No Connecticut town seems to have experienced a greater loss of significant restaurants in the past year and a half—pandemic-related or not—than Hartford. So many commuting workers pour out of our capital city after work that many Hartford restaurants have become overly dependent on business lunches and downtown events that encourage workers to stay around after work and also draw folks from out of town. Both business lunches and events at venues like the Bushnell, XL Center and Dunkin’ Donuts Park are currently a nonfactor.
Major restaurants that have permanently closed have included Chango Rosa, Costa del Sol, Firebox, ON20, Dish, and Ted’s Montana Grill, all but the last being unique and irreplaceable restaurants that will be sorely missed. “Cal-Italian” Terreno, which replaced Spanish Porrón & Piña in the Goodwin Hotel, will return in roughly three months, according to executive chef Tyler Anderson, but the jury is still out on a number of other restaurants. And just over the West Hartford line, Prospect Café and Park & Oak have also been lost.
The reopening of Max Downtown sends a signal. It seems like a vote of confidence. Max Downtown has been Hartford’s anchor restaurant for many years. Serving consistently top-notch food and drink, it has provided a great overall dining experience for over two decades. Other restaurants may have soared a little higher on occasion (ON20 comes to mind), but none has delivered the same consistent level of pleasure over time.
I have supped at Max Downtown numerous times and my admiration for it is a matter of record. I reviewed the restaurant twice for Hartford Magazine. In November of 2006, writing as Jonathan Braverman, I rated it five golden forks. In January of 2018, writing as Spencer Caldwell, I awarded it five stars after a major remodel. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that CT Dish was on hand for Max Downtown’s reopening on September 9th.
Naturally, owners Richard Rosenthal and Steve Abrams were in evidence. Abrams said they have just been studying how to make the numbers work at 50 percent capacity while continuing to deliver the full dining experience they are known for.
Clearly, the kitchen is in great hands under executive chef Chris Sheehan and chef de cuisine Matt Burrill. No detail appeared to have been overlooked, as meals started with housemade, Parker House-like, Cheddar milk rolls served with butter dressed up with pink Hawaiian salt and extra virgin olive oil.
Max Downtown has always utilized terrific ingredients, but there seemed to be a heightened focus on great produce. For her first course, my companion selected a chopped salad ($12) with diced vegetables and Gorgonzola in a sherry vinaigrette, while I elected a butter lettuce salad ($13) with radish, green apple and toasted hazelnuts in a maple verjus.
For a second course, we shared a delightfully creative lump crab tostada ($18) finished with crushed avocado, sliced radish and tempura corn in a lime-and-aji-Amarillo salsa.
For our main course, we both were in the mood to try one of Max Downtown’s chophouse classics. My companion exclaimed over the filet mignon Oscar ($49), its roseate slices topped with a bounty of lump crab meat, a lovely Béarnaise sauce and bright green asparagus spears. I was equally enamored of my prime New York strip ($49), which I accompanied with a side of Asylum Street corn ($8), a clever marriage of grilled heart of romaine and esquites (Mexican-style elote street corn, served off the cob). We also enjoyed the charred runner beans ($8) in an oregano vinaigrette.
More than sated, my companion and I shared an exceptional stone fruit crostata ($10) served with honey-lavender ice cream, washing it down with a cappuccino ($5) and a black coffee ($3), respectively.
Max Downtown’s drinks program is another strong suit. My companion stuck to iced tea ($3), while I tried the Wooly Mix ($12) of Scotch, Orange Curaçao and cherry bitters, a house Manhattan ($10.50) and a glass of Greenwing Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington ($17).
It did our hearts good to see Max Downtown fling its doors back open. It might have been reopening night, but Max Downtown was completely on its game. I can’t recall a time when it wasn’t.