Dining around America’s Last Hometown
Rediscovering Pacific Grove’s downtown dining scene through takeout
By RAUL NAVA |
Monterey Herald - July 14, 2020 at 1:23 p.m.
PACIFIC GROVE — Mom-and-pop restaurants, neighborhood hole-in-the-walls, hidden gems — whatever you want to call them, independent restaurants form the backbone of small-town economies across America.
Home to 50 restaurants, bakeries and cafes, Pacific Grove makes for a microcosm of an industry precariously hanging on during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many establishments have planted deep roots in the city. In business for 10, even 20 years, and with histories pre-dating social media savvy, they’ve become so embedded in our community fabric, it’s easy to overlook them for trendy new upstarts.
Take Max’s Grill.
Chef Hisayuki “Max” Muramatsu and wife Yuko opened this spot in 2003. I confess it’s been years since my last visit. I’d often intended to dine here, only to be wooed by more recent arrivals downtown. My takeaway from Max’s recently served up a heavy dose of “fear of missing out” — I immediately thought of the exceptional meals I’ve missed over the years.
Born in Tokyo and trained in France, Max crafts a menu that lends Asian influence to European cuisine. That flavor fusion is a throwback these days when gastronomes geek out on “authentic” regional cuisine. (We’ll save the discussion about the problematic “authenticity” of food for another day.)
The spring rolls — stuffed with succulent shrimp and fried to a golden crisp ($11) — wowed right away. I munched on these as I unboxed the rest of my meal and immediately regretted not ordering a second portion.
I’m a sucker for a Caesar salad, and with fresh romaine generously dressed in biting acidity and accented with flakes of dry, salty Parmesan, Max’s didn’t disappoint. At $6.50 for a large clamshell container packed to the brim, this salad scored high marks not just on taste, but budget too.
I opted to revisit the duck “our way” — a tip of the hat to French duck a l’orange with confit leg and duck mousse ravioli in a bright citrus sauce ($26) — that I recalled as a favorite so many years ago. Absence indeed made the heart grow fonder — one taste of that luxurious orange sauce felt like a rekindling with an old ex, the one that got away.
I certainly promise this spot will be back in regular rotation for upcoming takeaway feasts as the county pauses dine-in service again.
Delicious food and friendly service! Started with the fried shrimp eggrolls- so good we could have eaten another order. We ordered the mushroom and special Dungeness crab raviolis- both flavorful and filling. Ended with the banana bread pudding with ice cream- soft, moist and nice flavor to the pudding. The entire meal was great. We left very full and pleased we gave this place a try.
Sea Bass special with baked (I think) sweet potatoes, vegetables, and a yummy in your tummy sauce! Hit the spot perfectly! I wish the ambiance was a little nicer to meet the food standard, but it is a beachy feel.
In town for a conference with a friend and we were looking for a quiet place for dinner with great food but not too expensive. This fit the bill perfectly. Owned and run by a husband and wife (husband is the chef). I had the pot roast, my friend had a crab cake special. The food was very flavorful and beautifully presented; the service gracious but not the least bit stuffy. Quite reasonably priced, too. I would highly recommend to anyone!
We tried three different entries and ordered the Brie and mushroom ravioli as a starter. The filet mignon (the special) was excellent! My wife enjoyed the duck and our son says the lamb shank was delicious and tender.
I have to compliment the Ravioli though. After having the ravioli for a starter, I was ready to change my order to make it a meal! A hearty delicious blend of flavors.
Was visiting the area and came here at the recommendation of the boss. She knows how much I love French food and told me about the chef who was Japanese but trained in France and that if I was willing to driving a little outside of Monterrey - that it would be worth my time. Well the woman was right!
We were on a weekend end/ road trip adventure so this was sort of part of the agenda. We drove a little, got lost a little, got worried a little since we have never been to Pacific Grove but found ourselves in a quaint part of town.
Parking: 5 stars
Street, Free and found a spot really close!
Ambiance: 5 stars
This was the first restaurant we tried while visiting the Monterey area. White linen restaurant, great mood lighting, noise level was perfect. This place is really cozy and I was excited to be here. I love smaller restaurants that have great acoustics. This place is great for dates and smaller not so rowdy groups.
Food: 5 stars
They started the night off with an amuse bouche which always merits extra points
Gnocchi Amuse Bouche- Gnocchi served over red pesto sauce. Largest gnocchi I have ever had served warm but the sauce could have gone one or 2 degrees higher.
