Glen Manfra was living the dream. Here's a guy who, during 20-plus years in South Florida, had opened classic Palm Beach joints like Bice and Amici and worked with powerful guys like Revlon's Ron Perelman and restaurateur David Manero. Chefs are known for living life at a relentless pace, and Manfra exemplified that, often jumping from project to project. But for the past nine months, Manfra wasn't sweating to open some high-profile kitchen or flying around the country to research menus. He was cooking fresh lobster and soaking in the sun on the Caribbean island of Anguilla.
So naturally, my first question for Manfra when we spoke on the phone last month was: Why in the world would you want to leave Anguilla's clear blue waters behind and come back to South Florida to open the Pop Up?
"My whole career, I've opened places for other people," said Manfra in a calm, deliberate tone. "My plan is to do this for myself now."
Manfra couldn't pass up the dream-like offer he received in May after Delray Beach's short-lived Atlantic Ocean Club closed: the chance to take over the multilevel, multimillion-dollar restaurant in the heart of Delray Beach at the low, low cost of absolutely free.
It wasn't the first time Manfra had been asked to run the space. About a year ago, Atlantic Ocean Club's owner, Larry Lipnick, asked Manfra to be executive chef at his upcoming venture. But Manfra turned down the offer, partly for family reasons but also because it "didn't feel right" to him. So the AOC job went to onetime Wolfgang Puck disciple and Taste alum Jamie DeRosa. Hopes were high, and the restaurant opened with a farm-to-table theme in late January. But less than a month later, DeRosa was out. A mere three months after that, Atlantic Ocean Club closed for good.
Fearing that the space would stay vacant over the hot, slow summer, Lipnick called up Manfra and offered him a chance to move into it for no money. It was a win-win deal. Lipnick could keep the space on the map and take it back at the end of the summer — just four months later. Meanwhile, Manfra could use that time to build a following in fickle Delray, then walk away without owing a dime.
For Manfra's part, he's really taken the opportunity and run with it. His restaurant, the Pop Up, opened at the end of May, and its name is a play on the trendy so-called "pop ups" of New York or Los Angeles — temporary restaurants that open for only a weekend or two at a time, gaining their followings mostly via Facebook and Twitter. To keep customers interested during the slow summer, Manfra is trying to attract local diners with low prices and an ever-changing menu of rustic Italian cuisine.
Though most Palm Beach residents probably wouldn't know a pop-up restaurant from a pop-up book, I think Manfra's idea is great: attract the buzz-seeking foodie types with a novel idea, and keep them hooked with food that's seasonal and fresh. The fact that Manfra also promised homemade pasta, local seafood, and a price ceiling of $24 made the idea sound that much more attractive.
I've visited the Pop Up a handful of times now to find out if Manfra has delivered on his promise. When I first caught up with the restaurant, it was a busy Thursday night, and downtown Delray had been transformed into one of its Art & Jazz on the Avenue celebrations. People were spilling inside the posh restaurant to grab a drink and quick bite, but we didn't have a problem landing a table. We were shown through the high-ceilinged foyer to a series of tightly clustered tables arranged around a small dance floor sandwiched between two bars. A projector broadcast a high-def reel of Cirque Du Soleil on the far wall, while Sinatra tunes hummed quietly through the speakers. Our waiter handed us a single-page menu attached to a small clipboard, and we got to work.
Considering that its menu changes daily, the Pop Up has quite a few options. There are nearly a dozen appetizers, pasta dishes, and entrées, plus wood-fired pizzas and a sizable dessert menu. And each section is pretty well varied, making the selection seem even larger. On the app side, you'll find staples such as fresh buffalo mozzarella sweetened with tomato and basil and larded with prosciutto ($9) or meatballs with whipped ricotta cheese ($12). Most are large enough to share, like the chopped salad with Gorgonzola, nuts, and balsamic dressing ($12). Others, like the array of crudos (often tuna or swordfish, $14) are better-suited for one.
