(Click here to make reservations through OpenTable.com.) "It's OK...you can lick the plate!!!" This--from 3-time James Beard Foundation Award nominee Jay Caputo! Given his status as one of the few chefs to be selected from thousands of contenders for the prestigious "Academy Awards of Food," it's difficult to muster up the courage to engage in any serious plate-licking at Espuma. (Not that the Foodie hasn't done it elsewhere.)
Even before the performance begins, little nibbles arrive mysteriously at the table. On my last couple of visits, it was rough-cut, homemade soda bread (yeasty, crusty and warm) accompanied by a savory trifecta of whole roasted garlic cloves (soft and buttery), a deeply delicious olive tapenade, and a citrusy puree of white beans and lemon peel.
I ordered the Decadent Lobster and Toasted Almond Bisque to start. The buttery, burnt-orange liquid was ceremoniously decanted (at the table) onto a delicately arranged burst of almonds, orange slices and scallions. Another member of our party ordered "The Opus" Bacon and Egg appetizer [pictured]. And an "opus" it was: A warm bacon tart (think of a smokey, but not eggy, quiche in a thin, flaky crust) joins a lightly breaded soft-boiled egg that appeared to have been quickly fried to a delicate crisp crust. Get ready: the yolk was still a sunny yellow and slightly soft! Accompanied by arugula drizzled with a balsamic/parmesan emulsion, it was as pleasing to behold as it was to consume.
High on the list for "star of the appetizer show" was the Chilled Tomato and Cucumber Gazpacho, sporting a central island of avocado mousse, grilled shrimp and mint. The bracing spiciness was gently tempered by the cool avocado. It was simply delicious. The Crisp PEI (Prince Edward Island) Mussels were steamed in lobster stock, lightly fried in a tempura batter, then speckled with crisp lemons, celery, pignolis, red onions and not-too-hot harissa (a North African hot pepper paste). For a rare moment, The Foodie was speechless.
Another surprise appeared between the appetizers and the mains. Often called an amuse-bouche (or Lagniappe in creole/French fine-dining), 6 shiny amuse-bouche spoons (the handles are curved back into a loop) were arranged on a snow-white plate and filled with a cold and deliciously spiced zucchini puree dotted with tiny bits of orange. Nice touch!
All that seems like a tough act to follow, but the appetizers turned out to be a good omen. On a previous visit, I ordered the Tuscan Style 3 Day Pork. It was accompanied by an impossibly moist parmesan/polenta cake (fortunately, several of Espuma's entrees include that), a ragout of peppers and tomatoes, and an interesting "caviar"-style concoction consisting of eggplant and mustard. A dark Balsamic foam puts the finishing touch on the tender, aromatic meat. ("Espuma" means "foam" in Portugese--just thought you needed to know that.)
Last night I had the Neo-Classic Espuma Paella. "Neo-classic" is code for "fasten your seat belts for a fresh take on a traditional dish." And, indeed, it was just that. A generous portion of aggressively spiced saffron rice (teeny little peppers and scallions did the trick) is topped with tender chunks of chicken, chorizo (a mexican-style pork sausage), shrimp and mussels--a Valencian-inspired "mixed grill" of sorts. Several of my loyal Foodettes love the Pan Roasted Free Range Chicken [pictured]. The crispy-skinned breast/wing combo is comfortably ensconced on a bed of greens and wild mushrooms drizzled with a barely sweet wine/sugar reduction (often referred to as a gastrique). The happy bird is accompanied by a little casserole of sweet corn/gnocchi gratin. Chicken lovers, order this dish.
The Crisp Local Softshell Crabs are not the traditional breaded and deep-fried variety (though there's nothing wrong with that!). These lucky crustaceans are quickly sauteed, surrounded by a puree of sweet corn, then perched atop crispy sugarsnaps and chorizo. It's all framed by a few well-placed schmears of bright green mint pesto. Also included was a savory Spanish Potato Confit (also available as a side) consisting of tiny cubes of darkly roasted potato and crispy bits of what tasted like Jamon Serrano (cured Spanish ham). The Braised Angus Beef Shortribs were moist and "fallin' of the bone" (actually they were boneless, but if there had been a bone, they would've been fallin' off it). They are accompanied by that wonderful Parmesan Polenta Cake (I could eat that on a stick, like a Popsicle), creamed spinach with roughly chopped (rather than pureed) leaves, and a red-wine syrup laced with horseradish. Also try the Epic Potato Puree (creamy, truffled mashed potatoes). Sadly, the Sweet Fennel Ravioli were just too small to get any taste of the fennel. Jay...kick up the tariff by a buck or so and make them bigger so we can taste your filling!
The stars of the dessert show were the French Toast Creme Brulee (with crispy cinnamon brioche toast points--need I say more?) and the Banana Napoleon with ice cream [pictured]. When everything is so good, the lesser offerings unfortunately tend to stand out. Such was the case with the Marinated Local Strawberries in Chocolate Pudding with Roasted Hazelnuts. The strawberries were delicious with the chocolate (how can you go wrong with chocolate and hazelnuts?), but the "pudding" had the consistency of Hershey's syrup. Those who ordered it were underwhelmed--especially after the culinary tour de force we had just witnessed.
UPDATE! The Foodie and friends spent a bacchanalian evening at Espuma's bar several nights ago. I convinced everybody to get the Soft Shells and the Opus Bacon and Egg (both described above). With my credibility firmly in place, we continued with the tapas: I got the tiny Grilled Goat Cheese Sandwich with fried prosciutto, the Cucumber/Fennel Salad (thin-as-air slices of preserved lemon played well with the hint of anise in the fennel) and the Summer Cucumber and Avocado Soup (andouille sausage and grilled shrimp made for a cool and refreshing mouth feel on a 90 degree night). Accompanying Foodettes got the "Love Letters" (wild mushroom-filled ravioli coated with parmesan), the spicy Chorizo/Manchego dish with Balsamic, and finally the Pineapple/Crab Ravioli (from the main menu--citrusy and bright with cucumbers, grapefruit and scallions). A good time was had by all.
Since 1999, Espuma has been "a culinary oasis" in Rehoboth Beach on the east side of First St., just a few doors south of Wilmington Avenue. (Also check out Espuma's sister restaurant, Cabo, at the corner of Wilmington and Second St.) Espuma is open year 'round (call 302-227-4199 just in case) and reservations are a must. Espuma's online menu is apparently down and nonfunctional. (D., Bar) Price range: Expensive.