Sand Dabs- Ok I never had a sand dab in my entire life and didn't know what to expect. The girlfriend looked perplexed when I said I never had one and asked what it would look and taste like. She did her best to explain but I think the waiter did a better job- meh but it didn't matter - I never had it, so I was going to try it. I don't have a benchmark but I like the texture and buttery flavor. There was nothing complex or exciting other than my own excitement about this dish - I expected something that tasted like sand but it didn't, the dish was flavorful would try a sand dab again.
Surf & Turf special: wasabi crusted lamb shank with crab cake served with asparagus and potatoes. I loved the Japanese take on this dish. Everything about this dish was perfect.
Pesto crusted Halibut served with potatoes and ratatouille- I tried a bit of this, the halibut was moist, the pesto was flavorful but I enjoyed the ratatouille most. My surf and turf was better
Mango mousse- Fluffy, light and flavorful. A great way to end the meal without feeling to full
SERVICE: 5 stars
Family owned Business. I believe Max's son was serving us. He was attentive, humble very polite and quite surprised when I told him that we came based on a recommendation from Los Angeles. He shouldn't be surprised- This place is great!
Those who live in San Francisco Bay Area might think there is a branch of the NY style deli sandwich restaurant in Pacific Grove (you know, where you can get pastrami, sauerkraut, corned beef, roast beef, matzoh ball soup, Beaver....mustard that is), and even the restaurant's logo from the website looks remotely familiar (and has that California Pizza Kitchen kind of visual). But rest assured it is nothing of the sort.
In short, yes...another restaurant in Pacific Grove that is of uncompromising quality and a price point that doesn't require me to grab my ankles Shashank Redemption style, while keeping the wallet pain to quite a minimum. In other words, getting maximum bang for your buck without getting banged. I love it.
Chef Hisayuki "Max" Muramatsu has a very interesting bio, Tokyo born, French trained. But before you break out the Iron Chef French card, the menu is not reflective in that sense. Again if you visit Monterey Peninsula, "SF style high end dining" should not even be part of your mindset. However for what they have set out to achieve, Max's really suits the MTY peninsula, along with its approach to no nonsense California French. Max's wife, Yuko, works front of house and does right by all the guests. I have a soft spot for mom and pop style places, and this is no different.
But even more attractive, because we have that bargain / cheap / A$N gene in all of us somehow, is the stunning $25 prix fixe 3 course menu (and it gets a tad cheaper if you dine during early bird hour, which I think is you put your order in before 6 pm!).
I pretty much knew what I wanted:
House bread - baked and made in house. Online menu says ciabatta(?) but it was more like a baguette. Either way, quite tasty, even if not toasty warm.
Tempura Sand Dabs
served with house made tartar sauce and tempura sauce
Yes I know...two courses of sand dabs...it was nice to compare and contrast. I must say that Chef Max knows the Edo approach to tempura. While the batter is a tad thicker than high end tempura restaurants in Tokyo, Taipei, or Hong Kong, the frying technique is solid where the exterior is crispy and not light. Best of all the batter is done very nicely and easily surpasses even the nicer Japanese restaurants in SF Bay Area. The interior remains moist and flavorful. Very nice to have two dip sauces so you can alternate; both work very well. The flavor of the "tsuyu" / tempura dip sauce is also just right. This is great fusion; local fish, Edo style sensibilities. Probably my favorite dish of the night.
Baby Spinach Salad
With walnuts, blue cheese and pomegranate syrup. Done right!
Sand Dabs sautéed in white wine and butter with capers, served with grilled vegetables and saffron rice. Really enjoyed this prep of sand dabs, though I must give the upper hand to the tempura version out of pure preference. The balance of the creamy sauce, and the tartness of the capers made the sand dabs taste brighter and radiant.
Signature Mango Mousse dessert. Looks beautiful, though a tad too sweet for my liking. The alternative was to substitute this for a glass of wine, but I got dessert instead.
This meal was overall more satisfying than the Monday 5 course at Il Vecchio, even though the styles are completely different. Local/American fish doesn't have much of a great taste or texture to it, and I'm not a huge fan of general American/Western preparations, but the sauté was done nicely and who can forget the tempura approach (which blows away fish & chips, and is lighter than say a Chinese deep fry salt and pepper approach). This style of California French is different than what many are used to, but is nonetheless very enjoyable.
Thank you Max's Grill! ごちそうさまでした!
MG is an adorable restaurant located in Pacific Grove, away from the mainstream tourist attractions in the Monterey Peninsula. It has an unassuming exterior but a stylish and inviting interior. The dual colored walls in light coral and pink color tones are certainly attractive. The vibe is intimate and classy with white linen and tablecloths. This is a simple mom and pop operation that boasts of an eclectic menu featuring California-French fare with Japanese inspired dishes. The owner/chef is native Japanese but classically trained in France and has impressive experiences and accolades.
I have read with interest the owner's unusual bio and was intrigued by his deep-frying skills. As a result, I ended ordering two deep fried entrees that I normally wouldn't. The very first dish that captured my attention was Deep Fried Oysters ($11.00) or better known in Japanese restaurants as 'Kaki Fry'. I am convinced that the chef had mastered the technique of deep-frying. Each oyster was fried to a golden brown with an airy, light and super crispy coating. The distinctive creamy oyster flavor was enclosed inside the fluffy outer layer. I usually squeeze a few drops of lemon juice and dip the oysters in 'tonkatsu' sauce (like a Worcester sauce) which didn't seem available. Yuko (the 'mom') who runs the dining room was quick in her response ' ....for that you have to come to my house!" They made their own tartar and cocktail sauces for this dish. I alternated dipping between the two sauces and they were both excellent. Nowadays, you can find an easier fix by buying oysters already battered with panko from Japanese stores. They are not quite as good.... actually not even close!
Tempura has recently fallen from grace, as we become more health conscious. However good tempura is extremely light and shouldn't be greasy at all. With prior knowledge of the chef's tempura skills, I ordered tempura prawns ($11.00) instead of tempura sand dabs just so I can have a better benchmark. The prawns unfortunately weren't as aesthetically pleasing as I had expected, as the batter was a little too thick. With a lighter batter, the tempura prawns would be prettier with beautiful sprays of crisp batter to coat the butterflied prawns. Ultimately though, the proof was in the pudding and in this regard, it didn't disappoint. The prawns were good sized, moist and crunchy with good flavor and had a delectable dipping sauce on the side.
While hoping that the tempura tuna roll here ($10.50) could raise the bar on sushi rolls to a new gourmet height, it didn't happen. I have never been a big fan of maki (roll) sushi anyway much less when it was 'tempura-ed'. It tasted more like tuna tataki (seared) and the ahi (yellow fin tuna) was dry, possibly frozen ahi and totally lacked flavor. By tempura-ing, it added a little crunch to the roll, which amazingly didn't contaminate the roll with too much grease. For this I had to give the chef credit.
This had nothing to do with the restaurant but my own unexplained over indulgence in fried foods tonight. Switching gears, I ordered the timeless Cioppino ($20.95) in a savory and tangy saffron tomato-y broth. Shellfish galore and the mussels and scallops were particularly plump and luscious. A side of fettuccine ($2.00) was a good filler and was inside the broth giving it the appearance of a seafood pasta.
Prices in general were easy on the wallet. They also offer a 3-course prix fixe dinner for $25 consisting of an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. That's hard to beat for a restaurant of this caliber!
Wow!!! what can I say, but outstanding in every respect. My wife ordered the lamb shank which was perfectly done with a delicate flavor of herbs and spices. My mushroom and brie raviolis were superb. The brie cheese didn't overpower the delicate flavor of the mushrooms. We started with the Tempura ahi roll as a starter, which was excellent. The entire meal, paired with a bottle of Morgan Syrah(recommended by the owners wife) was an excellent choice, and also paired well with the chocolate mousse cake for dessert.
Hats off to Max and his wife for making our trip to Monterey/Pacific Grove special..service was excellent by the way.
I am new to the Monterey Peninsula and was recently looking for a place to have dinner that would impress my dinner party of 5 for a reunion of childhood friends and family. Having done my internet research of recommendations, I settled on Max’s Grill for my special gathering. The menu was nicely well-rounded and everyone was happy with the impressive options. Our server that night, Chef Max’s wife Yuko, was in for a challenge, however. Our dinner party included a few different diet restrictions. I was a bit apprehensive of how our meals would turn out considering all of our special needs. No need to have worried - Yuko did a perfect job of communicating our needs to the Chef and we all thoroughly enjoyed our delicious meals. At the end of our dinner, my 84 year old mother commented, “Our waitress was the most elegant waitress I have ever had!” Kudos to Max and Yuko – you successfully made our special evening a great dining experience for all!
