By Nicole Danna
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Those minor errors in judgment crop up whenever the Pop Up seems to be trying too hard. A fritto misto of calamari and zucchini ($16) was lightly battered and seasoned, served with a chunky tomato sauce. But the "pickles" fried with the dish were just the bread-and-butter variety — they would've been far better-suited for Deep South barbecue than at an elegant Italian restaurant. I liked the stretch Manfra took with shrimp scampi ($16), however — the garlicky shrimp were plump and perfectly cooked, and the light tomato and wine sauce was a pleasant surprise in place of ordinary garlic butter.
Service at the Pop Up is hit-or-miss as well. On one occasion, we were seated at a row of cramped tables on the dance floor. As the restaurant gets busier, the upstairs balcony overlooking the dining room fills up, lending the place a clubby vibe and a frenetic pace. Waiters careen through the tables, delivering food so fast, it can feel like you're being rushed out — a feeling compounded by busboys who often tried to clear our half-full plates before we'd even set our forks down. I know the restaurant is open for only four months — do they have to cram a year's worth of customers into that span?
The good news is, all that activity affords you a good look at the entrées being served to tables nearby. The visual aesthetic of those dishes is big and bold: Impressively large veal chops tower over the plates; mountains of risotto studded with shellfish and huge bowls of snapper cioppino demand wows as they pass. The problem is, most of these dishes creep up and over $40 — almost double the $24 price cap Manfra promised.
217 E. Atlantic Ave.
Delray Beach, FL 33444
Region: Delray Beach
The saving grace: From 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, every single thing the restaurant serves is two-for-one. That includes cocktails (a sizable list of which is available in the $11 range), appetizers, desserts... even those $40 entrées. Show up during those hours and a rack of lamb for $36 nets you a second plate for the same price; a portion of Chilean sea bass with saffron nosh saves you $32 on something else. During that window, the prices are crazy good. But it's not clear how long the offer will last.
As for the lamb I tried, I loved it despite the fact that it was hardly a rack but two sizable lamb chops plated cross-boned on the plate. Thankfully, the meat itself was a flawless medium rare and served with a mildly sweet red-wine reduction. A similar misdirection from the kitchen came in the form of wood-oven-roasted "wild" salmon ($32). There was no way in hell the pale pink and bland fillet we received was wild — even if it was cooked flawlessly and topped with an outstanding relish of roasted red peppers and cherry tomatoes.
What worked best at the Pop Up? One day, I brought my father and settled in on the quieter, shady patio hedged in from busy Atlantic Boulevard by a row of plants. He grabbed a beer; I nabbed a custom-built "Mr. Manhattan" from the bar. Out in that calm air, everything seemed to work better than the high-tech clubby vibe inside. After I ordered the cocktail, the bartender called me over and explained what makes his version so good. "I use this," he said, holding up a bottle of Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, so named for the guy who created the stuff in 1786. He went on to explain how he sourced it from an Italian importer and why it makes his Manhattan leagues better than the kind dosed with ordinary Martini and Rossi.
I had to smile: That was exactly the kind of creative, artisan, foodie-like touch I was expecting to find at a place called the Pop Up. If Manfra's kitchen can stick closer to that formula, then he'd definitely have something worth following him around for after his four months are up. Maybe not to Anguilla, but that's a trip better made solo anyway.