West Hartford's Max Burger is part of the Max Restaurant Group that also includes Max Fish, Max's Oyster Bar, Max's Tavern, Max Amore, Max Mia and Max Downtown.
turn the corner from Ellsworth Road, the rear side that looks more like a medical building starts looking
like the burgerfied steakhouse that it is.
Inside, there's a small bar, a midsized dining room split into a few different sections and an outdoor patio. Well maintained tables, comfy seating, steer and butchery photos and longhorned steer skulls on the walls give Max Burger the feel of a high end steakhouse. The burger menu interestingly offers two different patty sizes (5-ounce and 8-ounce), a few different bun options and a few interesting prefabricated creations involving unusual bread and cheese selections (comte, anyone?)
Meat options for the burgers include standard Niman Ranch beef, kobe beef, chicken, turkey, shrimp, tuna and portabello mushroom. For those not burger inclined, there's meatloaf, smoked babyback ribs, a pulled pork sandwich, a steak, several salads and a decent appetizer selection. The menu is also accommodating to gluten free diners.
Smaller 5-ounce burgers are served on soft potato rolls, likening these mini burgers to my beloved Shake Shack at first glance. The full size (8-ounce) burgers come on the puffier "artisan roll," a soft-and-crusty vessel similar to brioche but not quite as sweet. Some swap out the roll for toast; the Fatty Melt places the patty between a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches.
(Speaking of the Fatty Melt, if you're a fan of Serious Eats, stop buying into their ridiculous claim that they created it. They didn't.)
The beef in the Max Burger burgers is all-natural Niman Ranch Certified Angus, with all the right buzzwords and catchphrases: humanely raised, environmentally-sustained, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, pesticide-free, from family ranches. That's all well and good, but what attracts me is the smoothness of the grind and the unexotically beefy flavor that's pleasant without having to do any grandstanding. It's very smooth, reminding me a little of one of my favorite burgers in Boston at Eastern Standard.
Whether on, in or around the burger, every complementary ingredient has been placed with pride. The cheese gets melted into a thick, drippy pudding. The bacon isn't just crisp, it's cooked such that the perfect contrast is achieved between the crunchy edges and the bendably chewy, well-moistened interior.
Here's a run-down on the various burgers I tried.
Inside Out: My first burger here was the stuffed behemoth ($12.95 including fries) filled with gorgonzola and topped with bacon, grilled onions and arugula. All of the ingredients came together nicely, the burger was cooked to the requested medium rare and the creamy filling avoided the deadly volcanic nightmare that sometimes happens with stuffed burgers. The onions were browned nicely, making them more sweet than bitter. Though not life altering, this burger certainly impressed enough to earn a return trip. The surprise hit? The pickles: house made, super thin and similar to bread and butter pickles but a little spicier.
Max Classic 5-ounce: I have to admit, part of the return visit was to also try one of the smaller burgers ($8.95 including fries) at the other end of the size spectrum (and, I suppose, class spectrum). The smaller patty still had some thickness to it that allowed a juicy medium rare. As expected, the potato roll was light and fresh. The toppings didn't obscure the beef but they did get a little more attention. The velvet shroud of cheese and glistening crispy bacon ($1 each) both looked like they just jumped off stock photos. Both supplied flavor and texture that made the junior entry a winner, and the beef kept pace.
Miss Daisy: Served on griddled toast, this sandwich ($13.95 including fries) got its richness from a hint of melted butter, more pronounced creamy melted brie cheese and the melted fat of the juicy hunk of beef between the toast. Once again the bacon (included gratis, as are all toppings in the preconfigured creations) was impressive. This one's cooked medium rare—perfect for me, but a little off from the requested medium (a compromise for that visit's well-done-loving burger accomplice). The total package was another winner, and while it's more of an ensemble than a star vehicle for the beef, that beef never got lost for an instant. Crusting and salting were adequate but nothing special; this burger is all about the beefy lusciousness within.
The Fries (and such)
Fries: These satisfied with a dark complexion from the fryer, a little darkness from the skin and just enough salt to avoid being undersalted (a little more would have been a little better). A creamy aioli dipping sauce was typical but good.
Sweet Potato Fries: Lighter than the standard fries, this free upgrade with the burgers had a nice crispness/fluffiness contrast and good natural flavor.
Onion rings: Probably the only dud so far, and a big one: beer batter style rings ($4) arrived puffy, soggy and lacking seasoning.
Fried Eggplant: I didn't try this, but the side upgrade that hit our table on visit 2 looked good (and looked a lot crispier than the onion rings—a good sign).
Wings: This was an appetizer, not a side. Yes, they're smoked, and yes, I tasted the smoke, but there wasn't enough of it (or enough rub intensity) to push this order of wing ($8.95) past the just-okay level. The wing portion, individual wing size, crispness and moistness were all at least adequate, and the sauce was mildly pleasant. There just wasn't any of that special something that's evident in Max's burgers.
The service here isn't just good or even outstanding. It's exemplary. Taylor and Jennifer, the servers on the first two visits, knew the menu inside and out, made suggestions, checked back frequently, anticipated the need for napkins, extra plates and refills before a request was necessary and even proactively ensured that shared items arrived cut in half. That they were closer to ambassadors for the restaurant than mere servers highlights the passion that the place generates and the training that separates the good restaurants from the great ones. You can argue all day as to whether or not Max Burger's burgers are great, but the greatness of the service is an absolute.
Comparisons to Plan B—another burger joint, also high end, also in West Hartford, also with a good burger/booze tandem—are inevitable. For me, Plan B is the more interesting of the two, chiefly for the uniqueness of its beef blend and patty construction. But Max Burger is better: from the flexibility of the menu to the juiciness of the meat to the perfection of the bacon to the superior sides (even the outstanding homemade pickle slices) to the impeccable service, Max Burger hits all the stops. A better comparison might be Five Napkin Burger (new York and Boston): Max Burger is everything Five Napkin aspires to be, only with more napkinworthy juiciness and better execution all around.
The Bottom Line
One of the better burger establishments, Max Burger provides an upscale environment with service to match. The burgers may not be innovative, but they're executed with masterful precision and well crafted beef and toppings.
Whisk This comparison of Plan B and Max Burger
Yelp reviews of Max Burger
Urbanspoon reviews of Max Burger