My husband and I went to Max's Grill in Pacific Grove first time Friday March 1st, 2013, just 2 days ago. So why do my eyes still glaze over as I whisper... "the sea bass!!!"
After reading Yelp reviews about this delightful small town gem, I knew I had to dine there. OMG I cannot wait to go back, my taste buds have never been happier, and they are literally still singing with the memory of each dish Max has made into a heavenly happiness. I am planning my next trip to Max's as we speak. I am anxious to turn my friends on to this awesome eatery.
Host/owner beautiful Yuko was precious from the start, welcomed us warmly, it felt very homey in this uber clean and simple yet stylish setting. The unforgettable and elegant food prepared by Max, each a delight for the eyes went like this...
We had 2 appetizers, the Crispy Shrimp Spring Rolls, super fresh shrimp wrapped in crispy non-oily wrapper with sweet chili dipping sauce XLNT... and the Ahi Tuna Tempura Roll, generous fresh delicate "like-buttah" Ahi tuna rolled and tempura'd perfectly! We had glasses of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that were delicious and well-rounded, great accompaniment recommended by Yuko.
We had a Caesar salad, it could not have been better! We thoroughly enjoyed the Pot Roast, a large tender slab with superb beefy flavor! And we had the basil crusted Sea Bass, I never knew sea bass could be THAT GOOD. Delicate, succulent, perfectly just-cooked atop sauteed yellow and red peppers and in a pool of classic white wine butter caper sauce to die for! Max is a magician in the kitchen. I have never had such perfection flavor-wise, creativity-wise, service-wise, this meal was totally UNFORGETTABLE! The chance to go back brings tears of joy to my eyes.
The guests at the neighboring table ordered the sea bass after hearing my closed-eyed Mmmmms and exclamations. I mentioned to them this dining experience was so awesome, with each course I was quickly running out of adjectives! Even the roasted potatoes are something special. Fresh tender sauteed asparagus was the tasty seasonal vegetable. Again, simple perfection. Max's special dinner rolls were warm, earthy, a wonderful vehicle to help you soak up those incredible sauces... yum. And personally, I sent 2 plates back perfectly white...lol... I hope that indicated my extreme pleasure with every drop!
By the end of our leisurely and sumptuous dinner, we were so satisfied, so satiated, so happy as we finished the last bits but there was no way we were leaving without dessert so we deliberated and decided on 2: Banana Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream (WOW!) and Hawaiian Mango Mousse Cake, creamy dreamy mango silkiness also very WOW! We finished with 2 coffees, strong, flavorful, big coffee taste. And may I say? THIS WAS THE BEST MEAL OF MY LIFE! I asked Yuko to please express to Max our extreme pleasure with all his awesome offerings...and to say I feel like Max Makes Magic In My Mouth!! P.S. Note the Prix fixe menu, just $25. for 3 courses, many options, fabulous!
I cannot say enough great things about Max and Yuko's jewel in Pacific Grove!
Thank you very much for the wonderful dinner. My family and I enjoyed it very much. We will definitely go back to your restaurant when we visit Monterey again.
Chef Hisayuki"Max" Muramatsu at Pacific Grove's Max's Grill takes a decidedly different approach to fusion. While some restaurants in town serve up fusion fare by haphazardly throwing some wasabi, soy sauce and ginger into a dish, chef Muramatsu takes a more restrained approach by incorporating signature Asian dishes in a menu otherwise heavy on European entrees. Read more...
My wife and I canceled our other Saturday plans to come back here after a great meal with this restaurant! The host and staff are great. By the way, so is the food! Bill & Renee
My husband and I celebrated our 20th anniversary at Max's Grill and had a fantastic dinner. We definitely will come back the next time we are in Pacific Grove.
Max's is peaceful, intimate but "spacious" elegant setting. Family/servers most gracious, welcoming. Excellent food (Ahi Tuna, salads, Pesto Encrusted Mahi Mahi, Surf & Turf (didn't even need a knife to cut filet mignon), subtle Mango flavored mousse. We are looking forward to future dinners with Max, Yuko & Hideo! Thank you so much.
Fantastic Christmas dinner!
Max's Grill is a place that I will visit often. Wonderful food and ambiance. Close to home and a great value no matter where you live. I would crawl over broken glass to get this kind of yum. Max = Yum ++
We just returned from a fabulous dinner only 5 minutes away from our home. We had the seared Ahi Tuna entree that was the best I have ever had. The Hawaiian Mango Mousse cake was over the top! We have lived here in Monterey and never had the opportunity to enjoy this Pacific Grove treasure. The owner is just a beautiful person... so charming and welcoming. Her husband- wow- a great Chef! I have never felt so welcome... it was like coming home. Thank you for a wonderful dining experience! We will be back!
I love this place! I live two hours away but have made day trips to introduce my friends and family to the amazing food and wonderful service! I have been many times and have never had a bad experience. The salad dressing is to die for! The raviolis are life changing delicious! Can't wait to go again!
We enjoyed two wonderfu meals at Max' Grill. Wonderfully prepare food. Friendly people. We will return!!!
Our all time, consistantly wonderful place to eat in the Monterey Bay area. Genuinely caring service, excellent quality of food and sensitve their clientel! Bravo and domo! Hildie and Tsutomu
My wife and I enjoyed a fabulous dinner there recently. Highly recommend! Food and service were of the highest standard.
Great food! Great service! Everything that a restaurant should be! Max's Grill is the one! gotta come check it out!!!
My husband and I have eaten at Max's and we intend to return the next time we visit Pacific Grove. The food and service were excellent. See you soon!
Great Dining experience. My wife and I went for our anniversary last year and had such a great experience from the service to the dinner that we've come back over and over again.
An absolute must. I was amazed at the quality of the food and the very reasonable price. You won't find many like this.
Went for a small rehearsal dinner for my brother-in-law..DELICIOUS MENU , GRACIOUS HOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!
Dinner at Max's was a treat to myself after a long day. The food was exquisite! A lovely little table by the window was a wonderful retreat. I left happy and content!
GRACIOUS HOSTS and GREAT FOOD! We feel so fortunate to have found a new restaurant for our Peninsular visits, we'll be back.
My good friend and I loved everything about Max's Grill, from the simple but lovely decor to the most delicious and elegantly prepared and served food! The entire experience was perfect! And we loved our waitress! I look forward to returning soon!
Your restaurant is always a treat for me, especially when I need a little pampering. I feel completely welcome and comfortable, like being at home with friends, even when I go alone. (And I'm still given the best seat in the house!) As a single person, this is so rare to find. On top of this, the food is simply the BEST I've had anywhere. I leave feeling nourished and pampered in every way.
We enjoyed the dinner very much and your restaurant is definitely the best restaurant on the peninsula.
Wonderful food! The wild mushroom soup was to die for and the lamb loin divine! The menu and wine list are both plentiful and reasonably priced. Max's Grill is great! Go tonight!!
Fabulous cuisine that is so nicely priced you are surprised at the value for your money. Its almost like Max's is giving you a gift. The food was so delicious and fresh. You can enjoy every bite from the warm fresh homemade bread to your entree to the dessert. Don't miss out on this place...its heavenly!
Delicious! We loved everything from the appetizers to dessert. Whatever you order, you can't go wrong here. Cozy atmosphere and reasonable prices make this a favorite local's secret.
We're loving this place. It's reasonable enough to be a spur-of-the-moment, don't-feel-like-cooking-tonight choice, while nice enough to be a treat. Nice atmosphere, good service. The entrees are inventive and generally excellent.
Outstanding value---quality and price. Made us want to (and we did) go back often....and took friends with us.
We had an extraordinary dinner there prepared by a great chef at very reasonable prices. We shared an excellent sushi appetizer and then had Bouillabaisse and a seafood pasta. Our bottle of wine was also reasonably priced. This is an elegant restaurant with elegant cooking.
On May 19, 2009 (Tuesday), my Husband and I celebrated our 30th Anniversary, and we decided to treat ourselves to a return trip to our Honeymoon spot – the Monterey Peninsula (Monterey, Carmel, and Pacific Grove)! We had an amazing time rediscovering the “treasures” we found the first time around, and we enjoyed being introduced to so many new “gems” in the Peninsula – the result of all the changes that have occurred over the past couple decades! However … I must say the climax of our treasure hunting was our experience with “Max’s Grill” in Pacific Grove, California!!
