New Orleans generally isn't known for healthy eating, but the trend has officially caught on here. These days, it's almost as easy to stumble upon a cold-pressed juice bar as a po-boy shop, and while the places pushing a health-forward menu are expanding quickly, the types available vary.
At Max Well, a new cafe on Magazine Street, owner Maxwell Eaton focuses on ingredients and the health benefits of each one. The format is straightforward and follows the increasingly popular fast-casual format: Choose a base salad and top it with a protein and dressing. All the salads have suggested pairings, but diners are encouraged to take a stab at creating their own based on their preferences and whimsy. While the mix-and-match system can be fun, it left me wanting a few more options.
Of the salads, the California version is the most robust — a towering mix of greens topped with a mosaic of colorful ingredients, including sweet roasted red peppers, fresh cucumber slices, avocado wedges and a shower of spiraled carrots. French green lentils offer a soft touch of cumin and thyme, while the tangy and sweet flax miso dressing offers a citrusy ginger kick.
Everything on the menu is vegan, and the kitchen uses ingredients in smart ways to lend depth and character. An almond basil dressing may taste like there is dairy hiding in the shadows, but it's almond butter that provides that creamy nudge. Some salads are sparse on their own, including a chickpea version that comprises little more than mixed greens, chickpeas, shaved carrots, seeded crackers and hummus — and begs for a rich protein and dressing like the almond basil or flax miso to add some much-needed heft. The same applies to a beet and kale salad, which is a delicious medley of kale leaves, flax seeds, chunks of red beets and quinoa, which needs a dressing with equal parts acid and depth to tie together the elements (the menu suggests a pomegranate vinaigrette, which worked well and helped break down the cruciferous parts). Of the protein toppers, the lentil kitchari, an Ayurvedic dish, was tinged yellow with turmeric and carried warm spice notes of cumin, coriander, garlic and ginger.
The menu extends beyond salads to include "power bowls" — protein and vegetable-centric grain bowls that are considerably heftier than their salad counterparts. The banh mi bowl didn't really emulate its namesake but was tasty nonetheless. Here, a bowl of nutty brown rice is paired with marinated and baked tofu cubes, which had a slightly sweet and toasted flavor. The bowl gets spikes of acid from pickled cucumbers, jalapenos and carrots, while avocado wedges add creaminess and almonds provide crunch.
The NOLA bowl, anchored by red kidney beans and rice, is a much sweeter and decadent deal, arriving topped with a sweet jalapeno millet muffin, thick spears of vinegary carrots, cabbage and red peppers, and candy-like cubes of sweet potatoes topped with crumbled pecans. The bowl comes draped in a plum vinaigrette that helps dissect and compliment the richer layers present.
What sets Max Well apart from other health-focused restaurants in the city is that Eaton uses the cafe not only as a conduit for food but also as a dispensary of information. Health pamphlets line the front counter, and the restaurant's social media feed offers frequent health tips and food trivia, which serve to inform diners about what ailments certain foods can help cure and why. It's a creative approach and a welcome addition to the health-forward dining options in town.