I'm hoping my intuition about Spontané proves right: We have here a manageably sized restaurant owned by a pair of creative young chefs who have given themselves permission to mess around, auditioning dishes we haven't seen before even while paying playful homage to the classics. I'm practically willing Spontané to grow into a place that consistently surprises and delights us. The dining scene on and around Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach has already turned into one big culinary party, full of witty, urbane, eccentric, and unique players. I like to imagine Spontaé arriving late in rumpled chef's whites, wine glass in hand, and plunging into this boisterous conversation. The kinds of places rubbing shoulders here De la Tierra and Lemongrass, Dada and 32 East, Sol Kitchen and Elwood's, Brisa Atlantica, Tramonti, Saki Room make downtown Delray the most concentrated and interesting gastronomic gauntlet you'll find in two counties.
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.
These successes and failures illustrate what's wrong and what's right in the kitchen. A willingness to take risks (I'm all in favor!) demands more attention to detail. Somebody should be tasting those icky tortilla strips before sprinkling them over my soup. That same somebody should have tested the seared sea scallops with lobster cream ($26) too, because every single scallop was gritty with sand. I kept eating them anyway, hoping I'd hit one that didn't taste like I'd fallen asleep face down on a beach. As for the summer truffles shaved on top of the lobster cream, they were like minuscule black holes of nonflavor. Because summer truffles are less pungent (and way cheaper!), you need more of them, preferably shaved right at the table, to pack any kind of flavor punch. But the kitchen was as stingy with them as if they'd cost $1,200 per pound. I've read the word truffle on so many local menus, only to be deeply disappointed, that I'm starting to feel like a masochist. I'm issuing a dual countywide challenge to chefs of every persuasion either serve a truffle that tastes like a damned truffle or leave them off the menu. But please stop torturing me!
However, a Guinea hen roulade a moist, meaty breast pounded flat and rolled around wilted spinach and cheese, the whole thing wrapped in crisp bacon and served over silky mushroom risotto was truly sublime. Not to mention a damned fine bargain, at $24, for such a feast, rich and warming, salty, earthy, textured from the toothsome rice to the crunchy little ribbons of fried onion scattered on top. Just perfect. It converted me instantly to the pleasures of Guinea fowl, a bird that looks like a cross of a turkey, a pheasant, and a peacock. I don't believe I've seen Guinea fowl on any menu 'round these parts; it's just the kind of unexpected touch that I appreciate most about Spontaé.
A dish of annatto rubbed grouper ($27) was almost as interesting paired with a dashing yet homey pineapple plantain bread pudding, plunked down in a puddle of mango beurre blanc and topped with adorable little snowflakes of thin, crunchy fried potatoes chips.
Of all these dishes, our raspberry BBQ breast and duck leg confit ($24) was the least interesting, if only because duck is everywhere these days and this one didn't rise far above its competition.
Spontaé offers only four desserts thus far. Since one of the owners is a pastry chef, this is inexplicable. Inexplicable too why a blueberry tart shell should taste like it was made from ground-up animal crackers held together with trans fats, so tough it was impossible to break or to eat (if he had only tasted it...). Or why the entire dessert should be so prosaic. Plain, uncooked blueberries over pastry cream? (Yawn.) Much better, a slice of chipotle chocolate terrine ($8.50) with homemade Bailey's ice cream (yummy). I love the combination of chocolate and pepper lately. This terrine had a dense, almost cheese-like consistency, and the flavor (we were told it was Venezuelan chocolate) was head-clearingly, pulse-quickeningly exciting, especially with the rush of pepper at the end. But bananas Foster again, why this old saw? added nothing new to Ella Brennen's invention; it wasn't, of course, flamed tableside. They never are anymore, outside of New Orleans. And they call this progress.
Service, by the way, was very good. The wine list is reasonably priced. And the presentation of the dishes was beautiful. If I sound torn here, it's because I am torn. None of the problems I've alluded to couldn't be fixed pretty simply, and I'm confident they will be once these guys get their feet under them. They have exactly two months to do that before the seasonal hordes descend. I wish them bon chance, with an American accent.
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