The place settings at the Office in Delray Beach are littered with profound — or is that profoundly unprofound? — quotes about food printed on them. One line in particular caught my attention: "Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon."
The quote is from Doug Larson, a 1924 Olympic gold medalist who was full of similar witticisms. Although it might read a bit like "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy," this line is apropos at the Office, where the greenest of green vegetable dishes is a bowl of Brussels sprouts bathed in bacon fat and jeweled with lardons the size of a pacemaker (coincidence?). Dig into that bowl, and every couple of bites you might get the hint of vegetable. But on the whole, it's basically just a substrate for smoky, rich pork fat.
The Brussels sprouts are hardly the only offering that trumpets bacon at the Office. A quick glance down the menu reveals bacon in salad, bacon smothering macaroni and cheese, bacon on burgers, and bacon finishing off a tray of souped-up tater tots. You can add to that the various forms of pork and ham employed by the kitchen Serrano-wrapped scallops, Spanish toast with tomatoes and ham, and a retooling of pork and beans where the pork is, in fact, pork belly (read: bacon). And lest you think the bacon bus stops there, for dessert you can order perhaps the restaurant's greatest triumph: a maple-glazed doughnut topped with — what else? — bacon.
The Office, 201 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily. Call 561-276-3600, or click here.
There's another quote I quite like from an old Guy Lombardo song, and if that swinging jazz tune were played on endless rotation at the Office, it would never get old. It goes, "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think." The 3-month-old joint from restaurateur David Manero (Vic & Angelo's, DeVito South Beach) follows that dictum doggedly. The place is unapologetically indulgent. One might be tempted to call the lipid-filled menu, as concocted by Manero and onetime chef Mark Militello, an ode to America's base obsession with excess. There's no reinvention going on here — shoot, even bacon doughnuts are old hat now. Rather, the place knows all of our buttons and just how to push them — intimately. And to be truthful, it executes nearly flawlessly. The whole experience is as if some man behind the curtain is telling you, "Forget about what's going on out there! Ignore the political corruption and the Ponzi schemers in your backyards. Just eat and drink and live in the moment!"
And nothing else matters.
It's no coincidence, then, that the Office exudes that ethos from the point of impact. For his backdrop, Manero has handpicked the most Romanesque time in modern American history: the rollicking 1950s, when complacency was not to be confused with suburban bliss and the two-martini lunch was as sanctified a pastime as church on Sunday. The décor is done up as a mixture of Manhattan office building and Dick Van Dyke-era home study, with a wide bar stretching across the entire west wall populated by bow-tied tenders. Just sitting in those leather and cowhide chairs in the restaurant's makeshift home study, replete with a collection of books ranging from "Meat" to "Art Deco" to "Ad Hoc at Home," something lusting and powerful takes over. Call it the American desire to have it all and be it all, but it's there in all the brushed metal and bold wood, in the candy-red brick, and in the open kitchen that spews so much heat, you'd think it powers the entire block. This is the 1950s of Don Draper and Mad Men as much as it is the 1950s of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Complete, of course, with the tragedy so quietly looming behind it.
What the Office does an excellent job of, however, is making you feel like nothing else does matter. From the instant you walk in, you magically become one of those Madison Avenue bigwigs whose names are engraved on the gold post boxes by the front door. The hostess will seat you either inside or out on the breezy downtown Delray strip, and within moments, one of those dapper waitrons decked in a starched white shirt and long black apron will bring you a picture-perfect cocktail. And you'll be had.
All around you are people doing the same — temporary captains of industry gnawing on $15 burgers, the buns of which are branded with the restaurant's logo (talk about potent imagery on a plate). I stopped in for lunch one day to try one of those colossal "Prime CEO" burgers, and the table next to me couldn't stop talking about my food from the moment it arrived.
"That looks so good!" an older fellow with graying hair said in my direction. "Is it good?"
It was. A sizable patty of steak-like beef is dressed up with creamy Maytag blue cheese, tomato, and onion confit (sort of like Sabrett hot dog relish), peppery arugula, and bacon, all sitting inside a buttery-light toasted bun. On the side, a pile of shoestring fries was crisp and addictive — I nearly swiped clean the ramekin of garlic aioli that came with them. In short, it's a burger worth raiding the piggy bank for.
