By David Minsky
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Spontaé has been open barely a month, and I haven't as yet received any bubbly phone messages from PR ladies or fancy packets full of chef's bios. The two guys who own it, a chef (Matt McDonald) and a pastry chef (Brett Katz) from the late, lamented La Vieille Maison in Boca Raton, an old-guard institution where both the clientele and the waiters dressed for dinner until the bitter end, are keeping a low profile. Until, presumably, they sort out their own talents and the tastes of their Atlantic Avenue clientele.
La Vieille Maison ought to have schooled them well. The restaurant was set in a gorgeous Mizner building with splashing fountains and a fish pond; it served haute French cuisine long after high-French cooking had lost its fashionista sheen. When it closed, McDonald and Katz set Spontaé in the spot where Splendid Blended's used to be on Atlantic, another wildly beloved 10-year-old institution but one as far removed in spirit from La Vieille Maison as Paris is from Punxsutawney. Blended's was an independently minded precursor to the Cheesecake Factory: all over the fusion map, inexpensive, and serving gigantic, luscious desserts. So Katz and McDonald arrived in Delray Beach hauling a good deal of baggage. But their modest, fanfare-less debut is a sign of their seriousness as far as I'm concerned.
And so is their modest, moderate décor. I'm getting a little tired of restaurateurs spending millions to dazzle the eye and then skimping on menu development, a personal signature, or an independent culinary vision. I like that Spontaé is rather small (something like 50 seats inside nicely intimate and a couple of dozen on the sidewalk); that you don't have to shout above a constant, soul-destroying din (classical music on the sound system); that the artwork is almost Asian-minimalist.
Spontaé brings to the table what looks to me like a tweaked and contemporary French menu, although McDonald has been quoted as calling it "mostly American," "fusion," "market fresh," and "chef's cuisine." I dunno. The nights I dined, I found foie gras, frog legs, escargots, beignets, Provençal sauce, truffles, Guinea fowl, duck confit, and pommes Lyonnaise on offer. If this is American, it's speaking with a decidedly Gallic accent. As for "market fresh," which market are we talking about in the absence of Les Halles? Publix?
Can you really talk about any of these eclectic delicacies being market-fresh in South Florida? I'm not even sure I want to find frog legs at my local grocery, and the day I discover truffles in the produce bin, I swear I'll stuff my cheeks full of them, like a chipmunk. As much as I appreciate the quaint idea of my chef's skipping out with a basket over his arm every morning, rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed, I have a feeling it ain't happening. I think what McDonald is getting at is that his menu will change regularly, even daily or weekly, depending on the season, on what's available from his purveyors, and on what kind of mood he's in. That, I get.
I've been twice for dinner. The food has been uneven, from delicious to disappointing, but never boring. There's a "tasting menu," which is misnamed it's actually a three-course prix fixe at either $39 or $45, with several choices for each course, not a series of lavishly concocted little plates like you'd expect of a tasting. The more expensive of these features grilled items filet, New York strip, or tournedos of veal.
From the à la carte menu, we chose French goose foie gras ($16) sautéed with sweet onions and Granny Smith apples, set on little cinnamon toasts. The foie gras was lovely, but the cinnamon toast conjured too many childhood memories at least for me and the flavor of that spice is too aggressive to balance sumptuous goose liver. Plump sautéed frog legs with garlic and parsley ($9) were luscious and garlicky, tasting like the finest, most delicate little chicken tenders. If you've never eaten frog, this is a good place to start. A bowl of key lime gazpacho ($6.50) had the look and consistency of V-8 juice or light tomato sauce (for some reason, I'd visualized a green gazpacho), with small bits of veggies floating around, a puckering note of lime, and some really awful strips of fried tortilla on top; they tasted stale and as if they'd been fried in rancid oils. On the other hand, I liked the conch beignets ($9.50) quite a lot the fluffy, cloudlike texture of the real N'Awlins treat, only unsweet and filled with chewy, sassy conch. The beignets were paired with a thin, alcoholic, overly sweet, and finally hateful honey bourbon sauce. Those morsels needed some kind of rich, imaginative aioli to ground their puffball airiness.