Eating a meal at Taste, the new Delray Beach gastropub from Allen Susser, is the gustatory equivalent of a World Cup draw. It's like watching a Brendan Fraser film or listening to the latest U2 single. In other words, it's wallpaper for your tongue. The entirety of the sterile-looking restaurant is draped in gray: the cold, steely kind that feels like it belongs in either expressionist Germany or a South Beach martini bar. That gray is mirrored in every surface, from the featureless walls to the plain tables to the outsized plates and their undersized portions. Even the name itself is so decidedly neutral that it imparts absolutely nothing interesting about the place.
Not that Taste is a horrible restaurant. It's just that this eagerly anticipated venture from Susser is so thoroughly mediocre, it's like the original Mango Gangster — so named because he once helped pioneer what's become known as Nuevo Latino — has been placed in the witness protection program.
Taste is located in an artsy neighborhood known as Pineapple Grove, just two blocks off Delray's main strip and also home to the city's other new gastropub, the Office. It's the brainchild of Robert Workens, a local restaurant/hotel contractor who also owns the Lake Worth nightclub Propaganda. Just as the Office brought in big-name chef Mark Militello to put his stamp on casual pub food (and subsequently booted him), at Taste, Workens turned that role over to Susser, who in turn enlisted one of his former apprentices, Jamie DeRosa. What the pair came up with is a menu that reads like a mishmash of fashionable bar food as envisioned by the folks who read Serious Eats daily. The bulk of it is small plates, overwrought stuff ranging from housemade charcuterie to bar snacks like olives and dates. Then there are more intricate options like salt-roasted beets and duck confit pot pie, which oddly share space with obligatory sliders and chicken wings. And, almost as if by necessity, there are some full-sized courses like fish and chips and seared snapper priced in the mid-$20s. Slightly more interesting is the decent craft beer list that includes brews from Lagunitas and Dogfish Head, plus a hip selection of wines by the glass. It's the latter bunch of offerings that makes Taste fun as a sort of snack-heavy nightspot, even if those drinks and dishes veer toward pricier territory.
However, Taste isn't exactly the most comforting restaurant to get lit in. The design seems to want to convey an edgy, modern club. But the result feels far more clinical. As with the walls, the floors and furnishings are all a dull gray/black. Meanwhile, the overhead spotlights are so focused that they instantly recall a dentist's office. Least friendly is the place's most aggressive design element: a back-lit image of a gaping female mouth lustily batting her tongue, blown up to the nth proportion. There's nothing tasteful about that. But being that it's the only point of visual emphasis in the entire restaurant, it's sort of hard to ignore.
We tried to, anyway, on our first visit, even though I was sitting directly in front of it. Since we didn't have a reservation, we were offered a choice of seating along the boulevard out front or at a set of long, communal couches near the busy open kitchen. We chose the couches, making our way through a sea of sequins and fauxhawks only to find ourselves face to face with that piece of artwork the rest of the night. It was hardly the least comfortable aspect of our meal, though: The couches were positioned around a tall table and pushed back so far that you had to lean in and up just to eat. Luckily, Taste has since moved them to a back room, where they serve as a quasi-lounge area. The space up front is now filled by rows of white tables, with a small, unimpressive bar at the far end seating at most ten people.
At least the food at Taste sounds promising. Our waiter encouraged us to select widely from the small-plates portion of the menu, which didn't seem a problem since, at first, we wanted to try so much. We started with braised pork belly ($7) sliced thin and served as a cold charcuterie with homemade raisins. Though the belly lacked in seasoning, it was designed to be eaten with a small blob of saltwater gelée, the texture of which paired strangely with the fatty meat. Laughing bird shrimp ceviche ($8), medium-sized shrimp marinated in gin and citrus, was a dish patterned after Susser's Floribbean past. But it was underseasoned — the crunchy Corn Nuts over which the shrimp were served were the best thing about it. The same lack of flavor came through in a plate of chilled oysters served with carbonated cucumber gazpacho, essentially a bland, coarse salsa that dressed up the otherwise fresh-tasting shellfish. The price too — $9 for three of the tiniest oysters I've ever seen — seemed way out of whack.
Sadly, that poor value ratio holds true for so many small plates at Taste. Making a dish out of a sliver of focaccia bread draped in a small helping of shiitake mushrooms and 30-weight butter sauce and calling it a "tostada" is one thing; charging almost $10 for it is another. Echoing that concept is a plate of bland, jerk chicken-wing lollipops — $9 for a set of five. If those soggy wings had anything in common with the bold Jamaican preparation, then I'm the 12th Marley child.
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As long as people are continuing to pay $10 for sliders, I guess you may as well order Susser's too. The Wagyu "Kobe" patties don't do anything to elevate the form or detract from it. But they don't belong on this menu any more than Susser's tuna tartare belongs served in ice cream cones ($10). Peekytoe crab "po' boys" ($12) served in the same format as those sliders are far better prepared — though would it have killed him to make this an actual New Orleans-style sandwich?
At least Taste's larger dishes — the whole four or five of them — maintain some focus and promise. On one visit, after working through a parade of forgettable small plates (oily dates wrapped in sopressata, dime-sized pieces of bland octopus, runny duck confit "pot pie"), we were still far from sated, so we ordered Susser's version of pan-seared snapper ($25), a supple piece of fish cooked just until it gave up its milky-sweet juice. Plated above a pea-green edemame purée that added heft and character, the fish completely rocked. So did skirt steak with housemade fries ($23) and a special of shepherd's pie made with lamb and plenty of fresh vegetables ($24), at least according to my tablemates. They each wolfed their (relatively small) helpings before I could get a bite.
Unlike so much of what's offered at Taste, each of those bigger dishes seemed fitting in a place that calls itself a gastropub, even one that looks like it was designed by Sprockets. The same can be said of the menu's "daily braise," a rotating special that involves slow-cooked dishes like coq au vin and a version of Julia Child's beef bourguignon. I can really admire the sort of quasireligious dedication it takes to braise at least one fatty cut of meat per day. Unfortunately, it's all in the execution: The curried lamb shank ($18) I had was woefully dull. Braising is supposed to deepen flavors, to render the rough and raw into something deep and clarified. Instead, Susser's lamb tasted distant, like it was an echo of a dish far removed from what it should have been.
Would that Taste didn't end up the same.