The latter are also clearly aimed at attracting that "pop-up friendly" foodie audience Manfra is after. The swordfish "carpaccio" I sampled during one visit paired curtain-thin slices of white fish with black and red tobiko caviar, arugula salad, and a few globs of guacamole-like avocado mixture. I liked the lemony avocado on its own, but it completely quashed the delicate swordfish when eaten together. A similarly ill-conceived salad of blanched broccoli florets took a great idea — showcase the clean flavors of the broccoli and dress it with only so much sriracha vinaigrette as to complement it — but missed an opportunity for refinement by leaving the large spears whole (perhaps Manfra should shave it thin like asparagus salad to give it some character).
Those minor errors in judgment crop up whenever the Pop Up seems to be trying too hard. A fritto misto of calamari and zucchini ($16) was lightly battered and seasoned, served with a chunky tomato sauce. But the "pickles" fried with the dish were just the bread-and-butter variety — they would've been far better-suited for Deep South barbecue than at an elegant Italian restaurant. I liked the stretch Manfra took with shrimp scampi ($16), however — the garlicky shrimp were plump and perfectly cooked, and the light tomato and wine sauce was a pleasant surprise in place of ordinary garlic butter.
Service at the Pop Up is hit-or-miss as well. On one occasion, we were seated at a row of cramped tables on the dance floor. As the restaurant gets busier, the upstairs balcony overlooking the dining room fills up, lending the place a clubby vibe and a frenetic pace. Waiters careen through the tables, delivering food so fast, it can feel like you're being rushed out — a feeling compounded by busboys who often tried to clear our half-full plates before we'd even set our forks down. I know the restaurant is open for only four months — do they have to cram a year's worth of customers into that span?
The good news is, all that activity affords you a good look at the entrées being served to tables nearby. The visual aesthetic of those dishes is big and bold: Impressively large veal chops tower over the plates; mountains of risotto studded with shellfish and huge bowls of snapper cioppino demand wows as they pass. The problem is, most of these dishes creep up and over $40 — almost double the $24 price cap Manfra promised.
The saving grace: From 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, every single thing the restaurant serves is two-for-one. That includes cocktails (a sizable list of which is available in the $11 range), appetizers, desserts... even those $40 entrées. Show up during those hours and a rack of lamb for $36 nets you a second plate for the same price; a portion of Chilean sea bass with saffron nosh saves you $32 on something else. During that window, the prices are crazy good. But it's not clear how long the offer will last.
As for the lamb I tried, I loved it despite the fact that it was hardly a rack but two sizable lamb chops plated cross-boned on the plate. Thankfully, the meat itself was a flawless medium rare and served with a mildly sweet red-wine reduction. A similar misdirection from the kitchen came in the form of wood-oven-roasted "wild" salmon ($32). There was no way in hell the pale pink and bland fillet we received was wild — even if it was cooked flawlessly and topped with an outstanding relish of roasted red peppers and cherry tomatoes.
What worked best at the Pop Up? One day, I brought my father and settled in on the quieter, shady patio hedged in from busy Atlantic Boulevard by a row of plants. He grabbed a beer; I nabbed a custom-built "Mr. Manhattan" from the bar. Out in that calm air, everything seemed to work better than the high-tech clubby vibe inside. After I ordered the cocktail, the bartender called me over and explained what makes his version so good. "I use this," he said, holding up a bottle of Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, so named for the guy who created the stuff in 1786. He went on to explain how he sourced it from an Italian importer and why it makes his Manhattan leagues better than the kind dosed with ordinary Martini and Rossi.
I had to smile: That was exactly the kind of creative, artisan, foodie-like touch I was expecting to find at a place called the Pop Up. If Manfra's kitchen can stick closer to that formula, then he'd definitely have something worth following him around for after his four months are up. Maybe not to Anguilla, but that's a trip better made solo anyway.