One heady autumn evening some years back, I found myself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with neither dinner plans nor a companion. Rather than bemoaning my aloneness, I used that rare unstructured moment to ask my True Self what, exactly, she had a taste for. Her uncompromising answer hardly took me by surprise: "Hot fudge sundae," my True Self said. "And, oh yeah, an order of fries."
I was reminded of that little culinary aberration the other evening when I dropped by Max's Deli. The Rocky River restaurant's big menu offers a great assortment of sensible and semi-sensible salads, soups, and sandwiches, as well as a handful of "after-five" entrées like lasagna and chicken stir-fry. But what did I really, really want? Why, a creamy wedge of cheesecake, of course, and, oh yeah, an order of sweet-potato fries.
As a mature person, however, I disguised my depraved desires by ordering a burger to go with the fries and eating dessert last -- a thinly veiled attempt to make my companions believe the cheesecake was an afterthought. But perhaps I'm not alone in viewing the deli as, first and foremost, a sweet spot: While I went through the motions of eating a "normal" five o'clock meal, plenty of unrepentant folks around me were scarfing down nothing more than hunks of multilayered tortes, slices of mile-high pies, and forkfuls of giant, Oreo-studded cream puffs for their suppers.
Those who believe life is uncertain might see this as evidence of a plot by owner (and slim person) Michelle Anter-Kotoch to make us all Eat Dessert First, which is, after all, the advice that she has placed at the bottom of Max's menu. Just look at the way those desserts are displayed, in a long, low, curvaceous cooler filled to overflowing with carrot cakes, fruit and nut tarts, and chocolate confections of all kinds. And if the sight of all those goodies isn't enough to deep-six any futile attempts at self-control, take a peek at the top of the cooler, which is used to show off tiered trays filled with chocolate-dipped pretzels, oversized cookies, Rocky Road brownies, massive lemon bars, and the like. Is it a coincidence that this sweetly seductive array is the first thing hungry visitors lay eyes upon when they enter the deli from the rear parking lot? I think not.
So what the heck . . . let's discuss dessert first. My favorite is cheesecake, and the pastry staff at Max's Deli makes 10 different types each day. On this particular Saturday, I was torn between the Cranberry and White Chocolate Cheesecake with a coconut crust, and the Strawberry-Almond Cheesecake, topped with several inches of real whipped cream (still an insignificant portion of the 6,000 gallons of the stuff they whip up annually). I went with the second option and wound up with a piece of cake that must have weighed nearly a pound and was large enough to amuse all four of us at the table. Dense but not dry and sweet but not sugary, the cheesecake itself was magnificent. While the bright red, glazed strawberries on top were lovely to look at, they were the hard, out-of-season variety. Still, the spoonfuls of rich, sliced-almond-covered whipped cream, as sweet and fresh-tasting as could be imagined, made up for the boring berries.
A variety of glistening, gem-like fruit tarts were also an irresistible temptation. We ultimately decided on a blackberry-lemon number, the buttery crust of which was filled with tart lemon custard blanketed with plump, sweet berries. Meanwhile, our pie meister pondered the relative merits of Apple-Sour Cream Pie versus Banana-Almond Cream Pie; the latter, a towering creation of thickly sliced bananas in a smooth custard, set upon a tender pastry crust and finished with loads of whipped cream and sliced almonds, was the winner. A five-layered Carrot Cake Torte, with a delicious cream cheese frosting, was also an inspired choice -- the moist cake was full of raisins, walnuts, and shredded carrot, and the sweet penuche filling burst with bits of coconut and a delightful caramel flavor.
Chocoholics have plenty of options at Max's, too, including various chocolate cheesecakes, chocolate tortes, and chocolate brownies. Ours settled on the small-but-mighty Chocolate Mousse Cup, a petite butter-pastry crust filled with a delicate raspberry purée and topped with a swirl of light, rich chocolate mousse.