In planning our trip, my Husband and I wanted our Anniversary Dinner to be very special and unique. We even considered all of the well-known and infamous establishments on the Peninsula, but during our internet surfing, we came upon Max’s website, and after reading the bio of Master Chef Hisayuki “Max” Muramatsu, we felt he sounded like an individual who would truly inject passion into his food – make it personal!” We discovered this indeed to be the case! Master Max’s cuisine is pure in heart; intense in flavor; and honest in meaning! When I think of the word “passion” two ideas come to mind – that work ethic one injects into their occupation; and the love-making one injects into their avocation! Through his cuisine, Max embodies both ideas – he embodies true “passion!”
From Max’s warm, fresh-baked bread (made daily); to the extra-virgin olive oil with an annointing of balsamic vinegar served with the fresh-baked bread for dipping; to the mouth-watering baby spinach salad served with spicy walnuts, chunky bleu cheese & pomegranate syrup (and my Husband had anchovies added to his); to the Cioppino (the best marriage of flavors & texture between seafood, saffron and tomato that I have ever experienced—in fact, I considered this particular experience orgasmic in nature); to the Black Angus Rib Eye Steak with asparagus, and potatoes with skin (perfectly prepared—according to my Husband who has a passion for cooking himself—in fact, the flavors were simple and profound all at once); to the dessert we returned for two days later! Dessert: Pistachio-Hazelnut Chocolate Mousse Cake with Strawberries and Raspberry Sauce (Me), and the Coconut Crème Brulée (Hubby) – both topped with a fresh sprig of mint! Again…flavors “to die for!” Both desserts actually had the effect of melting in one’s mouth!! [Of course, you know Hubby and I continued to taste each other’s dishes!!] When we returned for dessert, we decided to share an appetizer first, and although it was not on the appetizer menu, we requested the Coconut Prawns, for which Chef Max so sweetly accommodated us!! Hubby and I had differing ideas as to the preparation – he wanted his prawns deep-fried, and I wanted mine sautéed, but, being the “wonderful” Wife that I am…I nodded to Hubby’s choice. However, Eric (the Head Waiter) must have described this to Max, who then split the order up and prepared two prawns the way I chose and two the way Hubby chose! That just sealed it for me just how amazing Chef Max is!! And the flavors….oh…my…goodness!!!
We knew this to be a special place when we happened to meet and speak with another couple celebrating their Anniversary that day as well (May 19th), and they had been to Max’s before! This couple was celebrating their 64th Anniversary (I believe), but the point here is that they viewed Max’s as a romantic and uniquely special place for celebrating their Anniversary too!! My Husband and I felt welcomed and warmly embraced by Max through his genius preparations; by Yuko (Max’s Wife) through her beauty and grace and her real, honest-to-goodness hug with a smile; and by Eric (Max’s Head Waiter) who’s knowledge of the cuisine impressed, and his willingness to learn and share even more information about life and philosophy in general made for stimulating and welcoming conversation!
Tuesday, May 19, 2009 was magical as it was our 30th Anniversary, however, we also experienced the “Max Experience” which was special and unique…indeed!!! We hope to return often, but in the meantime, we will spread the word about Max’s and Yuko and Eric, and encourage you all to take part in the “Max Experience” as soon as you can!
Connie & Ted James (May 19, 2009 -- 30th Anniversary), Sacramento, CA
Monterey County Herald
Section: Restaurant Reviews
Medley of flavors
By Mike Hale and Melissa Snyder
When asked to describe his culinary style, chef Hisayuki "Max" Muramatsu smiles and points to his head. "I have many ideas," he says. "So many."
We believe him, this man with a ready smile, a Western handshake and an Eastern bow. After all, the man before us has unique credentials — classically trained in Paris at world famous Maxim's, awarded best chef in Tokyo five times, and former executive chef at the prestigious Anton & Michel in Carmel.
After years of working for someone else, Muramatsu now stands on his own, opening Max's Grill on Forest Avenue in Pacific Grove just one month ago. It's a curious place — small, intimate and sparsely decorated in the spot formerly called Chopsticks Cafe. But something great is cooking here, and it starts with Muramatsu the one-man show.
Some chefs merely dabble in East-West cooking. Muramatsu creates that fusion from within, hand-picking traditions and flavors from his native Japan as well as from France, California and elsewhere to create an inspired culinary melting pot. A Franco-American walk on the Pacific rim, if you will.
Muramatsu has condensed all this down into a tight yet eclectic menu that he plans to alter every three or four weeks. On it he fashions traditional fare with lighter, yet flavorful sauces, taking advantage of regional harvests from land and sea. Your appetizer could be sushi rolls (tuna, snapper, smoked salmon and albacore tuna), your first course could be warm baby spinach with forest mushrooms, your entrée a confit of duck with house-made ravioli, and for dessert, a coconut crême brulee. Around the world in one hour. Interesting, flavorful and reasonably priced (order all that for just $34.50).
