boylston Street at the end of March. It ignores everything serious pastry chefs have accomplished, running roughshod over technique, balance, surprise, restraint. It deals in gooey, gloppy desserts that pile chocolate on top of marshmallow on top of peanuts on top of caramel. It invents its own language, serving drinks in “Hug Mugs’’ and “Kangaroo Cups,’’ merging words to create the hot chocolate shots called “suckao.’’ And it has its own mythology. Max Brenner, the story goes, went to Paris to write literature but wound up making candy.
Says the menu: “I wanted to wear Versace suits with tight pants, drink lots of wine, let the light shine in my eyes, fall in love with the prettiest women and write. I designed and created a chocolate lifestyle and dove into decadence, but most of the time I was drunk and did not write.’’ Who can’t relate?
The restaurant is dark, scented with chocolate and pulsing with over-loud music. It features a bar, a shop selling candy and T-shirts, glass cases that display slabs of chocolate like fine wine, and a series of tubes that appear to convey chocolate into the very walls of the restaurant, precious lifeblood. Tourists, college students, and families come to drink it in. Tots arrive calm and leave sobbing, on the tail end of a sugar high they may spend the rest of their lives chasing.
The menu at least makes an attempt to keep them on the right side of things. “First food, then chocolate,’’ it instructs responsibly. (This from an establishment that sells giant, chocolate-filled syringes as souvenirs.) At a restaurant that specializes in sweets, expectations for appetizers and entrees are low. Max Brenner’s savory offerings are generic but mostly inoffensive.
The “really cheesy-really crunchy mac n cheese’’ features an average amount of cheese, and less-than-average crunch. A table of hungry teens and 20-somethings lays waste to it, completely ignoring the tomato sauce that comes on the side. A flatbread-style pizza with chicken, black beans, jalapenos, and three kinds of cheese isn’t inspired, but it’s acceptable bar food. The same can be said of quesadillas filled with greasy steak and mushrooms. “Max’s Sunday Mood Pasta’’ comes with tomatoes, spinach, and ricotta. Max’s Sunday mood appears to be lazy; the dish tastes like spaghetti sauce from a jar.
If the food isn’t artful, it is presented nicely, laid out on attractive plates with drizzles of this and garnishes of that. And there are a few surprises. An appetizer features bites of chicken, bacon, and cheddar glazed in maple, nicely salty and sweet. Appealing “Sloppy Max’’ sliders combine pulled pork, fried green tomatoes, and slaw. The “Max’ican Jambalaya’’ is a tasty mishmash of pulled pork, rice, beans, and cornbread croutons.
Sandwiches are accompanied by waffle fries dusted with chili and cocoa powder. Onion rings come with dark chocolate ranch dressing. You can’t really taste the cocoa in either case, although the ranch dressing is an alarming shade of beige.
The Bald Man’s persona falls somewhere between Willy Wonka and Barry White. “I invite you to watch, smell, taste, and feel my love story,’’ says the spiral-bound book that describes the desserts. As for chocolate, you should “dip your fingers into it and lick it slowly and passionately. Make love to it.’’ Hello! At least the kids inhaling chocolate chunk pizzas and s’mores sundaes seem too sugared up to read. And their parents, headachy and tipsy after drinking “chocolate aphrodisiacs’’ like the Satisfaction Guaranteed (peanut liqueur, caramel liqueur, and milk chocolate), may be past caring.
If only the desserts were as sexy and passionate as Max Brenner claims, everything would be OK. We would all be dipping our fingers and feeling the love story and having a grand old time.
But the chocolate here, while fine, doesn’t offer the spectrum of flavors that draw true chocoholics. Melted, it serves as a pleasant fondue. (“Chocolate, like our body, is burnt by an open flame but soothed by a warm bath.’’) The “urban s’mores,’’ a tasting for two people, offers a pot with graham crackers and marshmallows to be toasted over a weak flame.
We try to order the “fantastic popsicle chocolate fondue,’’ but the Boston branch no longer offers it. The popsicles have to be shipped from Tel Aviv, we’re told by one of the game servers, who masterfully balance perky and sassy. Instead, we try the “100% pure chocolate chocolate experience ice cream “Max-wich,’’ terrible, ugly, and tasteless wedge-shaped chocolate cookies surrounding chocolate ice cream.
Bananas and vanilla bourbon ice cream are served with leaden waffles, the joy of a banana split extinguished in one dull, breadlike bite. The chocolate chunk pizza suffers the same problem, topped with barely melted chunks and mini marshmallows. At a table seated with six chocoholics, it goes virtually untouched.
Pure chocolate truffle granita is an icy, refreshing, deep chocolate slush, cooling and satisfying. The euphoria peanut butter chocolate fudge sundae is a head-turner, a deep fishbowl full of ice cream, toffee bananas, chocolate chunks, chocolate sauce, peanut butter sauce, and more.
Everything is over the top. Everyone ends the meal clutching his or her stomach, Max-ed out. After the Bald Man’s sugar rush comes the inevitable crash.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.