Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Restaurant 5: The Modern (Infinite Feast XVI)

LOCATION: 9 W. 53rd St. (part of the Museum of Modern Art)
DATE: April 16, 2005
FOOD: Amuse trio: Trout Caviar Puff Pastry, Mackerel in a Sweet Pea Puree, Quiche (complimentary); Second Amuse Trio: Mushroom in Frisee Salad, Marinated Mackerel in Spicy Yogurt and Melon Gazpacho
Chef’s Tasting Menu:
Foie Gras Terrine; Tartare of Yellow Fin Tuna and Diver Scallop; Roasted Maine Lobster in a “Folly of Herbs”; Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod; Buffalo Tenderloin Poached in Spiced Cabernet; Chocolate Souffle, Vanilla and Pistachio Ice Cream;
Cheese tasting with Figs, Kumquats, and Cranberry Walnut Bread; Petit Fours (complimentary).
BEVERAGE: Broadway Boogie Woogie; Wine Pairings; Decaf Coffee
PRICE: $270.00

In the days since my dinner at The Modern, I’ve found it difficult to write about what was the single greatest meal I’ve ever had. Bashing a restaurant with icy vindictiveness is much easier than trying to compose the right description of a culinary experience unlike none other. Though Danny Meyer’s legend in New York is nearing the level of Derek Jeter sanctity, I still never expected the pyrotechnic display which I received at The Modern. This was a meal for the ages.

Let me first comment on the architecture. Sleek metal panels line the walls and pair well with the aesthetic skeletons of the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden, visible through a huge glass barrier. The room has the feel of Kubrick’s 2001, highly contemporary but acknowledging modernist influences, a design to make sci-fi fanatics and NASA scientists squeal with delight. But this night was less focused on Frank Lloyd Wright than on Julie Childs. So, let the (you knew it was coming) food odyssey commence.

First, the bread. Bread is usually an afterthought at restaurants, a cheap way to fill up patrons so that they don’t complain about skimpy portion sizes. Not so, at the Modern. The bread in and of itself was something to admire and behold. Not only were French rolls and olive bread offered throughout the meal, but in addition, two of the courses during our meal had their own bread pairing, a restaurant first in my dining experience. By far the most delicious was the toasted brioche which accompanied the foie gras terrine. Crisp and warm, the slice caused the foie gras to melt in a buttery smoothness. This “sandwich” like taste was mind blowing, hints of tomato bolstering the boldness of the foie gras. This first course alone was so satisfying, I would have left happy right then and there. Fortunately though, there was more to come. The two course amuse had prepared us for greatness (especially with the red pepper flakes swimming in the melon gazpacho), but the foie gras, in the words of the irritating Emeril, took things up a notch.

Following the foie gras was a tartare of yellow fine tuna and diver scallop. The presentation of this course was stunning and is perhaps the culinary version of a Murikami novel, enveloping many cultures, but still remaining at core, Japanese. The raw scallop and tuna formed a checkerboard of maroon and cream coloring. Cucumber slivers completed this weightless dish, the closest fish can come to the palate cleansing of a sorbet. Perhaps I even detected a bit of Zen in the seasoning of this dish.

Relegated to the status of pie filling, granny smith apples seldom make an appearance on menus, especially those of gourmet restaurants. But great chefs and food not only use off the wall ingredients, but also re-imagine ways to use the common for the production of the transcendent. Such was the case of the melon ball shaped granny smiths donning the bowl containing the lobster in a “folly of herbs”. Danny placed this dish as the best of the night and if not for the cod, I would have agreed. Fragrant sprigs of fresh herbs topped a generous portion of lobster, asparagus and the aforementioned apples. The integration of these ingredients was as seamless as one of Rick Moody’s bruised sentences. The lobster was perfectly prepared, reminiscent of Pearl Oyster’s lobster roll. Never a lobster devotee, this dish may cause me to convert.

Our fourth course of the evening was my favorite. The chorizo-crusted Chatham Cod ranks only behind Babbo’s Black Spaghetti as the best dishes I’ve had in New York. This dish made me completely rethink the aversion to white fish I developed as a child. The fish stayed whole and didn’t splinter when forked, moist and meaty in its texture. Razor thin chorizo topped the cod. The inventive idea of encrusting one meat with another, especially meats of such dramatically different families, deserves commendation. The sausage’s saltiness fit superbly with the white bean ragout and altogether, I really can’t overstate the balanced perfection of this dish. In my mind, cod has reached its apex.

Then came the buffalo tenderloin. There is a reason no pictures of this dish are posted on the site. Danny and I were both so anxious to dive in and taste the buffalo that we forgot to photograph the tenderloin. Sadly, when we realized our mistake, there was nothing left to capture. The flesh was succulent, expertly cooked to a tender reddish-pink, and accented by the cabernet sauce and both green and white asparagus.

And of course, cheese and chocolate. We each ordered a supplemental cheese course and were fortunate enough to be able to select four cheeses a piece. The brie was extraordinary. So too the goat cheese. Again the bread came into play, as we were served a cranberry walnut bread, whose fruit gracefully added to the cheese. Figs and a more untraditional kumquat enhanced the cheeses as well. I ended with chocolate, in the form of The Modern’s volcano of a soufflĂ©. The trio of ice creams blended with a liquid chocolate gushing from the souffle’s interior to form a heaven of a dessert. Molten chocolate has become as ubiquitous as Lindsey Lohan and yet The Modern’s tasted entirely new.

Meyer’s restaurants are well known for the incredible service and personal attention that every customer receives upon walking in the door. The Modern continues this tradition. Not only was the wait staff incredibly amiable, offering menu suggestions and allowing our meal to progress at an unhurried pace (our reservation was for 8:30, we left the restaurant at 1:15), they went above and beyond in their consideration. Water glasses were filled unnoticeably. Fresh bread, still warm, was constantly brought to the table. Napkins folded and replaced as if by magic. No detail was too minor to merit The Modern staff’s caretaking gaze. My only complaint of the entire meal was that by the time the petit fours were served, I was too hungry to enjoy the samplings of raspberry laced brownie, cookies and French chocolates. This was a shame. Maybe next time I’ll ask for a doggie bag.

The biggest difference between this and the other outstanding New York meals I’ve had (like at Danube) was that at the The Modern, every dish was unforgettable and could stand completely on its own. There was no mediocrity, no good but not greats. Each course had a unique flavor all its own, food at once both delicious and transporting. What is even more astounding, is that looking over the menu before I ordered, there were hordes of other dishes I wanted to order. I guess this is yet another sign of what I already knew – I have to find a way to go back.

RATING: 10+/10

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