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Six years ago, when the area of Seventh Avenue between 14th and 15th streets wasn’t much more than derelict buildings and failing businesses, Paul Goebert had the vision and courage to start a restaurant.

"My friends said I was crazy," he says with a smile. But Max & Moritz has been flourishing ever since.

Goebert, who collects toys, named his restaurant after a favorite German children’s book about Max and Moritz, two impudent little boys. While Goebert describes his restaurant as "a French and American bistro," there’s a delightful element of unpredictable inspiration to his cooking that harks back to the restaurant’s mischievous namesakes.

Consider, for instance, the appetizers. Mascarpone and green pea ravioli with a jalapeno and mint sauce - hot and spicy, smooth and creamy - Italy? Mexico? American? This was a familiar dish with an assortment of unexpected flavors and influences that managed to combine harmoniously and elegantly.

The cabbage stuffed duck confit with oyster mushrooms and lentil salad more specifically displayed Goebert’s Austrian heritage. The very dissimilar textures of each element managed to meld in the earthiness of each of these flavors. Then, just when you’re thinking Austria, the flavor of cilantro creeps in to hint of warmer climes.

The main courses were less multinational than the appetizers, though no less intriguing and certainly as delicious. The braised beef short ribs, for instance, were done in a standard fashion with red wine, garlic, root vegetables and mushrooms, but all the proportions were just right and the end result tasted it. The sauce was dark and rich, and the meat fell off the bone.

My favorite of the entrees was the baked Japanese sea bream (a white fish related to the perch family) with a tomatillo sauce. This was served with assorted steamed vegetables and a crisp Parmesan and rice croquette. The slightly sweet, exotic tomatillo sauce (this "Mexican green tomato" as it is sometimes called, has hints of lemon, apple and herbs) was the element of intrigue here, though the layering of flavors and textures was pleasing overall.

If I found fault with Goebert’s cooking, it was in his unrestrained imagination. He can go overboard on some dishes in sheer number of elements. Such was true of the pumpkin tart, which was stunning to look at but too complex for the palate, especially after a rich meal. It combined a piecrust with a rich layer of chocolate, topped by an equally rich layer of pumpkin, topped with whipped cream and a raspberry sauce.

His strawberry galette, which gave center stage to the pure goodness of strawberry flavor underscored only by a simple puff pastry and cinnamon ice cream, settled much better after a complex, rich dinner.

Max & Moritz has a serene feel with gentle background music (Edith Piaf), white tablecloths and a candle on each table. The small, rectangular space has a pretty, curved wooden bar at the back and long windows across the front. Simple, rectangular mirrors with wood frames are interspersed with equally simple wall sconces. There is a European ambiance, like a cafe you might stumble into in Paris’ Left Bank.

Through a narrow hallway at the back of the restaurant, there is a charming garden area that has an entirely different feel from the dining room. Decorated with tiny white lights on trees and a wooden lattice, this al fresco dining area is informal, a little louder and generally less conducive to a quiet tete a tete.

Goebert is skillful at creating very distinctive environments. His new restaurant, just a few doors away on Seventh Avenue, Cafe Steinhof, is young and loud like an authentic German beer hall while the interior of Max & Moritz is just right for an intimate dinner with a friend or lover. Whomever you choose to share an evening with here, make sure to bring an appetite for exciting flavors and intriguing dishes.

 

Max & Moritz is located at 426 Seventh Ave. at 14th Street. The restaurant accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $12-$20. For reservations, call (718) 499-5557. A prix fixe brunch ($8.50) is served Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am to 3 pm.

Max & Moritz also hosts a French-Mexican night the first Tuesday of every month. Call the restaurant for more information.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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