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Max’s Seafood Café: Making Waves

by James Verde
Max’s Seafood Cafe
34 N. Burlington St.
Gloucester City
(856) 456-9774
4 forks

On July 12, 1912, German immigrant Joseph Fred Leisinger inked his licensing papers with Gloucester City, then a budding port and Philadelphia bedroom community, to open a pub in the handsome building on the corner of Burlington and Hudson streets. And a pub it has been ever since: Next year, 34 N. Burlington St. celebrates a century of cold pints and barroom banter.

But since 2001, the place has been under new ownership, as Max’s Seafood Cafe. Tom Monahan, who revived the boarded-up bar with penny-tiled floors, pressed-tin ceilings, propeller fans and turn-of-the-century antiques, has maintained Leisinger’s legacy—but with a modern twist.

Every time I’ve been to Max’s, the bar (brought over from Germany by the Leisingers) and dining room have been busy, packed with the regulars that give this restaurant its convivial, neighborhood vibe. As it should: The restaurant shines from the corner of a residential neighborhood, and many patrons we saw walked from nearby row homes. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about chef Josh Varquez’s (previously of Philadelphia’s R2L and The Atlantic) menu, but for the most part, everything was properly seasoned and executed well. Sure, the food could come a little faster, and the staff could be a little sharper—but if you take the tics with a grain of sea salt, the food and ambience offer more than fair recompense.

Thai-style mussels were a shade too sweet in a coconut milk broth—they’re done in a traditional red and white, too, and in an Italian pesto cream sauce—but the miscalibration wasn’t a deal-breaker. Tucked in their polished black shells, the Maine mollusks were plump and sweet with not a stitch of sand. The exotic jus counted lemongrass and ginger among its scents, though greater doses of lime, cilantro and chili would make the mussel juice even more dunkable.

Clams casino got a New Orleans twist, the chunky topnecks domed with sweet, oven-browned cornbread stuffing charged with andouille sausage. They disappeared almost as quickly as the mussels, though a squeeze of fresh lemon would have brightened the flavors. Bacon wrapped scallops were a classic, if uninspired bite, accompanied by crisp and juicy fried Virginia Select oysters in a generous sampler platter. Good thing Max’s doubled down with complimentary house salads; drizzled with the standard array of dressings and savory vinaigrettes, the crisp mixed greens are better than your average freebie roughage, something you’d actually eat rather than just poke at with your fork.

Were he here today, Leisinger might be mystified by such exotic flavors, but he’d definitely recognize the German brews that beer geek Monahan has assembled for the bar: Gaffel Kolsch, Erdinger Hefeweizen, Schneider Aventinus and more. Max’s boasts one of the better beers lists in South Jersey, a draught-and-bottle selection rounded out by Belgians (Duvel, St. Bernardus, the Chimay clan), Brits (Fuller’s ESB, Belhaven Scottish) and locals (Dogfish Head 60- and 90-Minute IPAs, Yards Philly Pale Ale). The list, though miles above what most restaurants offer, could still stand to be spruced up; the last time I drank at Max’s, over two years ago, much of it was the same.

Never fear, oenophiles; Monahan hasn’t forgotten you. Tucked below is a cellar of 2,000 bottles, spanning from an oaky California chardonnay to few well selected ports, though heavy on reds from France, Italy and Spain. A selection of house wines by the glass are better than most. An expressive pinot noir stood up to a jambalaya, thick with Arborio rice, gemmed with sweet young shrimp and smoky andouille morsels. Flaky tilapia balanced in a pool of lobster sherry sauce, with hints of spinach, artichoke and frizzled leeks, went well with a glass of unoaked chardonnay.

A thick cut of salmon came enrobed in a toasted pecan crust, topped with tart cranberry chutney. The most artfully prepared of all the entrees; a halved butternut squash and a tidy queue of crisp asparagus were arranged on a charred cedar board, in a colorful homage to autumn.

Desserts are typical fare—a freshly piped cannoli, ricotta cheesecake, tarty key lime pie—though the vanilla crème brûlée was excellent (we would have preferred a more caramelized shell) and a dense chocolate tart was bittersweet and luscious.

So, tip a glass, and say cheers. Here’s to another 100 years.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (December, 2011).
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