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Give it your best niggle

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My boss lives in San Francisco, and fancies that he Knows Food. He takes me to Bay-area restaurants to prove that my tastes are provincial. I try to show him that we can generally get equivalent quality here, at much lower prices. The way the game goes, we both praise the cheap ethnic joints, and mercilessly critique the high-end restaurants (like them or not).

            So the boss and I took our act to Mark Cupolo, formerly chef-owner of the Victor Grilling Company, on a night when he was covering for chef-owner Tony Gullace at Max. Oh, the boss was in a mood to niggle. But alas, the spicy, two-minute calamari "Sicilian-lifeguard style" gave no quarter ($11). Risotto with broccolini and prosciutto was distressingly perfect and, sadly, the potato gnocchi with roasted tomato, butter, and Parmigiano was even better ($8). It was his worst nightmare: He liked it.

            At the heart of this silliness is a sad truth: Expensive restaurants are seldom worth it. Why spend $50 for a meal when you could spend $20 at the Seoul Garden or half that at LJ's? Of course, these are different experiences. The fine restaurants will have extensive wine lists, atmosphere, pageantry, and, hopefully, style. But it's a question worth pondering.

            My three meals at Max, though --- the others were lunches prepared by Gullace --- were stellar in every way. Tony Gullace is popular with local chefs, partly because he's worked with many over the last 25 years. It's also because there is a universal respect for the man. Eating his food, you quickly understand.

            Gullace is the grandson of a Victor farmer, and his first restaurant experience was at the old Blacksmith Shop there. He landed at the Water Street Grill in the late '80s, staying until '93 when he took a year off to travel. "I went to France, Italy, and South America," he says, "trying to learn about different cultures and improve my craft." He also made connections.

            From France, he returned to oversee dining at three Hudson Hotels, including the Inn on the Lake, which he opened. Then it was off to Florida, where he founded and ran an enormous, successful restaurant. Missing home, back he came, helping out at the Rio, Boom, and Victor Grilling Company before spending some time at Tonic.

            The latest stop on Gullace's wild ride is Max, which he and a silent partner remodeled and opened in just 10 weeks. Max uses the whole face of the Eastman Place building, with a dining area, a bar, and the unique atrium for events. Eating there, you look out on the bustle of the city's cultural district.

            Back to the food. Onion soup is seldom noteworthy, but it is at Max, made from four types of onions, slowly caramelized to release their sweetness. Often, onion soups taste mostly like salt, but this is complex and wondrous, the best I've ever had.

            Tony and Mark rave about their Waygu sirloin, and with good reason ($25). Waygu beef comes from the same breed of cows as Japanese Kobe, but they're raised in Australia and the United States, making it far less expensive. Like Kobe, Waygu is densely marbled and extremely flavorful. Cooked medium rare, the Max Waygu sirloin is a rich treat with herbed oil, swiss chard, and potato purée.

            We also had two types of fish. Slow-roasted salmon came on top of a smoky-sweet hash of parsnip, carrot, rutabaga, and leek, with crisp shallots on top ($21). Sea bass with soy-truffle vinaigrette was even better, perfectly complimenting its bed of Savoy cabbage and shitake mushrooms ($24). This dish had a delicate, fragrant earthiness that was just stunning.

            Max is also participating in New York Wines & Dines by offering a prix fixe menu of New York State foods accompanied by New York wines for $32. Right now, it includes greens with a cheddar pie, walnuts, and apple cider vinaigrette served with a Dr. Frank Riesling; a spectacular cassoulet of duck, white beans, Rubino's sausage, and vegetables, served with a Fox Run Pino Noir; and pears poached in Riesling and local honey, served with a Heron Hill late-harvest Riesling. If wine interests you, the Max list has well over a hundred offerings from all over the world.

            Tony Gullace is that rare combination of great chef and savvy businessman, and with Mark Cupolo joining him, Max has Rochester's dynamic duo of cooks. If the prices scare you, try lunch, when most of the same fare is much less expensive. But really, at almost any price, the dining experience at Max is worth it.

Max of Eastman Place, 387 Main Street East, 697-0491. Hours: lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.

Food tip

Wayne Luong recently opened Golden Port Dim Sum at its new location, 105 East Avenue, the former home of Savory Thyme and Haleigh's. Get there early and look for a meter; otherwise, park in the East End Garage and get busy enjoying many courses of dim sum.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard weekends on WYSL 1040 AM. Gardening, restaurants, and Finger Lakes travel on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon; Toronto restaurant reviews and wine on Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon.

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