Perhaps the most amazing part is that Muramatsu will have personally hand-crafted it all, including the crusty ciabatta bread served at your table. There is no sous chef, no pastry chef, no baker. It's Muramatsu in the back and his wife Yuko up front leading the expert wait staff, many of whom are former Chopsticks employees who happily accepted Muramatsu's kind offer to remain.
I love a menu that's simple but not mundane, one easy to navigate both physically and mentally. Muramatsu creates one that's uncluttered yet fascinating. Five appetizers. Four wines by the glass — merlot, cabernet, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay (we inquired about vintages, and these weren't typical low-end house wines). Three salads. One soup of the day. One pasta of the day. Nine entrees and a few specials. And three desserts.
We started with Tempura Gulf Prawns, four huge prawns lightly battered and deep fried and served tepee-style over a cold cucumber and fresh ginger salad ($7.50). The flavors blended nicely in this inventive dish, with the simple salad of pickled cucumber, red and yellow pepper slices, shaved fresh ginger and watercress sprigs as big a hit as the meaty prawns.
My entrée was an evening special, homemade curry fettuccine with a seafood medley of salmon, halibut and clams in a light tomato and saffron-scented broth. Served with whole cherry tomatoes, capers and shaved Parmesan, the entrée scored high with me, but I found the broth a bit too salty. I still finished it all, the fresh seafood leaving a lasting impression.
At this point, Muramatsu emerged from the kitchen and began introducing himself to diners in the half-full house. He was genuinely friendly, bowing to us frequently. Although we were strangers, he still spent several minutes excitedly talking about his new venture. We were captivated as he explained his love of worldly cuisine and his intention to use whatever's fresh and in season.
After yet another bow and a smile, he moved back into the kitchen and soon a fresh slice of Hawaiian Mango Mousse Cake emerged. Served with an artful fresh strawberry topped with sprigs of mint leaves, this airy dessert, with lady fingers as a crust, was the perfect end to an enjoyable meal.
Our server, Mary Ann (a holdover from Chopsticks), was friendly, knowledgeable, efficient and answered our usual assortment of dumb questions.
This little place sneaks up fast, traveling toward the ocean nearly to Lighthouse on Forest. We spotted its large picture windows and Yuko stationed at the door welcoming and bidding farewell to diners.
Sitting in the window facing Forest, we watched a spring shower blow past as I sipped a glass of Bogle sauvignon blanc ($6). All appetizers were tempting, but we loved the prawns Mike described so well. Max said, though, the Dungeness crab cakes with capers remoulade and ratatouille are already a hit with customers. This dish, and others he has judged to be popular, will remain as permanent staples on the menu. We skipped salad for the homemade roasted heirloom tomato soup ($3 cup, $4 bowl). It was wonderfully smoky and contained just the right amount of delicate seeds and pulp. Perfect on a rainy day.
I tried the California natural chicken breast with a whole poached spicy pear, forest mushrooms and mashed potatoes ($15). Free-range chickens in California must be happy campers. This one was huge, plump and exceedingly tender, lightly sprinkled with cajun spices and served atop a red wine reduction sauce and nestled beside the beautiful pear turned purple in cinnamon and red wine. This entrée made a beautiful presentation, and a delicious impression. But there was nary a forest mushroom in sight. Forgotten, perhaps, in the complex preparation of the dish. I munched on the baby carrots and grilled asparagus tips and took a big box of leftovers home. (Which still didn't deter my dipping into that amazing dessert — how could one person prepare all this delectable stuff?)
The thing that struck me about Max's Grill was its obvious polish (despite the missing mushrooms) in spite of having opened so recently. Perhaps we should have given Max's more lead time, but the place easily passed our muster. And I'm guessing it will become a huge hit in just about everyone's book.
Carmel residents Mike Hale and Melissa Snyder are dining enthusiasts and will approach their reviews from a couple's perspective, each week sharing he-said/she-said insights about local restaurants. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. GO!
* Pluses: Innovative, varied menu; fresh flavors
* Minuses: Limited wine list; changing menu may lead to favorites disappearing
* The Bottom Line: Muramatsu has the talent and the vision to create the next best place — in time.
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