I love art – even above restaurants (and only second to hockey games) it is the reason I travel – with that in mind, New York is always a popular destination for myself simply for the raw number of museums, galleries, and outdoor exhibitions. Experiencing myriad works over the course of my trip I really could think of no better way to end my fine dining trip than with a visit that mixed two of my favorite things – food and art. Mix in the fact that Gabriel Kreuther had recently won the Beard Award for best Chef in NYC and the fact that The Modern is operated by Danny Meyer – seemed like a can’t miss. A little history but without getting into too much detail - after the untimely death of my father last year my remaining family took a trip to NYC and dined at both EMP and Gramercy Tavern. While EMP was great, GT was truly spectacular and a great memory for our family - filling out the comment card to this effect (I make it a point to fill out all comment cards when offered) I simply left it with the paid bill. On return to home there was an e-mail waiting from the desk of Mr. Meyer himself telling me he was touched by the comments, thanking us for the visit, and stating he was glad his restaurant could be such a great memory – world class and still respected and appreciated to this day.
All the above noted, I went into The Modern with great expectations for a wonderful meal – having typically called ahead to schedule reservations I arrived on time after walking up from Ground Zero and was greeted by the friendly staff who took my bags (yes, quite a hike with a briefcase and 3 days traveling supplies) before being led to my seat in the main dining room. Impressed by the beautiful décor which lightly treaded the line between “Modern” and “Classy” I was led through the jam packed bar to the full dining room and given a seat as requested, with full view of the room as well as the sculpture garden. With sunlight pouring through the windows and a light “hum” to the room from the combination of a full dining room and full bar room the setting was classy without being “formal” and the noise was “energetic” without being loud. Interestingly as I sat and browse the room I noted a lady to my left actively jotting in a large notebook, dissecting small aspects of the plates served to her, and asking very specific questions about the food – clearly a critic, though I’m uncertain as to what acclaim.
Moments after seating I was greeted by my captain and subsequently by multiple other members of the staff – from beginning to end, in traditional Meyer fashion, the service was cordial and polished, concerned and interactive, and I never had to want for anything from water to bread to descriptions of the dishes. Declining wine and browsing the menu I strongly considered the Prix Fixe of the day, but wanted to ask a question first – nearly sensing my question as I lifted my head my waiter appeared and inquiring whether items from the bar menu could be ordered in the dining room he stated “not normally, but we can bend the rules on occasion.” Asking if I could get one bar-menu item and two appetizers plus dessert I was told certainly and asking further questions about the tuna versus the risotto I remorsefully rejected my waiter’s advice to go with the “signature” tartare because the risotto simply sounded too good to pass up.
Waiting merely moments the bread man next appeared sporting a cool cube of butter on a glass pedestal and two bowls – fleur de sel and fresh cracked pepper, as well as two breads – an Olive Whole Wheat that was every bit as impressive as that at Gramercy Tavern (but not quite as wonderful as Le Bernardin) and a French Roll that sported plenty of butter taste without adding butter – but much more when adding some. With regard to the butter – a wonderfully grassy blend that my server told me was from Jersey cows.
Following the bread man shortly was “a gift from the kitchen” which I’d seen presented to multiple tables and was certainly intrigued by. Described as Cucumber Panna Cotta with Trout Roe and Salmon Crème, I can say for certain that this may be the most attractive amuse I’ve ever received and the flavors lived up to the appearance. Comparable to the cauliflower panna cotta at Al’ Angelo, the taste of fresh cucumber came through with great freshness in conjunction with the light custard while the trout eggs provided a salty ‘pop.” Lining the bottom of the champagne glass was a salmon cream that actually reminded me quite favorably of the flavor of Chef Ripert’s salmon spread at Le Bernardin.
Following my amuse my captain next returned with a big smile on his face and presented me with the signature Tartare of Yellowfin Tuna and Diver Scallops Seasoned with Yellowstone River Caviar stating “I asked the chef to prepare this specially on the house – you simply can’t miss this dish.” Thanking him profusely as this was #4 on my list of things to try even before entering, I was first struck by the portion size and the beauty of the dish – like the crab at J-G it simply glistened and the combination of colors was a sight to behold. Taking my first bite I could instantly see why this was a signature and was even more grateful. Sashimi quality tuna with a minimally firm texture contrasted beautifully with the nearly-raw scallops and their buttery-smoothness and both nearly melted in the mouth. Enhanced further with the salty pop of the diffusely spread caviar and basil the overall mouth sensation was briny yet refined, smooth yet textural, and absolutely wonderful.
Having already been in the restaurant for nearly 45 minutes and eating 3 pieces of bread, a sizable amuse, and one dish with three yet to come I was next presented with my special request from the bar - Slow Poached Farm Egg “In a Jar” with Maine lobster, hearts of palm and sea urchin broth. Admittedly a seeker of wonderful egg dishes I fully expected to be entranced by this dish and I was not disappointed – it was amongst the best I’ve ever experienced. Served hot in a locking jar, the lid was released tableside and immediately the aroma of the sea filled my nostrils. Foaming yolk and a aromatic broth with the very air of sea urchin and mild texture from finely pureed uni tongues was only the background to a soft yet well-poached egg, a hefty helping of fresh (and incredibly sweet) lobster, and snappy hearts of palm with a somewhat ‘peach-like’ flavor. On a trip that contained myriad great tastes, I do believe this may be the savory I will remember most fondly (along with Alto’s Foie and Ssam’s Chicken.)
