Savor The Review: Serious Imagination
Espuma proves that flashy-splashy isn't the only recipe for success in Rehoboth Beach. Here, a creative tweak of the classics makes all the difference.
28 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach
Prices Appetizers $8-$12; entrées $22-$37
Pan-roasted day-boat scallops with celery purée, fava bean salad, Russel Farms chives and blood orange syrup
Photographs by Thom Thompson http://www.thomthompson.com
Rehoboth Beach never lacks for fresh, exciting dining spots. Every year brings new aspirants to the title of hottest restaurant in town. Some blaze briefly across the landscape (rest in peace, Ground Zero and Square One). Others join the permanent pantheon with such mainstays as Blue Moon and Back Porch Café.
For more than two decades, though, most ambitious newcomers have followed a tried-and-true recipe: Try to outdo the competition in flash and panache, with the splashiest decor and the most exotic ingredients, then hope that the trend-hoppers are impressed. The formula has made Rehoboth Beach Delaware’s undisputed capital of fine dining, but the feeling of fun and frivolity, while befitting a seasonal resort, undercuts the town as a serious culinary destination.
Two years ago, a new restaurant opened that stood the blueprint for success on its ear. Espuma means “foam” in Portuguese, but there’s nothing frothy or insubstantial about anything at Jay Caputo’s restaurant, now entering its third year.
(from left). sous chef Scott Morozin, owner-chef Jay Caputo, line cooks Darrin Beachy and Taras Belej.
In a town devoted to froth, where chefs seem to vie for prizes in the novel and unconventional, Espuma seems serious, almost reserved. The reason might not dawn on you until you finish a meal there. Caputo is aiming beyond spectacular. He’s going for sublime, and he hits it almost every time.
The typical Rehoboth restaurateur tries to call as much attention as possible to his location. Victorian cottages in outlandish colors are typical. Espuma, on the other hand, occupies an unprepossessing single-story building on First Avenue near the corner of Wilmington Street, a drab-colored, modest space that once served as a gourmet deli. It’s a low-key spot, near the southern edge of Rehoboth’s business district. A block farther south, the street becomes residential, downright quiet compared with the nearby center of the tourist district.
AÊselection of Espuma’s specialty drinks.
The interior incorporates a few eye-catching touches, especially at the bar, a green plastic counter lit from within. The dining room colors—a mottled, medium green set off with a faded shade of red—recall a coral reef, giving it the air of a cool oasis designed for relaxation rather than excitement. Most of the 58 seats are in high-backed, maroon-upholstered booths that are squeezed a little tight together for the comfort of those of us with ample proportions. You might not mind at the height of the season; without all those seats, the wait for a table would be even longer.
The crowds are drawn not by trendiness but by Caputo’s skill at turning out inspired cooking that’s traditional without coming off as hidebound or dull. There’s never a sense that he’s showing off for his ego’s sake. Instead of juxtaposing ingredients unlikely to be combined anywhere beyond a foodie fantasy, Caputo mines the Mediterranean mother lode of culinary combinations, searching for nuggets he can dust off and transform into something precious.
Perhaps his only nod to modernity is a practice that’s also rooted in tradition: a commitment to the freshest, purest seasonal ingredients, an insistence that’s encouraging the rise of nearby artisanal providers of meat, produce and dairy products. As a result, the year-round restaurant’s menu is seasonal as well, though most nights it will include at least a few of what have become Caputo’s signature dishes.
At the top of this category is something the menu lists as an “infamous bacon and egg salad,” Caputo’s take on the traditional French frisée salad. Applewood-smoked bacon, a common American variation, stands in for the lardons used in France. The poached egg that perches atop the Gallic version, though, gets a more dramatic makeover: an organic, free-range, soft-boiled egg is shelled, rolled in flour and cornmeal, then dunked briefly in a deep fryer. The result is an egg that, rather than laying atop the bitter greens, sits upright among them and imparts a crunch that contrasts nicely with the soft egg white. The yolk, meanwhile, mingles with aromatic black truffle vinaigrette to make a dressing that’s both light and rich.
Such reworking of classic recipes turns up again and again, demonstrating that Caputo doesn’t repeat classic recipes so much as re-imagine them.
