Monday, March 28, 2011

The Modern Bar Room, New York NY

There is a part of my food ramblings that will unfortunately remain lost in the void – a handful of meals from a work-related trip to New York that are annotated and photographed but of which my memory has faded over the course of 5 months of work and trips to Paris, Boston, and Chicago. While it is somewhat unfortunate that these experiences will not be documented with my standard breadth of detail considering all were good and some were great, it is what it is and the most vivid memories still shine through. For the first of these meals, I give you The Bar Room at The Modern – a location that was an obvious choice for lunch given my love of Danny Meyer, a wonderful experience in the Dining Room a year plus prior, and its convenient location just yards from the Hilton.

With 12:30 reservations made in advance by OpenTable my arrival to The Bar Room would be moments late due to a slight delay in the conference, yet on arrival I was greeted like an old friend on checking in and knowing full well that the Union Square Restaurant Group tracks their diners activity I was unsurprised when the hostess welcomed me “back” asking if I was in town on business or for pleasure. Joking that the business end is what brought me to town but the pleasure end brought me to MoMA I was next led to nice table in the middle of the room and handed a menu as my water was filled nearly instantaneously by one of the myriad circulating bus boys.

With suits and ties abound and wood tables matched by supple black leather chairs the restaurant was perhaps half full on my arrival and despite the more “relaxed” atmosphere the sound was not as loud as I heard it can be – as a matter of fact, to my recollection it seemed no louder than the dining room proper and within moments I was greeted by Renan, a server every bit as capable as those in the dining room. With Renan again welcoming me back and asking if I was on a time schedule I told him I had about an hour and ten minutes and a few quick questions later my order was placed – an order that would expand by two in the form of gifts from the house.

With service excellent throughout – typical for USRG – the first item of the afternoon to arrive was the bread service, a rustic Italian loaf and small warm baguettes paired with a disc of salted cow’s milk butter – butter that was every bit on par with the best I’ve had in New York and the Italian loaf featuring a crunchy crust with an open crumb and plenty of flavor that led to me requesting a second round.

Moving on to the menu items, the first would be something I’d greatly anticipated due to the quality of the Dining Room preparation during my last visit and sure enough the Foie Gras Terrine Studded with Salsify, maple gelée and pain d’épices would not disappoint. Beginning first with the liver itself, the hemisected cylinders stood firm and smooth alongside similarly appropriated slices of warm spiced bread with hefty notes of nutmeg and cinnamon – a perfect pair only enhanced by the halved disc of maple-quince gelatin. With the flavors sweet yet savory and driven home by a dusting of cayenne even the salad seemed well thought out on this plate with the crisp greens topped by mandolined fennel adding another layer of flavor and texture.

With my second selection being a pasta I was surprised when my second plate actually arrived in the form of a pink potage “compliments of the chef.” Served piping hot Grilled Diver Scallops with roasted beets, Swiss chard and hazelnuts was the second time I’ve received scallops on the house from chef Kreuther – the first being his signature Tartare of Yellowfin Tuna and Diver Scallops – and once again this proved to be a stunning dish; possibly the best of the meal. Beginning first with the scallop – a perfect “U8” caramelized on the outside and still cool and creamy within – the sweetness of the bivalve was perfectly complimented by the bitter melting chard while the highlight of this dish was in fact the beets golden/white/red, roasted/raw/pureed with each adding their own flavor, texture, and visual impact to a truly outstanding dish.

With the impromptu scallops garnering my attention I was actually alerted to the arrival of my third plate first by my nose, then by my eyes as it was brought to my table with a few bites of beets remaining in order to fit my schedule. Described as Potato-Fromage Blanc Gnocchi with escargots, wild mushrooms, garlic nage and just as green as the previous course was pink the aroma, in case you missed it, was that of the garlic – a thick and unctuous sauce speckled with breadcrumbs that would not have been out of place atop a traditional Escargot Bourguignon. Amazed by the sheer number of snails swimming in the overwhelming liquid (a dozen to be sure) each was a meaty little bite prepared to be just tender while the dish found levity and balance in the combination of the slightly sweetened and delicate dumplings plus mushrooms, both cooked and dehydrated, lending some earthy notes. A great dish, but definitely not the sort of thing to order on a date or if you’re planning on a night out afterwards.

Moving on to my main course I was left with the decision of whether to revisit the egg in the jar, to taste the sweetbreads, or to opt for one of two duck preparations; a decision made easy when Renan told me the duck breast was his favorite dish on the menu – Dining Room or Bar Room – and as an attestation to his palate I can say that while it wasn’t quite as wowing as the egg in a jar it was really good and a nice change of pace from the two previous “soupy” items. Announced as “Roasted Long Island Duck Breast with peppercorn-crusted apples and pistachio-truffle dipping sauce” and served as three 2oz slices of rosy red breast with crisp honey glazed skin atop the duck was textbook on its own and even better when paired with the intricate and aromatic sauce or the pan-fried sweet meets savory apples.

With the first four dishes all arriving within forty-five minutes of my reservation time I was fortunately left with plenty of time for dessert but again unable to make a decision I sought a tie breaker from Renan who noted that this was a tougher choice for him as one was the chef’s signature and the other was the restaurant’s most popular and going with the signature it turned out my choice didn’t matter – I was brought both, one compliments of Renan. Beginning first with the dish I ordered, Chef Kreuther’s Apple Strudel with caramelized pecans and prune Armagnac ice cream, it was a flawless representation with crispy, buttery, and flakey pastry wrapped around caramelized apples and cinnamon at one end of the long plate and boozy ice cream with toasted salty/sweet pecans at the other. Always a fan of this rustic dish which seems to be featured less and less frequently these days this was perhaps the best Strudel I’ve had since Wolfgang Puck’s version at Spago and it was worlds better than the one I’d have two days later at Peter Luger’s.

With the Strudel half gone and the ice cream entirely consumed to prevent melting my attention next moved to the other plate – The Modern Bar Room’s famous Powder Sugar beignets with maple ice cream, caramel and mango marmalade, a half dozen pillow-soft and lightly fried yeasty doughnuts that were tasty on their own but vastly improved by the accoutrements – particularly the outstanding salty caramel and the house made ice cream – an ice cream equal in creaminess to the first yet identical in flavor to pure maple syrup, right down to the slight bitter undertones and woodsy finish.

With the time now just over an hour after my arrival and myself feeling the results of some very rich dishes and far too much bread my server asked me if I was ready for the bill and answering in the affirmative the heavily discounted tab was delivered. With well over $100 worth of food I compensated with a sizable tip and with thanks all around grabbed my bag and coat with a quick walk delivering me back at the conference with time to grab a coffee before the next lecture began and a whole afternoon to try to decide whether I wanted to cancel one of my other dinners or lunches for the week in order to return to The Modern because Dining Room or Bar Room it truly is outstanding.

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