My following dish, naturally, was the foie offering of the day - Spiced Foie Gras Terrine with Quince Gelée and Fresh Walnuts. A fan of terrine over seared I was quite excited when I saw this on the menu and along with the egg it was a clear must order. Delivered along with a toasted cinnamon wheat bread and the tender and chilled foie was actually wrapped in salty duck prosciutto and accompanied with three small walnuts, quince gelee, and thinly sliced daikon that I do believe was pickled. Overall the texture was quite nice – much firmer and less spreadable than the version at Alto or TFL but more akin to that at Aqua, the texture worked well with the toasted bread. While I’m never one to complain about a large piece of Foie and the dish was largely excellent, I must admit that the accoutrements were somewhat too small for the liver – there wasn’t enough to go around and experiment with different tastes, textures, and combinations. Salty, sweet, savory, and substantial - certainly a great presentation, a second serving of the toasted bread was requested and delivered (along with a few more walnuts) to finish the dish off.
My final dish, the one I selected over the tuna/scallop tartare was entitled Rock Shrimp Risotto with Wild Ramps, Fine Herbs and Hijiki. Once again treading the line between sublime French and Eastern influences, yet this time with the focus surrounding a perfectly prepared and toothsome Risotto, this dish may have been the most complex of the day and yet equally refined. Tender and succulent rock shrimp aplenty, sweet yet pungent ramps, hints of thyme and saffron, and a totally new taste to myself – the wonderfully aromatic and briny Hijiki seaweed primed the broth which was then topped with a generous helping of savory and milky goats cheese. A mélange of textures, tastes, spices, and temperatures – after four dishes I was full but still wished I’d have gone with the tasting as everything was just so superb.
Full but certainly not skipping dessert after such an awe-inspiring meal I decided to linger for a bit, take in the room, and drink a cup of coffee before ordering. Served as an individual French press (and refilled for free before I left – something I did not expect) I honestly forgot to write down the blend though I will note it was incredibly complex with strong floral accents and an almost honey-like flavor that lingered after each sip. Served with the coffee was artificial sweetener, three types of sugar, and a boiling hot frothed milk – a very sleek and sexy presentation warranted by the high quality beans.
Given the quality of the meal and the strong tastes and textures I decided to go with something fruit based instead of chocolate – having already seen the mignardises I knew I’d be treated to chocolates anyhow. Asking the captain if pastry chef Aumont had a signature I was met with a strong recommendation including “best in the world” and went with it. Ten minutes later I was met with Baba Grand Marnier, Roasted Mango, Vanilla Ice Cream and Lime Sabayon. Having had a Baba Au Rum only twice in the past I really can’t say if this is the best in the world – but it is certainly the best version I’ve tasted (better than Ducasse’s classic Monte Carlo version.) Buttery and almost cotton-candy light, the cake itself was almost impossibly smooth – I can hardly believe it didn’t dissolve in the broth. Adding texture to the dish were three slices of Grand Marnier Roasted Mangos, flawless and as if kissed by honey and alcohol. Completing the dish, a creamy and warm lime sabayon that had the texture of the head of a beer and a smooth and succulent vanilla ice-cream that slowly melted into the Sabayon. Once again flirting with different tastes, textures, and temperatures – a wonderful way to finish a wonderful meal.
Completing the meal, more treats, this time from Aumont who I later learned had helped to establish Bouley bakery – first in the form of mignardises and then chocolates in a porcelain box. Starting with the mignardises - Spice Gelee, Raspberry Chips, Green Tea Cake, Coconut Covered Cherries – each was delicious yet completely different with the gelee tasting very similar to a sugary version of Jean-Georges amuse soup, the cake tasting like the very essence of matcha, and the flash fried coconut cherries a revelation – they should be sold nationwide. Amongst the chocolates - Lemon, Cinnamon, Coffee, Chocolate Gnache, Salted Caramel – each was excellent with the Cinnamon truly standing out with its milk chocolate matched with a maple/cinnamon interior and the Chocolate Gnache likely 99% cocoa on the outside with perhaps an 80% smooth gnache inside.
Completely full and overwhelmingly happy with every aspect of the meal I paid my bill and thanked my server for a wonderful experience. Presented with a comment card I once again filled this out with great thanks to Chef Kreuther, Mr. Meyer, and the whole staff. Dining alone under happy circumstances or dining as a group under less favorable conditions I have to say that the experiences at each of Mr. Meyer’s restaurants has been phenomenal but the food at The Modern was definitively the best “all around.” Innovative, exploratory, trend-bending, and expertly prepared – best Chef indeed and of all the restaurants I visited in NYC on the trip the one I’d most readily take my friends and family back to on a future visit.