A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Apr. 16.

The Modern - Exterior and Interior


Terrine and Tartare

Lobster and Cod

Cheese Cart and one of the Cheese Plates

Napoleon and Petit Fours


The Modern - 9 W. 53rd St., Midtown West
Amuse of Trout Caviar, Marinated Mackerel with Sweet Pea Puree, and Quiche (Complimentary); Chef's Tasting Menu (Amuse of Marinated Mackerel with Spicy Yogurt, Mushroom with Frisee Salad, Melon Gazpacho; Foie Gras Terrine Marbled with Roasted Artichokes and Green Peppercorns; Tartare of Yellow Fin Tuna and Diver Scallops seasoned with Yellowstone River Caviar; Roasted Maine Lobster in a "Folly of Herbs" with Asparagus and Salsify; Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod with White Cocoan Bean Puree and Harissa Oil; Buffalo Tenderloin poached in Spiced Cabernet with White and Green Asparagus and Shallot-Pepper Jus; Tangerine and Pomegranate Granite with Lemon Sorbet; Lemon Napoleon, Exotique "Brunoise" and "Fromage Blanc" Sorbet; Petit Fours); half of an eight cheese tasting; a P.G. Martini (Grey Goose Vodka, Campari, Pomegranate Juice); a Mango Passion Mojito (Mango, Mint, Passion Fruit Syrup and Bacardi Limon on ice)

Since my dinner at the Modern, it’s already become the stuff of legends. Since Saturday, the dishes have already been enshrined in the canon of greats. So many things from the Chef’s Tasting Menu were not only wonderful but exemplary, not only thought-provoking but mindblowing. As the night went on, it became clearer and clearer that this would be a night not just to remember but to treasure.

It started out stressfully enough as Vince and I speed-walked down 54th Street in our suits, both of us assuming we knew exactly where to find the Museum of Modern Art. Running fifteen minutes late, we’d been delayed by our pursuit (and consumption) of homemade martinis. But once the building appeared on 53rd, between 5th and 6th, and I took in the sleek, simple black exterior of the restaurant, I calmed down immediately. We were about to enter another world, where refinement and elegance reigned.

The layout of the Modern borrows from Danny Meyer’s flagship eatery Gramercy Tavern, which also divides its space into more casual and more formal settings. Here, the Bar Room seemed chic and upbeat, vivacious and hip, with a menu that could easily outshine many restaurants all on its own. Items included charred octopus with warm potato salad, potato and marrow cassolette with smoked beef tongue, and wild mushroom soup with toasted chorizo ravioli. Ever before stepping into the Main Dining Room, I was already plotting to pay a visit to the Bar Room another time.

The more austere Dining Room was quite a change of pace, more Kubrick-era 2001 than Meatpacking District, which I don’t think will appeal to everyone. But the space really grew on me though as the night progressed, its minimalist sophistication and vast openness fitting wonderfully with the architecture and aesthetic of the museum. With a view of the sculpture garden (which is probably much nicer when it’s not dark outside), this was a setting more artistic than romantic. Since I was with Vince rather than say Scarlett Johansson, this was all the better.

A waiter brought out an amuse to welcome us to The Modern. There were two portions of trout caviar and crème fraiche on a puff pastry, marinated mackerel in a sweet pea puree on a crispy corn shell, and a quiche. Each one was delightful, a bite-sized preview into the grandeur that was to follow. The caviar was light and flavorful, the mackerel and puree were bolder and more novel, and the quiche was a delicious nod to chef Gabriel Kreuther’s Alsatian background even as he worked in a New American milieu.

We also ordered cocktails at this point, from a list of intriguing choices. I went for the P.G. Martini (after learning they were out of the Coming Up Roses), which contained Grey Goose vodka, Campari and pomegranate juice. It wasn’t to my taste, because it emphasized the bitter Campari over the sweetness of the fruit. Yet it didn’t feel like a misstep for the restaurant, but rather a missed call for me. I know many people who would have loved the bitterness.

We then received another amuse, which was even more welcome, to precede our six-course Chef’s Tasting Menu. On a spoon, there was another cut of marinated mackerel on a dollop of a spicy yogurt. The introduction of the silverware was a great idea to break from the formula, and the juxtaposed textures and flavors of fish and creamy yogurt made for a thoughtful combination. The adjacent element, a marinated mushroom on frisee leaves, was a successfully clever allusion to the traditional first course of salad. Finally, a tumbler of melon gazpacho was a shot of mild juice spiced up by a light touch of seasonings. It was marvelously unique.

