One of the great things about Dada is its texture. Every facet of this historic house turned restaurant is layered with visual flavor. The hip, the eclectic, the tattooed, the wacky — for ten years, they've gathered here to quaff cocktails on Dada's lounge-like front stoop and sip beers on the loose gravel lawn that the staff affectionately refers to as "the beach." Almost every night of the week, the restaurant invites magicians, bands, and performance artists to give shows near its warm stone hearth (warm, even when nothing is burning inside of it). And as folks pack the foyer by the lacquered amber bar to watch, those old floorboards seem to creak and groan not with age but with satisfaction.
That texture and creativity was lacking in an order of Dada's crab macaroni and cheese ($13.50) that some friends and I shared the night before the restaurant's tenth-anniversary bash. What we found on our plates had nowhere near the character of the surrounding restaurant. The top of the metal baking dish was blanketed in a layer of cheese so thick that it had become like a layer of formless plastic. The elbow noodles sodden, the bechamel-based cheese sauce pasty, it was a mac and cheese fit only for Gerber. Worst of all, the hunks of blue crab meat scattered throughout were as musty as a long-neglected attic.
"Bad mac and cheese has become the most disappointing thing in the world for me," said my friend Eric in a moment of warranted hyperbole. "I can make Velveeta better than this." Surely, he was right — what this mac and cheese needed was something crisp baked on top to give it texture; that, and a more careful hand with the gummy cheddar. It's not like mac and cheese is some DaVinci code chefs have yet to crack either. I could rattle off a list of five restaurants within walking distance of Dada that make better versions of this classic comfort food.
In the ten years it's been open, Dada has developed a reputation as Delray Beach's go-to destination for hipster revelry. During its anniversary block party that weekend, the place drew some 1,200 party people. I'd wager most of them — their perspectives rearranged thanks to Dada's pleasantly titled environment — came to drink and listen to live tunes from Fusik and the Spam Allstars. But the food? Not so much. Unlike the great artists and revolutionary thinkers the restaurant is named after, Dada's menu evokes no such inspiration.
For a restaurant to thrive over the course of a decade takes a keen sense of the marketplace. Even in slow-to-adapt South Florida, our tastes have evolved a lot over the years Dada has been open. Back in 2000, Delray Beach was a quiet, seaside rehab town. These days, it's become the epicenter of restaurant life in Palm Beach County. Dada's owners know this well. Rodney Mayo and Scott Freilich, the pair behind the joint, have deeply divested roots spread across South Florida's restaurant scene. Their concepts are well-articulated, edgy, and, above all, fun. Take Tryst, their 2-year-old beer and tapas bar located just a block away from Dada. It sports both homey bistro and bar-food elements and features an unpretentious array of tapas backing up an ever-rotating craft beer list. Most all, it feels current and focused.
Dada's vision, on the other hand, has become somewhat muddled. The first time I ate there, nearly four years ago, I remember thinking that most of the dishes seemed a little staid. It sounded like the restaurant version of one of those "Now" music compilations they used to put out in the late '90s: beef tenderloin skewers, caprese salad, cheese fondue, grilled Brie, Mediterranean sampler. Sadly, the menu hasn't changed much since that encounter. Even the restaurant's trademark mojitos — excellent though they might be — aren't exactly on the cutting edge of mixology these days.
I'm not saying Dada needs to totally forget itself and just go for what's current. But at least consider the crowd. Your restaurant is full of young, clubby types looking to party — how many of them want to sit down to $38 filet Oscar specials served with the same ice cream scoop's worth of mashed potatoes and broccoli accompanying every other damned entrée on the menu? I sure don't. A sizable piece of wahoo we tried instead ($23) swapped the starchy potatoes for jasmine rice, but the effect was the same: stodgy, boring, lazy. I could feel the chef's tedium on the plate. The wahoo itself — a lean, firm fish by nature — was so overcooked (and underseasoned) that it had tensed up like a clenched fist.
Even if Dada's chefs can't approach the level of Dali-esque creativity exhibited on the restaurant's art-filled walls, the least they could do is present something comforting. Dada's take on meat loaf ($15.50) would fall into that camp if only it were executed properly. My friend Eric, pining for the texture our mac and cheese lacked, asked our waitress if the chef would cut him a piece of end loaf — the crunchier, caramelized slice at the end of the meat loaf. She checked to see if the chef would oblige, and he did. But it hardly turned out the way we had envisioned. The slice of barely molded meat had no crunch, no texture, no glaze at all aside from the sedate "Mongolian" barbecue sauce served on the side. We tried to save the strangely soft loaf by smearing that sauce all over it. The result was like trying to put plastic Kmart wheel covers on a Geo Metro. Sure, it's shinier. But it's still an awful ride.
More of the bad: I wondered why an attractive pork porterhouse special ($21) was slathered with so much sweet Thai peanut sauce as to obscure the flavor completely — that is, until I caught an unobstructed taste of the meat, which was at least two days outside its freshness window. We had ordered a house caesar salad ($9) based on the fact that our waitress had told us the dressing was homemade. Not only did the overrich dressing taste no different from your average bottle but the salad was filled with stale croutons. A tomato, avocado, and "fresh" mozzarella salad ($9.50) promised arugula but came instead with wilted mixed greens taken lazily from a bag. And a bluefin tuna tartare we shared ($14, and when's the last time you heard a place hocking "bluefin" tuna?) was graying from oxidization. At least the wasabi aioli and sriracha sauces served on the side managed to obstruct the unattractive view.
One thing I have to give Mayo and Freilich credit for is that they seem to treat the staff in their restaurants (some 300 employees throughout South Florida) better than any other restaurateurs I can think of. During one visit, our waitress told us how she couldn't wait for the upcoming weekend excursion the company takes each year to Key West (paid for mostly on the company dime, no less). That kind of camaraderie-building obviously pays off — Dada's staff is cheery, sweet, and genuinely happy to be there. Our service was great during all our visits. Even when our waitress seemed too embarrassed to ask us about our barely touched plates, she managed to offer dessert with an empathetic assertion. "You should try our banana bread," she said. "This I know you will love." We took her advice, and we did. The banana bread arrived like a last-minute pardon from the warden: Warm and slightly toasted, the two sizable slices were sauced hunks of bananas bathing in thick, rich caramel and finished with a slowly melting scoop of vanilla ice cream. Heavenly!
I wish more dishes at Dada came out like that. If only the place could revisit the menu and weed out those boring plates that creep toward $30 and replace them with options that keep their ever-changing clientele in mind. I can get over the fact that Dada still offers no happy hour — $10 for their wonderful mojitos, hand-muddled and infused with fresh blackberries or green tea and honey, is a worthy price in my book. Just give me something like the restaurant's take on a BLT ($8.50): With thick grilled bread, peppery-sweet maple bacon, and a big smear of cilantro pesto mayonnaise, it's a dish that works on all fronts. Sure, it may not be the sort of artistic middle finger that a true Dadaist would offer. But it's enough to keep me ponying up for tunes and beers at the bar for a few more years to come.