Duck confit, so often a dark and muddled dish at other restaurants, becomes in Caputo’s hands something bright and nimble, the flavor of the poultry underscored with peeled white grapes and fluffy gnocchi in a so-called pesto made with toasted almonds.
His stuffed peppers alla florentina are another revelation. The peppers aren’t the usual mass-produced bell peppers. They’re blood-red, thick-walled pimiento peppers with a deep, faintly spicy flavor. The tapered peppers are stuffed nearly to bursting with baby spinach and a pecorino cheese fondue, then dressed with a syrup based on aged balsamic vinegar.
In what might be the only area of the state where finding good seafood isn’t a crapshoot, Caputo’s efforts still stand out. His seared rockfish gives our sweetest-fleshed local fish a crisp brown skin, a nice contrast with the firm meat, and pairs it with white beans flavored with Spanish ham and mint oil, an ingredient that’s more subtle than it might sound.
Perhaps the most convincing sign of Caputo’s skill is the magic he can work on the most modest of ingredients, a trait he demonstrates over and over again with pasta, especially ravioli. In Italy ravioli are a favored way of sprucing up leftovers. A few of Espuma’s regular offerings sound like they had their roots in exactly such circumstances.
The chickpea ravioli that accompanied the herb-crusted tuna were pan-browned dumplings filled with what tasted like a spicier version of hummus. Creamed spinach mezzaluna—essentially half-moon-shaped ravioli—likewise featured a stuffing that would have been delicious even without the pasta, but tasted even better with it. Better still were ravioli filled with fennel, the anise flavor sweetened and mellowed by braising.
But what really stood out at our meal were gnocchi enriched with shreds of braised hog belly (actually a slab of the applewood-smoked bacon mentioned above). These highlighted a regular feature of Espuma’s menu, a three-course tasting menu offered for $30, a price lower than several of the a la carte entrées and an insane bargain by Rehoboth standards.
Vegetarians get a special treat. Caputo puts together a sampler of various meatless (and, if necessary, dairy-free) morsels, a different mix each night, and even at each table. The selections arrive in a series of small, square dishes in tapas portions (a carryover from the imaginative bar menu). Some are salads, others side dishes from the dinner menu, a few are made especially for the sampler. Even if you’re not a vegetarian, the dish is inexpensive enough to make a great shared appetizer.
Espuma’s tweak-the-classics philosophy extends to the dessert menu, which features lots of fruits and nuts, not merely pastry and sugar. We satisfied our chocolate lover with a sampler that contained three different dishes: an airy, ebony, molten-centered soufflé-like concoction; light, homemade, chocolate-peanut butter wafers; and a small glass of a pale, thick milkshake.
My favorite, though, was an ice cream sandwich of shortbread cookies around homemade lavender ice cream. As with other herb flavors Caputo employs, the often-overwhelming flavor of lavender was rendered subtle and tame.
Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate: chocolate truffles with strawberries, a milk chocolate milkshake and warm chocolate cake; (from left)
Espuma’s wine list lives up to the expectations set by the food. Among the five or six dozen selections are many Spanish, Italian and Portuguese wines that match the food admirably, but there’s no shortage of Australian and California reds for those who want something bigger and chewier. With our array of dishes, from seafood to veal, we went with a Wild Earth Pinot Noir, one of the exceptionally good Pinots being produced in New Zealand. This one, from Central Otago on the south island, is medium-bodied but assertive, with both floral and spicy notes in its bouquet translating to traces of black currant and cloves on the palate. At $50, the wine was marked up less than 50 percent from the retail price, always a sign that a restaurant is more interested in selling wine than simply profiting from it.
The only negative note sounded in any reviews I’ve seen were about service, but we had no problems at all. Of course, our waiter wasn’t hard-pressed on our early-weeknight visit (take that as a hint), and he knew the menu well. If there is a problem with the service, it’s caused by the cramped dining room; servers and patrons often must negotiate a pas de deux to pass in the central aisle.
With any luck, Caputo will take this as a hint: Espuma might be too good and too popular to stay at its current small size. He might as well increase his audience before competitors realize that flashy, splashy restaurants are no longer the only path to success in Rehoboth Beach.Ê D