Now, about all those other things on the menu: Anter-Kotoch says she tries to offer a variety of health-conscious main events to balance the belly-busting desserts. All sauces, soups, and dressings are made in-house without preservatives, and the kitchen staff doesn't add salt to items like fries, salads, and potato pancakes.
The menu lists eight different burgers, including a turkey burger with fresh fruit salsa and a meatless "cheeseburger" assembled from mushrooms, spinach, onion, celery, green peppers, and brown rice. Healthy variants aside, we loved our succulent half-pound Big Vic's Burger, made with well-seasoned ground sirloin and covered with sautéed mushrooms, bacon, and a heavy blanket of melted mozzarella cheese, all on a buttery, toasted Kaiser roll. Sandwiches come with a garlicky dill pickle spear; in addition, we ordered up a huge platter of slender, sweet, and chewy sweet-potato fries, which came to the table with a little dipping portion of cinnamon sugar.
There are also a dozen sandwiches that eschew red meat in favor of veggies, slabs of portobello mushroom, tuna, or chicken. Jewel's Chicken Kabob -- slices of moist, marinated, grilled chicken breast, accented with chopped lettuce and tomato, as well as a bit of creamy tahini sauce, and all wrapped in a warm, pillowy round of pita bread -- was flavorful and satisfying, with a great, smoky aroma and an appealing heft.
Max's corned beef is absolutely lean and tender, and we tucked into it in two classic combinations: a grilled Reuben sandwich, piled more than three inches high with meat, sauerkraut, and a layer of nutty Swiss, on slices of sturdy rye bread; and in a "Special Creation" called Donnie's Hoy Ploy, a heaping platter of warm corned beef and two fat shredded-potato pancakes, served with little white paper cups of applesauce and sour cream. We noticed that the menu offers the option of ordering "lean" corned beef, for an extra charge; the "regular" corned beef that we were served was already so free of fat that we really can't see the need to pursue an alternative. A side order of Max's German-Style Potato Salad was a minor disappointment, however. Rather than the hot, sweet-and-tart, bacon-studded affair that we had expected, this was a toss of cold, quartered redskins (perfectly cooked), a bit of mild vinegar-and-oil dressing, and a generous sprinkle of dill.
Of course, there may be no better measure of a deli than its chicken soup. Not surprisingly, Max's version, available with rice, noodles, or a (relatively) light, tender homemade matzo ball, is very good, with a bright sheen and a deep flavor that indicates a nice, long simmer on the stove top. However, we weren't impressed by a cup of Max's Original Black Bean Turkey Chili, which was notably light on the ground meat, rife with barely cooked beans, and had little flavor beyond the heat of some cayenne pepper.
Although the dessert cooler is undoubtedly the dining room's focal point, it isn't the only thing in this artful deli that grabs one's eye. A large cubist-style mural, in shades of mellow yellow and muted blues, greens, and purples, quite rightly fills the wall opposite the pastry case and is illuminated with banks of black canister lighting. Black chairs, with bits of cobalt and black upholstery, pull up to equally dark, undressed wooden tables; booth seating is covered in black vinyl, with cobalt-blue trim. And youthful members of the black-garbed serving team hustle across the worn wooden floors like kinetic sculptures, dodging the closely packed tables and the meandering half-wall that separates the totally nonsmoking space into two eating areas.
Beyond the usual soda pops, freshly brewed iced teas, and trendy "nectars" and juices, the menu includes a few run-of-the-mill domestic brews and a decent selection of imported and handcrafted beers; several inexpensive red and white wines are also available, although matching wine to a pastrami sandwich seems like an unnecessary challenge. Nearly everything on the menu (and in the dessert case) is available to go and would probably taste pretty wonderful in the city's nearby lakeshore park or along the banks of the Rocky River on a soft spring evening. For those who prefer to eat in, service is friendly and reasonably attentive, and speedy enough to get parties in and out before or after other activities.
And if your inner child is one of those naughty kiddies who insist on eating dessert first, Max's Deli is certainly the place to take the little darlin'.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at email@example.com.
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