I'm always wary when I call a new restaurant to inquire about its cuisine and whoever answers the phone says something like, "Uh, hang on a minute" and passes the phone to someone else. A stunt like that usually means one of two things. Either the quicker-picker-upper on the other end of the receiver hadn't been trained properly, or the menu is just too complicated to explain in a single sound bite. Both, I might note, usually spell trouble.
This very thing happened when I called Dada in Delray Beach, a nine-month-old eatery located in the '20s dwelling that used to house Damiano's. Given the definition of Dada -- an artistic, literary, and cultural movement characterized, according to the Encarta World English Dictionary, by "anarchy, irrationality, and irreverence" -- the restaurant could be about anything -- or nothing. Would the interior be designed like the Salvador Dalí museum in Figueroa, Spain, where archways are overseen by decapitated dolls? Would the menu read like a Tristan Tzara poem, declaring that cuisine "is going to sleep for a new world to be born?" Would the food be plated like a Max Ernst collage painting?
In order: yes, sort of, and no.
52 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach
561-330-3232. Dinner nightly from 6 p.m. till 2 a.m.
"Get Yer Dada Out"
The person to whom I was eventually transferred at Dada also couldn't pin a catch phrase on the type of cuisine Dada serves. But he did explain it a little better than "uh," promising that the items were so eclectic I'd probably never seen them put together before -- which is a challenge if I ever heard one. This person was probably executive chef Bruce Feingold, given that he knew the semisecret ingredients of the unusually good caesar salad (roasted garlic and Pommery mustard). And in a way he was right. Not that I had never seen, say, a main course of fresh salmon glazed with a maple-habanero concoction or had a fillet that was this accomplished: moist, crisp-edged, wonderfully balanced. Of course I have. But I certainly have not eaten this type of fusion dish served over Navajo fry bread. I'm still not convinced that the fry bread was an appropriate counterpoint, especially because it was a little tough and resembled a gyro wrap, but hey, points for ingenuity.
"I tried to keep the menu on the edge, a little bit out there," Feingold explains. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Feingold has apprenticed with Mark Militello, owned his own bakery, and run the kitchen at Sforza, among other gigs. Now, he says, "I try to change it up a little bit but keep the basics. I like taking classical dishes and messing with them." Hence a list that offers chicken satay and traditional fondue as appetizers and an Asian rice bowl and Florentine pizza as main courses.
No doubt this rebel-rebel stuff fits in just fine with the views of co-proprietors Rodney Mayo and Scott Frielich, who designed Dada themselves with the help of artist-friend Michael Korber. Dada looks like a cross between a genteel Florida home and the Boston nightclub Manray, a dance hall that projected gay porn on the walls long before South Beach came into its own. The foyer and front room serve as a bar for which the partners ground the steel themselves. Go left and find yourself in a dark lounge; go straight down the hallway to the "Barbarella room" for surreal films splashed onto the wall; or detour into the pièce de résistance, a dining room affectionately called "the ant room." You guessed it -- it features trompe l'oeil ants, inspired by Dalí, roaming up and down the walls.
Indeed everywhere you look in Dada, something's just a little strange, a tiny bit off-kilter. Dining is likewise not quite cozy enough, because the hand-cut slate-topped tables and 116 seats (including the bar and outdoors) are wedged into strange corners. Dada is also probably one of the few places in downtown Delray Beach where your servers will be unapologetically body-pierced and tattooed. If you're feeling misunderstood at your workplace, you might want to check here for a job. Not only is the dress code lax, you can nod your head to the beat of the acid jazz the DJs spin on weekend nights as you take your customer's order.
Of course the breakbeats might interfere with how well you hear the patron, which is probably why we wound up with a curry chicken salad wrap instead of a platter. We liked the flavor of the lightly sweet, spiced chicken salad but found it overwhelmed by the vegetables in the wrap. And it wasn't easy to share, as we had intended to do. For a touch of sugary robustness, try instead the grilled Brie starter. Simply garnished with honey-garlic butter and accompanied by crisp grapes and crusty French bread, the cheese was easily portioned out and felt appropriate to the venue.
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While Dada is "not a nightclub by any means," notes Feingold, you can usually count on some entertainment -- poetry slams and film screenings -- during or after your meal. The staff encourages folks to hang out indoors on the lounges or outdoors on the porch and patio (where a second bar is located), and the patrons are universally clothed in black and appear comfortably "alternative." So you might not want to take Mama to Dada. But you will want to sample Feingold's more down-to-earth home cooking, including meat loaf with caramelized onions or my current favorite, a 12-ounce, center-cut pork chop smothered in Mongolian barbecue sauce. An accompaniment of roasted shallot mashed potatoes finished off the plate -- and my appetite -- nicely.
Influences run the global gamut here, so go with whatever you feel like having, and you most likely won't be disappointed. We especially admired a cold cucumber-chive soup, which tasted like tzatziki, and an entrée of butternut squash ravioli, tender pillows filled with a sublimely spiced vegetable purée. The ravioli were sauced with thyme cream that contained nuggets of shiitake mushrooms, which introduced a pleasant earthy note, though the addition of snow peas was rather strange from a culinary point of view.
If your palate tends to veer away from rich dishes, be sure to order a bento box. The traditional multicompartment lacquered box held an array of Asian fare: jasmine rice, beef marinated with soy-orange flavors, and some zesty sea scallops with a red pepper flair. Desserts, however, are uniformly rich, ranging from a decent crème brûlée to a black-and-white mousse cake. Your best bet is probably the cobbler of the day, which has a home-baked, candied texture that goes perfectly with a pot of French-press coffee.
In keeping with the art-culture theme, Dada offers martinis made with van Gogh vodka and a reasonably priced, worldly wine list. But the real attraction of Dada is the dada itself, which is as counterculture and foreign (not to mention welcome) to Delray Beach as Navajo fry bread is to the bento box.