I wanted the amuses to keep coming, especially if they all promised to be this amusing. But they’d performed their job admirably, stoking my appetite for the pleasures to come. First up was a foie gras terrine with roasted artichokes and green peppercorns, also accompanied by a brioche and a wheat toast. The foie gras itself was predictably delicious, but the preparation of it with the nuts and the rich, spiced tomato paste coursing through it elevated it to excellent. Its flavor also went very well with the palate-cleansing vegetables, which were an unexpected and refreshing companion. Even better though was spreading the liver on the brioche, a combo fit for the Earl of Sandwich.

Next came the yellow fin tuna and scallop tartare, which was just as beautifully arranged as the terrine. Without even tasting the dish, I was already impressed how the minimalism of the food and the mission of the museum meshed so well with the presentation. Digging in, I found the tartare to be light and fresh, making for another terrific appetizer. I also enjoyed that it was a bold departure from the terrine.

After these appetizers came a hat trick of entrees so dead-on incredible that it left no room for doubt. The lobster, the cod and the buffalo were all so masterfully executed, so well-paired and flat out delectable that each could warrant their own posting. My favorite was the Lobster in a Folly of Herbs, the seafood so tender and meaty that it immediately trumped almost every other lobster dish I’ve had. But the Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod, for its terrific pairing of fish and sausage, and the Buffalo Tenderloin, for its zesty sauce, would’ve easily been taken the top spot at any other restaurant.

Finishing my cocktail, I returned to the list and selected the Mango Passion Mojito. Confidently, I threw back a long gulp and was knocked out. The mojito was the best I’ve had, the mint potent and fresh but still complementing and showcasing the other flavors.

Being gourmet cheese aficionados, Vince and I opted to add on cheese courses at this point. The waiter brought out the extensive and varied cheese cart, providing background for every piece on display. Some had traveled from upstate, others from across the globe. Some were made from sheep’s milk, others from goat’s or cow’s, yet others from permutations of the three. Some were soft or creamy; other firm and heavy. Using the waiter’s descriptions and expertise, Vince and I put together two plates that sampled a little of every category. Along with the kumquats, apricots, figs and cranberry walnut bread, it was a cheese lover’s dream.

The dessert amuse was next, another unexpected addition to our six courses. It was a tangerine and pomegranate granite topped with lemon sorbet. The contrast of the half-frozen fruit base and the solid sorbet was another good move, and the granite drew back memories of my first experiences with this cool dessert in Madrid. But of everything I tasted at the Modern, the amuse is also the one that could use some tweaking. Simply put, the granite was too sweet.

The critique of sweetness will seem strange in relation to my experience with the dessert. Impressed that the tasting menu allowed us a choice from a formidable list, I decided to go with the Lemon Napoleon. It turned out to be quite inventive, the reimagined hard crepes a far cry from the flaky puff pastries that my aunt uses. The fromage blanc sorbet and the dipping sauce of exotic fruits were also stylish touches. Still, I found the lemon filling that was so central to the dish too citric and acidic, lacking the sweetness to pull all of the elements together. Again though, as with the Martini, I couldn’t help but feel that this was more of a matter of preference than execution. Trying a bite of Vince’s expert chocolate soufflé helped to confirm this theory.

After dessert, I felt quite full but also ecstatic, basking in the heights our meal had scaled. But just when I thought we were done, a waiter brought out our selection of petit fours. Yet again, The Modern team had outdone itself. They could have made Willy Wonka jealous with all of the treats they laid before us. Alongside some remarkable chocolate, there were also chocolate raspberry brownies, cookies and even candied cilantro and passion fruit. I had to take a bite out of everything, but felt very bad that I didn’t have more room and energy to savor every morsel the way it deserved to be.

Finally, no review of The Modern would be complete with commending the service. The Danny Meyer brand carries a very high expectation of professional service, and our night was a prime example of an excellent staff. They attended to our every need, answered questions with impressive knowledge, and were always near to ensure that everything was going well. (One small issue: Whenever Vince or I got up to use the bathroom, whichever waiter was nearest would take away our napkin rather than folding it or replacing it. I’ve never seen that before and it puzzled us both. Anyone out there know the logic behind it?)

As Vince finished his decaf, he checked his watch. We had gotten to the restaurant at 8:45 and now it was past 1 a.m. It was amazing how quickly the night had seemed to fly by. As we set back out onto a hushed city, we were still trying to make sense of what to praise first, because calling anything a favorite felt like a slight to every other dish. Still, alternatively marveling at the chorizo or the brioche or the buffalo, we couldn’t help pronouncing it the best meal ever. As the legend continues to grow, I remained convinced that we weren’t far off. 10/10


Anonymous Roma said...

I don't know how but my comment on The Modern went under Wednesday's sushi report.

1:25 PM  

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