Monday, June 20, 2005

Restaurant 40: Modesto (St. Louis, MO)

Clockwise from top left: Pollo a la Graciela; Croquetas de Pollo y Jamon; Churros; Canelones de Frutas.

RESTAURANT: Modesto (St. Louis, MO)
LOCATION: 5257 Shaw Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri
DATE: June 16, 2005
FOOD: Tapas - Pure de Garbanzos – chickpea puree with Spanish olive oil, garlic, lemon and croutons; Pimientos Rellenos – piquillo peppers stuffed with herbed goat cheese and avocado aioli; Croquetas de Pollo y Jamon– chicken and Serrano ham croquettes with garlic mayonesa; Pollo a la Graciela – roasted chicken thighs, Cabrales cheese, dates and amontillado-garlic sauce; Patatas Dos Salsas – fried potatoes in a piquant tomato and pepper sauce with aioli; Empanadillas de Pollo – savory pastries filled with curried chicken, spinach and pine nuts; Queso de Cabra y ChampiƱones al Horno – baked goat cheese and mushrooms with spicy tomato sauce and croutons; Dessert - Churros – Spanish fried doughnuts with cinnamon hot chocolate sauce; Canelones de Frutas – crepes filled with strawberry, blueberry, goat cheese and honey.
BEVERAGE: Caipirinha—Pitu, passion fruit vodka, fresh lime juice, and raw sugar; Modesto Margarita—Cuervo Gold, Licor 43, sweet and sour, and lime; Decaf coffee with Spanish Brandy.
PRICE: $46.00

We all love to share – well, sometimes that is. Maybe Tapas functions most smoothly when it resembles communism, namely that it’s much easier to share when everything is alright, but not so great as to induce people to hoard or engage in acts of rampant selfish behavior, and ultimately ruin an otherwise good thing. If instead of state controlled vokda, the USSR had been pushing Grey Goose and Belevedere, the Berlin Wall might have fallen long before 1989. Likewise, if Tapas contains dishes which are too succulent, the friendly atmosphere of peaceful distribution turns ugly, and greedy hands that once reached for lamb skewers, quickly ball into covetous fists. Of course, since Tia Pol was one of the top ten best meals I’ve had in New York, my theory of Tapas adequacy is most likely bunk. Just like communism, better in theory than in practice, as in all honesty, who would want to settle for okay when they could have ohmygod?

Since I last had Tapas at Tia Pol, it would have been hard for Modesto to compete, let alone improve upon the near perfect creations of that kitchen. And while Modesto certainly failed in some respects, there were enough successes to warrant praise. Most distinct were the tremendous and imaginative mixed drinks. There was universal assent at the table that the Brazilian inspired Caipirinha was the best drink we tried. As sweet as a Mojito, but as light as fresh fruit juice, this was a cocktail only in theory, as the taste of alcohol was completely masked by sugar and lime. While sorority girls won’t be drinking this with the same frequency they guzzle Mike’s Hard Lemonade, this drink was about as manly as one of Suleiman The Great’s harem eunuchs. This drink won’t make an appearance at any bachelor parties in the near future, but for one night, in the presence of two females more concerned with public school poverty than liquor signifiers, I was happy to taste Brazil via St. Louis. The Modesto margarita I tried later was bold, if not as effervescent as the Caipirinha, the Licor 43 (an authentic Spanish liquor) adding a no holds bar punch that even out did the tequila. But the drinks only whet my palate – after a long flight and no lunch, I was ready to eat.

Modesto’s menu divides cold and hot tapas and also includes a section of entrees. In the spirit of all that togetherness and sharing that enabled Cathy and Libby to make it through a year of Teach for America, we decided to go all tapas, all evening, foregoing the more expensive entrees (plus, we all know how little teachers are paid, and if you don’t just ask one, they’re more than willing to complain, I mean enlighten, on the subject). We selected two from the cold section and five from the warm, and our waitress served the dishes as they came out from the kitchen, providing a staggering of flavors throughout the courses. This meant we started with the chickpea puree, a Spanish-style hummus with enough garlic to push Portugal off of Iberia and into the Atlantic. The dip relied too heavily on the garlic and the taste of the beans was mired by this pungeant sting. Much more successful were the peppers stuffed with goat cheese, the peppers at once tender and firm, marinated by an herbed olive oil and further charged by the creamy blend of cheese and avocado. The sweet green peppers were the best sample of the meal and left me craving another (or perhaps many more) bite(s).

The dinner was split into acts, and like the momentum escalation of a Lorca drama, after the cold tapas, I was ready for a sparks to fly during the second act or hot tapas. However, for the most part, the hot tapas disappointed, as they were plagued by inconsistency. While the roasted chicken thighs were delicious, blending a subdued garlic gravy with the sweetness of dates and tang of Cabrales (like blue cheese) cheese, the ham and chicken croquettes were bland, dry and mealy, tasting more like uncooked pancakes than poultry and pork. Especially after the mind-blowing ham and cheese Tia Pol croquettes, Modesto’s lackluster version was severely frustrating. The empandillas bored, the vibrant flavors of spinach, curry and pine nuts completely indistinguishable and as muddled as the lime in my margarita. And one final contrast of sine curve peaks and valleys occurred with the final two hot tapas. The Italian-like tomato, mushroom, and goat cheese dip which spread as beautifully as Raphael canvas over Modesto’s crusty baguette, was nullified by the mushy, tomato-sogged potatoes, which tasted like French fries in ketchup that had been sitting out through an afternoon of siestas. Every time Modesto showed signs of triumph, the achievement was followed by an appetizer of equally botched proportions.

But as is so often the case, dessert presents a chance for a restaurant to redeem itself and Modesto took full advantage of the opportunity. For some inexplicable abnormality of the culinary heavens, my elementary school, typically inclined to serve a vegetable soup with nothing that grew in the earth and an inedible piece of cardboard called pizza but more like re-hydrated paper, also offered (and excelled at) the sweet cinnamon sugar stick doughnuts known as churros. Modesto’s wonderful and traditional pairing of these chewy twists with luscious melted chocolate, was a return to childhood that basked in the pleasant and avoided all the reasons for my subsequent neurosis. Such a harkening back is hard to find. But even better were the featherlike goat cheese crepes, sweetened with honey and berries, but altogether mild enough to act as a main course. The paper-thin crepes served as a dessert tortilla for the goat cheese mix that mimicked a sugar-restrained cannoli filling in richness. The whole blueberries and pureed strawberries made this an ideal end for a warm Summer evening.

Overall then, the unpredictability of Modesto’s food was a probably an appropriate way for Cathy and Libby to end a first year of teaching that had seen its share of successes and setbacks as well. Even though they both labeled as “modest” gains, the strides of high school students who at the beginning of the year couldn’t read a word and can now understand entire pages, modest is much more applicable to Modesto’s Tapas. For every yes there was a no – if Modesto could reach the same heights in all its food as it does for dessert and drinks, it would truly be something special. But in the meantime, honoring a year of tenacious education obstacles and obnoxious teenagers with some Spanish style intoxication was at least a more than deserved reward and we all left satisfied. Now if they could only get Tia Pol’s recipe for potatoes, my happiness would turn into euphoria.

RATING: 6.5/10

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