The Vegetarian Option: Simplicity's the Star at Max Soha in Harlem
My first visit to Max Soha was almost an accident. I was in Harlem to visit another restaurant, which it turns out had been shut down. I wandered around a bit, looking for someplace else to eat, until I came across what appeared to be a charming little neighborhood trattoria. My meal was much better than I expected; in fact, during my two visits I tried hard to find a chink in Max Soha's armor, but the restaurant was equal to the challenge.
Case in point was one of the specials, the fresh corn soup ($5.95). The soup (which has a vegetarian base) tasted clearly and strongly of sweet corn. It's served warm, which amplifies the flavor and aroma. A couple of corn tortilla chips added some texture to the frothy, creamy soup.
When I ordered crostino con carciofi ($5.50), I anticipated generic canned artichokes, but was pleasantly surprised to see the halved poached artichokes that came out on the plate. The thick, charred, crusty bread was slathered with a mixture of goat cheese and more artichoke, making a creamy and acidic bed for the perfectly cooked thistle. The only downer was the ho-hum salad on the side—it could easily have been left off of the plate.
From noon until 4 PM, Max Soha supplements their menu with a small selection of sandwiches. The vegetariano ($8.95) is one of two vegetarian options. Here, fresh vegetables are grilled and dressed simply with olive oil and salt, then put on a warm and crusty baguette. The kitchen wisely resisted the temptation to douse the veggies in balsamic, or to cover them up with cheese. My favorite bits were the strips of grilled carrots, sliced thinly enough that they cooked through, but thick enough to retain some crunch. The char from the grill made their inherent sweetness more pronounced.
The toughest challenge I threw at Max Soha was ordering the ortalana pasta ($10.95). A challenge because it featured whole wheat penne and advertised "seasonal vegetables" (too often code for "frozen vegetable medley"). But the well-salted pasta and creamy, tomato-based sauce were flavorful, and the vegetables—miniature strips of zucchini and summer squash, eggplant, and carrots—were definitely fresh. The whole dish was balanced by the scoop of fresh ricotta on top, keeping it just on the right side of too salty.
Sometimes stumbled-upon meals can be a blessing, and Max Soha was an especially fortuitous find. It takes good ingredients, treats them simply, and makes the best of them.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian.