We really don't go to restaurants very much, contrary to what my workmates seem to think. I'm constantly being asked for restaurant recommendations by people who actually eat out much more frequently than I do. I'm not bad at finding places that are a good value -- interesting ethnic places with good fresh food, fun neighborhood joints, swank restaurants that have great lunch deals or places that you want to try during Restaurant Week. G and I actually missed Restaurant Week completely this year -- both installments. I was probably making something at home...maybe enchiladas with green sauce or Russian shepherd's pie. I would estimate that about 95 percent of the time, we eat at home. And we eat reasonable, interesting, fresh, home-cooked food.
Every now and then, however, perhaps a couple of times a year, I go out for a really wonderful meal. This year, as a belated birthday treat, my brother suggested that he take me to the Bar Room at the Modern, Danny Meyer's latest venture/adventure. It's the main restaurant of the newly expanded and gorgeously refurbished Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street, although you can enter the restaurant directly from the street, and so don't need to purchase entrance to the museum if, like some, you're really there for the food.
I'll cut to the chase. We had a phenomenal meal in a wondrous setting.
But before I'm quite there, you'll need to allow me the leeway of a moment to dwell upon the setting. At least I hope you will. We grew up in a milieu of 20th century modern motif, since my parents had a contemporary design shop which was the first of its kind in the exurb where we lived. In fact, their shop pioneered Scandinavian, Italian and German furnishings, table and kitchenware. They were also a venue for selected artisan American crafts of the 60s and 70s. It was not unusual for us to go into "the city" to MOMA just to look at the design collection, which had many pieces in the permanent collection that my parents sold in their own shop.
Although both of our own current household styles are decidedly eclectic, it was a delight for my brother and me to dine in this space. It is an homage to the purity of line that was the premise of great 20th Century modern design. From Thomas Demand's lush photorealistic forest mural to the amazing glass bar wall in which the bottles form their own work of art, it's all quite lovely. Difficult, even, not to exclaim over the beautiful striated metal bread "basket" or the artful composition of the cocktails. Lest you assume this sort of environment to be cold or forbidding, let me reassure you that it is not. The lines may be pristine, but comfort reigns supreme. The black leather chairs are cushy, and tables are generous.
Another extremely likeable feature of the Bar Room is that it's not defined by any particular group of people -- other than those who can at least occasionally afford a moderately expensive meal by NYC standards. It certainly draws a hipster crowd, but there were plenty of elder museum patrons, and lots of families with young children, some of whom were seated in the most stylish high chairs I've ever seen. You could put on your latest fashion-victim purchase, come to the Modern and feel right at home. On the other hand, you might be wearing your more downscale duds, and that too would be okay.
But the food, yes, the food. The menu is composed of small plates in three pages -- small cold dishes, small hot dishes, and half-portion entrees. The more formal dining room has both a series of tasting menus and an a la carte menu.
We ordered three small plates, two half-entrees and two desserts, sharing everything. I actually love eating this way, since I'm something of a grazer by nature and prefer to have many small tastes. Our three small plates came first. To start, we had the celebrated Tarte Flambée, a nod to Chef Gabriel Kreuther's native region of Alsace. This interpretation is certainly the best I've ever had, with a tender, wafer-thin flatbread crust topped with onions, deliciously smoky ham/bacon/some kind of good pork product, and crème fraîche, which is a stroke of genius. Those of us who tend to err on the side of excess often assume that cheese is necessary in a dish like this, and the more cheese, the better. Wrong. The subtle creaminess is perfect here, playing gently to the other flavors.
Then came Sweetbread Ravioli in a flavorful sage and balsamic sauce. The ravioli was tender and toothsome, with an unctuous sweetbread filling -- accompanied by crisply fried sweetbread nuggets. I couldn't resist ordering the Torchon of Foie Gras, a round of meaty foie gras paté with a foil provided by the crystalline side of muscat gelée. Unfortunately I was still drinking a cocktail, and this dish cried out for a glass of good red wine. Next time, I promised myself.
After a nicely spaced interval, our half-entrees arrived. We had Pistachio-Crusted Black Bass with a side of wilted spinach. In all honesty, this dish was pleasant but not a stand-out. The fish was impeccably fresh, but wasn't highly flavorful; the pistachio "crust" was really just a sprinkling of chopped pistachios, rather than a baked-on crunchy top layer. The quail, however, was just about perfect. Subtly seasoned with star anise, to heighten rather than overwhelm, it was crisp and brown, atop a bed of perfectly cooked tiny lentils, vegetables, and tiny green spaetzle that exploded with flavor.
And then came dessert. We had thought to share one dessert, but in my greed there were two I really wanted us to try. I'm so glad we did. The Modern Chocolate Tart is an exemplary chocolate dessert -- chocolate pastry, pure chocolate, a chocolate cream filling, and a crisp caramel shell on top -- all served with a scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream. You're right. It couldn't be bad, and was in fact divine, managing to be both rich and light. But the winner, even in a company of chocoholics, was the Citrus Macaroon with Vanilla Pineapple Sauce and 10-flavor Sorbet. This was a delicious almond macaroon with a creamy coconut filling, drifting on vanilla-scented pineapple coulis amid a confetti of chopped fruit -- perfectly ripe papaya, citrus and other things it was too dark to identify. I don't know what the 10 flavors of the perfect little oval of sorbet were, although our server told us there were 6 fruits and 4 spices. The predominant flavor was passion fruit, which was lovely in the composition of the whole. Both of these desserts were exquisitely plated in a linear fashion on white porcelain rectangles.
Another plus to my way of thinking is that while you may eat rich dishes at the Modern's Bar Room, you're unlikely to overeat or become overly full. The portions are small and jewel-like, which is why the prices are also moderate for this elegant, highly satisfying cuisine. If you're hosting relatives to whom the mark of a good restaurant is how full their doggie-bag is likely to be, take them elsewhere. But do go with a group. My one regret is that I didn't get to taste more dishes. I think next time I'd like to go with perhaps three other people -- preferably brave tasters who won't wince at the idea of marrow or octopus. There are so many things on this menu that I'd love to try: Venison Terrine, Charred Octopus, Potato and Marrow Cassolette, Tagliatelle with Chanterelles and Black Truffles, Poussin with Caramelized Vegetables, Hazelnut Dacquoise, Papilliote of Hot Fresh Berries. And at some point, perhaps when that winning lottery ticket shows up, it would be fun to have a full-scale meal in the dining room.
My brother did his standing gag of a hair-raising double-take when he looked at the check. But that's an old joke between us -- and he assured me that it was actually quite reasonable for all that we'd had.
With thanks and kisses, I took myself off home, where G had embarked on making himself a bowl of ramen for dinner. He added herbs and vegetables, curry and condiments. It smelled quite good, so I took my head out of the lofty culinary clouds where it had been, and evinced some interest in his dish. He brought his tray into our room and stretched out next to me, offering me a bite of his bowl o' noodles. It certainly wasn't dinner at the Modern. But in its own way, it too was delicious -- and the contrast between decent home food and lush restaurant cuisine enabled me to appreciate my glorious meal all the more.