Few legal substances exert as strong a pull as chocolate, which might explain the slightly dazed and practically drooling crowds streaming in and out of Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man, the glitzy new Union Square emporium that’s part retail sweetshop, part café, and all slickly packaged cocoa-scented theme park. With its vats of swirling molten chocolate, its ceiling pipes painted to resemble Oompa-Loompa–esque cocoa conduits, and the goofy chocolate-centric slogans scribbled everywhere, it’s hard to separate the place from the superslick marketing plan. For the chocolate-obsessed New Yorker, intimately familiar with the single-origin oeuvre of everyone from Jacques Torres to La Maison du Chocolat’s Robert Linxe, one question is even more pressing than whether to sample the chocolate bagel or the chocolate pizza: Who is this Max Brenner, and how come I’ve never heard of him?
The answer is bittersweet. Just as there is no Johnny Rocket and, sadly, no Chuck E. Cheese, there is no living, breathing Max Brenner—well, not really. The name is actually a composite of two Israeli marketing geniuses, Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner, who launched the business ten years ago in Ra’anana and sold it to Strauss-Elite (Israel’s version of Kraft), which now operates outposts and franchises from Melbourne to Makati City. Somewhere over the course of spreading the chocolate gospel, the European-trained (and sufficiently bald) chocolatier Oded Brenner has adopted the Wonka-like persona of “Max Brenner.” These days, he can generally be found at his newest location, expediting orders, munching chocolate-covered toast, and ensuring that the venture continues to position itself as the joyful antithesis of the intimidating realm that, his press materials assert, haute chocolate inhabits. Trouble is, Brenner’s self-proclaimed “new worldwide chocolate culture” comes off as just the sort of tourist-targeting spectacle you’d expect to find in Times Square, animated with loud Euro-accented house music and an abundance of overwrought, often overly sweet concoctions.
Like ChikaLicious and Room 4 Dessert, Max Brenner strives to be a dessert destination, and the minuscule café tables tend to be taken by groups of diet-be-damned girlfriends yapping away like overstimulated mynah birds, gurgling tots, and sheepish young couples on dates. The fact that the liquor license hasn’t arrived hasn’t hurt business one bit; most evenings, there’s a bottleneck at the hostess stand. Service, by the way, is friendly and well meaning, although the wait for food can be long. That wait means there’s plenty of time to study the room, done up in the usual cocoa-themed color palette of browns, caramel, orange, and cream, and to read the suggestive writing on the walls: VERY MUCH CHOCOLATE. YUMMY … STOP IT MAX, THIS IS ALREADY TOO MUCH. That’s a sentiment you can’t argue with after flipping through the somewhat disorienting menu, filled as it is with descriptors like “popping candies,” “chocolate licks,” and “crunchy bits,” and arranged into a dozen or so categories like “Max Iscream” (ice cream), Sweet Icons (fondues, soups, s’mores), and Desserts (cakes, meringues, truffles), many of them available grouped together on one plate like a BBQ combination platter.
The best way to order may be to resort to the same method some people use for finding a plumber in the Yellow Pages: Close your eyes, open up the book, and go with whatever your index finger happens to land on. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with one of the fondues, like the Popsicle version—vanilla ice cream on a stick that comes on an embarrassing cartoon baby tray of sorts with little bowls of delicious melted chocolate, “crunchy chocolate waffle balls” that taste like Kit Kats, and the ever-popular “crunchy bits,” which seem like crushed praline. You dip the ice-creamsicle into the chocolate and then roll it around in the crunchy things like a recalcitrant 5-year-old who plays with his food. If you’re unlucky, you’ll end up with the cloyingly sweet chocolate-topped and crunchy-bitted pizza, or, worse, the Melting Chocolate Heart Cake, which your server will recommend and dutifully describe to you as never having elicited anything but squeals of joy but is really just a not-so-molten chocolate cake—more dormant volcano than hot lava flow.
Special attention is paid to drinks, perhaps because their custom-made vessels are sold in the shop. Of the various hot chocolates, all of them good, the best is the rich “Italian” version. It’s as thick as maple syrup, with a nicely balanced, dark-chocolate complexity. You can order this invigorating libation to go at the takeout bar or in the dining room, where it’s delivered to the table in what your server will describe to you as a “hug mug,” a ceramic cup tapered at one end in such a way as to encourage the drinker to grasp it reverently with both hands the way a frostbitten Swede cuddles his goblet of glogg. It’s much more user-friendly than the “suckao,” a bizarre apparatus in which you melt chocolate into milk over a candle flame and sip the resulting brew through a metal straw.
Because man (be he bald-headed or well coiffed) cannot live by chocolate alone, Max Brenner also offers a hodgepodge of savory dishes, from “giant” omelettes to “giant” kielbasa, presumably to fortify its customers for the impending sugar onslaught and to lower their risk of going into diabetic shock. As is often the case with menus that reach beyond their areas of expertise, none of this stuff goes over well. Just as you would not go to Il Mulino for a white-chocolate-Oreo-cookie frappé, you shouldn’t come to Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man for its lasagne Bolognese. That dish is a college-cafeteria-level rendition served, unfathomably, with a little bowl of what your server informs you is crème fraîche. Likewise, a croque madame that substitutes a waffle for bread is a dish more to be pitied than censured. And then there is Max’s pastrami sandwich: One way you can tell that it’s different from the one at Katz’s is that it’s served between two slices of French toast. On a more positive note, that giant kielbasa sandwich, served with sauerkraut, grainy mustard, and chile mayonnaise, isn’t half bad, and just try ordering a dish like that at La Maison du Chocolat.
Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man
841 Broadway, nr. 13th St.; 212-388-0030