Brandi Key Unveils Fresh New Dishes At MAX’s Wine Dive
There’s a new chef at the reins of MAX’s Wine Dive, but she’s familiar to Houston diners. Brandi Key left her longtime role as executive chef with Clark Cooper Concepts to bring fresh ideas to Lasco Enterprises as culinary director.
“It’s been fun to mix it up,” she said about her revamp of the MAX’s Wine Dive Washington Avenue menu. (The revamped menu is rolling out at the Fairview location in a few weeks and she’s also giving The Tasting Room’s menu a refresh. Then, she’ll turn her attention to dishes at Lasco concepts in San Antonio). “We kept some of the original items: the MAX ‘n’ Cheese, and the fried chicken and Champagne, because, well, fried chicken.”
The Chicken & Champagne Cobb salad is also sticking around, as is the fried egg sandwich. However, the rest of the menu was up for grabs and Key said she loved having such a broad concept to play with.
“When I come into a place, I set up a box for myself,” she said of her approach. “I look at what the restaurant is doing. At Coppa, obviously, it was Italian, so whatever I did, my box was Italian. [MAX’s] is a southern space to me — more Americanized comfort food and I wanted to make something that’s crave-able.”
Over the years, MAX’s has had a gourmet bent to its approach and Key appreciates that, even as she notes that sometimes a gourmet label can be offputting to some. So, her focus has been to outfit the menu with items that include the salty, sweet, sour and crunchy notes that resonate with people’s taste buds.
We were invited to come try some of the new dishes. Multiple options hit that proverbial sweet spot. One such dish is the Sticky Pork Ribs, which pack a bang of candied citrus around a smoldering chili note in the marinade. The pork fairly falls off the bone and the pile of ribs is more than enough to share. The honey Key uses in the preparation lends a gooey texture, so diners should not feel self-conscious about licking their fingers right there at the table.
While the ribs are definitely inside the MAX’s comfort food wheelhouse, Key knows that sometimes “southern” can be synonymous with “heavy and calorie-laden.” So, she’s made sure to lighten up the menu. “It’s not just about ‘healthier,'” she said. “I wanted a fresher feel, lots of herbs, things that just feel lighter to eat.”
One of the standouts on that front is the Seared Tuna Poke and Campari Tomatoes salad. It features cool, red and firm yellowfin tuna, a terrific accompaniment to the ripe tomatoes that explode with juice. The creamy avocado is a lush, buttery touch, while the wafer-thin sliced radishes add sass and snap. Key’s horseradish vinaigrette dressing tops the whole thing with a zesty tang without being overpowering. It was important to Key that each bite offer up different tastes, and she’s succeeded remarkably.
Key’s Crispy Deviled Eggs are the perfect summation of her salty-sweet-sour-crunchy philosophy. The eggs arrive on a crisp potato nest, and are stuffed with creamy mayonnaise, zippy mustard and crunchy pickles that have a sweet-and-sour, yin-yang taste. The eggs are then topped with dill, which brings a cool picnic vibe to the whole presentation.
The simply prepared but elegant Drunk Mussels, served with addictive curly fries made in-house, is another standout. The heaping bowl of mussels swim in a cream sauce of onion, garlic and lemon — a more textured touch than how the traditional French dish is usually served.
The Ultimate Fish Sandwich is beer-battered and fried, but with a much lighter mouthfeel than it sounds. Maybe it’s the airy Hawaiian sweet bread roll it’s served on or it could be the brightness of the malt vinegar-laced tartar sauce. Either way, it’s a great addition to the salad and sandwich selection.
Key has always made it a priority to have gluten-free options and MAX’s is no exception. These include deviled eggs, mussels, garden salad, tuna poke, and blue cheese and avocado wedge, as well as a host of other selections. Another half-dozen menu items can be made gluten-free upon request, including lemony marinated feta cheese, hummus, cauliflower and the Chicken and Champagne Cobb salad.
“It’s important to me that anyone, no matter what their dietary needs are, can come in and eat,” she said. “And with this menu, we’re approachable not only for anyone who needs gluten- free options, but anyone who might be vegan, dairy free or vegetarian.”
As she’s settling into her new role, Key said she’s having a blast. She’s always loved the casual, come-as-you-are vibe at MAX’s and she’s looking forward to what’s next.
“This place has such great bones and great structure,” said Key. “I love how we’re pushing forward to the next phase.”