On another visit, some friends and I ate small plates at a table by the front door, next to a large wooden pig that was balancing a tray of green and red apples. Every so often, people walking by would stop a waiter and ask, "Are those apples for free?" To which the waiter would reply, "Yes, please take one." Nobody did.
We followed suit and instead took the pig: baby back ribs, braised with honey and laced with fennel pollen ($15). The ribs were tender and smoky but tasted slightly odd unless you got a bite of the scattered fennel dust and sea salt, which in turn launched them into the stratosphere. Alongside it, we shared an oval bowl of creamy, truffle-oil-infused mac and cheese topped with bacon and bread crumbs ($8), crunchy and salty all at once. And all the while, we sipped draft beers from the restaurant's craft selection, including a stellar pint of Oskar Blues Gordon Imperial Red ($6) that was malty enough to quiet the salty bacon and hoppy enough to balance out nicely.
The small plates we ordered came out in staggered procession, and while most were executed well, some were of significantly lower value than others. A plate of nachos with a dollop of smoky Kingfish dip and avocado crema tasted just fine but at $12 for five chips was headed into pricey and pretentious territory. Two à la carte side items, deviled eggs and "grown-up" tater tots ($6), shared a nearly equally poor 1:1 bite-to-dollar ratio.
A better deal was an order of corn bread delivered in a tin can ($4). Our waiter carefully removed the jalapeño- and cheddar-infused bread from the can, and we slathered crumbly pieces of it in sweet maple butter and some of the finest pimento cheese spread you're likely to find outside of a Texas Tupperware party.
It was widely talked about that the combination of business-minded David Manero and princely chef Mark Militello wouldn't work for the Office in the long run, and it didn't. Militello left in February, and since then, two of his protégés, Larry LaValley and Frances Connor Deskin, have been put in charge of the kitchen. Luckily, not much has changed in the transition. In fact, the restaurant may have gotten more focused since.
I took a few more friends to the Office a few Sundays ago to see if that was still the case. One of them, a beer fanatic named Joe who never turns down a good pint, was in heaven from the get-go. "I can really respect the whole three-pages-of-drinks-to-one-page-of-food thing," he said, thumbing over the extensive wine, beer, and cocktail list. That, we determined, was one perfectly appropriate ratio.
We ordered a couple of pints of bitter Arrogant Bastard from Stone Brewery and apricot-scented Magic Hat #9 and turned our attention to some Serrano-wrapped dates nestled in crusty phyllo ($9). Some chili-braised pork tacos dressed with creamy avocado and a mince of grilled pineapple ($12) had a pleasant, spicy burn that, along with the sweet fruit, created a balance that could compete with the best al pastor at any authentic taco joint. A bigger surprise was a bowl of black-kernel truffled popcorn. What I thought would be an $8 profit-margin-buffering dish was actually highly addictive, flecked with soft bits of pungent black truffle and a dusting of sharp Parmesan.
"I'm stoned off this food," said Joe, glowing with pork and booze (or maybe it was the truffle oil?). Either way, I could dig it. We were seated amid a pack of tables buzzing on their own, sinking into a background of '70s rock tunes that were perhaps a bit too loud. By the time our entrées arrived — a fillet of beef tenderloin stuffed with roasted garlic ($35), a special of fried chicken with collards and black-eyed peas ($17), and a CEO burger for Joe — we were deep in the groove.
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Joe could barely look up from his burger, ordered and received a vibrant red rare. When he did, all he could manage was, "This is a 'Dear Diary' burger right here." I was busy enjoying my rustic plate of fried chicken that was almost completely covered in bacon (it constituted at least 50 percent of the collards and beans, anyway). I ate the whole plate and even saved room for a maple-bacon doughnut for dessert, lovingly nicknamed "Miss Piggy Goes to Vermont" ($9).
In the end, we did just what Manero asked of us: We indulged. Was it consequence-free? Absolutely not. This is America at its best and most perverse. It's living as if there's no tomorrow — and if we keep up this way, there certainly won't be. As we split our final helping of bacon doughnut, served with both a coffee crème anglaise and a rich chocolate ganache, I asked the table which sauce to enjoy with the last bite.
"Why not do both?" my friend Rachel suggested.
Sure. Why not. You can't always have it both ways. But tonight, at least, we can.