Fare Minded

Go With The Flow At Nage

Nage's inventive lemon-salt-seared scallops with mustard seed toffee in Rehoboth Beach.
Nage's inventive lemon-salt-seared scallops with mustard seed toffee in Rehoboth Beach. (By Art Baltrotsky For The Washington Post)
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 1, 2005

MENU METAPHORS are a mixed bag. So many innovative chefs and their trend-conscious imitators have begun specializing in faux pastas and deconstructed salads and chemically suspended eggs that the phrase "mustard seed toffee" is apt to send the food lover's heart into palpitations.

But calm yourself. Kevin Reading's lemon-salt-seared scallops with arugula pesto and the aforementioned topping is, if not wham-bam breathtaking, definitely sigh-inspiring. The "toffee" is a honey-thick syrup that binds tiny black mustard seeds so closely it almost resembles an exotic fruit pulp, and it rubs elbows with the scallops' prettily browned and just-sour surface with panache and easy good humor. Some nights the toffee icing is spooned on a little too generously, and if anything, the mustard needs to make a stronger statement to echo the scallops' mustiness; but it's a dish that demands an encore. (The arugula pesto could also use more bite, coming out in lovely color and cream but scant flavor.)

In the year since he sold Espuma in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and opened Nage out on the highway, Reading has simultaneously pared down his style -- he seemed to be trying to cook all things for all people -- and found it. Clams casino flatbread is a great take on bruschetta, and the briny shellfish are shored up by the wilted frisee-bacon salad. The "yellow tomato whip," a cold, creamy puree with the texture of creme fraiche, is not so much a deconstructed summer salad as a reconstructed one, with balsamic vinegar and fresh basil (though being cold, it probably could use a pinch more sea salt or white pepper).

Pan-roasted grouper in "warm lobster gazpacho" is simpler and sharper than it sounds -- it recalls the Adria-school concept of "tomato water" -- and the meaty fish sits happily between two of those lemon-salt scallops (minus the toffee). The truffle potato cake with the rib-eye was nicely 'shroomy but completely free of the hint of rankness that betrays the use of cheap truffle oil. (The kitchen's attention to this nicety probably explains why the white truffle-flavored frites are a local addiction.)

Frog legs, one of the appetizers that have been showing up on the nightly special chalkboard, are not only the largest, meatiest ones ever -- the heck with "just like chicken," these were nearly turkey-length -- but Reading's beautifully timed meuniere preparation is a reminder of just how satisfying that simple but often mangled treatment can be. In a time when kitchens routinely all but deep-batter their trout and drown it in oil, Reading's airy flouring and butter sauteing is a vindication.

The eponymous seafood nage, one of several dishes considered signatures, is a seafood lover's idea of comfort food. It's something between a zarzuela and a bouillabaisse, a tomato-based soup rich with simmered fennel, mirepoix, lobster shell stock and a hint of saffron. (Anyone who leaves that soaked bread behind is crazy.) There are some shrimp and scallops, a half-lobster tail, clams, even unadvertised black mussels. The only drawback is the presentation; the nage comes in a glass dish the size of a punch bowl, which is a little clumsy and, during the attempts to extricate the lobster tail from its shell, downright nervy.

Nage is small and frequently crowded and consequently loud, but it's extremely attractive, with simple herbal colors, plain but striking oversize frame-like wood detailing on the walls, a clean-lined bar and exposed kitchen. (The tight entry and table closeness may make wheelchair passage a little tricky.) There's a $28 prix fixe meal weeknights and a chalkboard of specials. The menu is smartly limited to about a half-dozen each small and large dishes, but the chalkboard may nearly double that, especially on weekends. The staff is cheerful and well informed, and the new general manager, Josh Grapski, has an advanced sense of hospitality: Barely 10 minutes into the wait past its reservation, a party of four had already been offered a round of cocktails on the house.

There are still slips, however, some conceptual and some merely thoughtless. A mixed-greens salad with hearts of palm, currants, pineapple, blue cheese and passion fruit vinaigrette is a bit of a backslide into the old busy style and more cute than truly complementary. Similarly, though the pomegranate glaze on the double-cut pork chop is a nice and still fresh choice, and the sweet potato straws a clever twist, the watermelon coulis seems to compete rather than pair with the pomegranate (and on one occasion the meat was cooked way past medium, much less medium-rare). The rock shrimp risotto that served as the bed for roasted rockfish was excessively salty and overwhelmed an otherwise fine piece of fish. The same heavy hand with salt soured the horseradish crusting on the (again) perfectly timed salmon -- especially disappointing as the beet carpaccio and fennel-orange-red-onion salad that sided the salmon were really nice. While the black truffle potato cake was good, the foie gras butter that topped the steak could barely be identified. A side dish of broccoli rabe was cooked to the soggy point, though the haricots vert have routinely been fine.

Nage serves one of the "foodiest" lunches in Rehoboth, with steak salad, crab cake with asparagus salad, the flatbread and a half-dozen fancy sandwiches. (Hold me a lobster-knuckle-salad sandwich next time.) Sunday brunch replicates some of the lunch menu but adds most of the dinner appetizers, including the scallops and toffee; lamb steak and eggs; duck confit crepe; and the entirely over-the-top chocolate ganache-stuffed brioche French toast with sauteed bananas and Grand Marnier syrup. I'll stick with the toffee.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company