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Glen Manfra was living the dream. Here's a guy who, during 20-plus years in South Florida, had opened classic Palm Beach joints like Bice and Amici and worked with powerful guys like Revlon's Ron Perelman and restaurateur David Manero. Chefs are known for living life at a relentless pace, and Manfra exemplified that, often jumping from project to project. But for the past nine months, Manfra wasn't sweating to open some high-profile kitchen or flying around the country to research menus. He was cooking fresh lobster and soaking in the sun on the Caribbean island of Anguilla.
So naturally, my first question for Manfra when we spoke on the phone last month was: Why in the world would you want to leave Anguilla's clear blue waters behind and come back to South Florida to open the Pop Up?
217 E. Atlantic Ave.
Delray Beach, FL 33444
Region: Delray Beach
"My whole career, I've opened places for other people," said Manfra in a calm, deliberate tone. "My plan is to do this for myself now."
Manfra couldn't pass up the dream-like offer he received in May after Delray Beach's short-lived Atlantic Ocean Club closed: the chance to take over the multilevel, multimillion-dollar restaurant in the heart of Delray Beach at the low, low cost of absolutely free.
It wasn't the first time Manfra had been asked to run the space. About a year ago, Atlantic Ocean Club's owner, Larry Lipnick, asked Manfra to be executive chef at his upcoming venture. But Manfra turned down the offer, partly for family reasons but also because it "didn't feel right" to him. So the AOC job went to onetime Wolfgang Puck disciple and Taste alum Jamie DeRosa. Hopes were high, and the restaurant opened with a farm-to-table theme in late January. But less than a month later, DeRosa was out. A mere three months after that, Atlantic Ocean Club closed for good.
Fearing that the space would stay vacant over the hot, slow summer, Lipnick called up Manfra and offered him a chance to move into it for no money. It was a win-win deal. Lipnick could keep the space on the map and take it back at the end of the summer — just four months later. Meanwhile, Manfra could use that time to build a following in fickle Delray, then walk away without owing a dime.
For Manfra's part, he's really taken the opportunity and run with it. His restaurant, the Pop Up, opened at the end of May, and its name is a play on the trendy so-called "pop ups" of New York or Los Angeles — temporary restaurants that open for only a weekend or two at a time, gaining their followings mostly via Facebook and Twitter. To keep customers interested during the slow summer, Manfra is trying to attract local diners with low prices and an ever-changing menu of rustic Italian cuisine.
Though most Palm Beach residents probably wouldn't know a pop-up restaurant from a pop-up book, I think Manfra's idea is great: attract the buzz-seeking foodie types with a novel idea, and keep them hooked with food that's seasonal and fresh. The fact that Manfra also promised homemade pasta, local seafood, and a price ceiling of $24 made the idea sound that much more attractive.
I've visited the Pop Up a handful of times now to find out if Manfra has delivered on his promise. When I first caught up with the restaurant, it was a busy Thursday night, and downtown Delray had been transformed into one of its Art & Jazz on the Avenue celebrations. People were spilling inside the posh restaurant to grab a drink and quick bite, but we didn't have a problem landing a table. We were shown through the high-ceilinged foyer to a series of tightly clustered tables arranged around a small dance floor sandwiched between two bars. A projector broadcast a high-def reel of Cirque Du Soleil on the far wall, while Sinatra tunes hummed quietly through the speakers. Our waiter handed us a single-page menu attached to a small clipboard, and we got to work.
Considering that its menu changes daily, the Pop Up has quite a few options. There are nearly a dozen appetizers, pasta dishes, and entrées, plus wood-fired pizzas and a sizable dessert menu. And each section is pretty well varied, making the selection seem even larger. On the app side, you'll find staples such as fresh buffalo mozzarella sweetened with tomato and basil and larded with prosciutto ($9) or meatballs with whipped ricotta cheese ($12). Most are large enough to share, like the chopped salad with Gorgonzola, nuts, and balsamic dressing ($12). Others, like the array of crudos (often tuna or swordfish, $14) are better-suited for one.
The latter are also clearly aimed at attracting that "pop-up friendly" foodie audience Manfra is after. The swordfish "carpaccio" I sampled during one visit paired curtain-thin slices of white fish with black and red tobiko caviar, arugula salad, and a few globs of guacamole-like avocado mixture. I liked the lemony avocado on its own, but it completely quashed the delicate swordfish when eaten together. A similarly ill-conceived salad of blanched broccoli florets took a great idea — showcase the clean flavors of the broccoli and dress it with only so much sriracha vinaigrette as to complement it — but missed an opportunity for refinement by leaving the large spears whole (perhaps Manfra should shave it thin like asparagus salad to give it some character).