9 W. 53rd St (near Fifth Ave)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 333-1220
Chef: Abram Bissell
Area: Upper East Side
Expectations are tough to manage. And when you are Danny Meyer—the beloved restaurateur behind Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and Tabla—they can be a nightmare. Meyer is an exceptional restaurateur and citizen—he is smart, socially aware, philanthropic, articulate, handsome, and quite successful, without being over the top. He is well liked and deeply respected by his peers and his customers. A kid from the St. Louis, Meyer effectively transformed fine dining (and a neighborhood) in the 80s—creating a new paradigm for culinary expression with Union Square Café, located off a then drug-laden Union Square Park. His plan was simple—to open a restaurant that would nurture the neighborhood, support local agriculture, and that would feature expertly conceived and honestly presented food with a staff of knowledgeable, hospitable, and friendly folks. He wanted to create an environment that completely lacked the pretense usually associated with fine dining. Well, it worked, and along the way he helped clean up the park, support a Greenmarket, and a neighborhood flourished. (Step aside Bloomberg, I’d vote Meyer for Mayor in a heartbeat.) And since then, whether it be with Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Eleven Madison, Blue Smoke, or even Shake Shack, Meyer’s formula has never strayed far from that original goal: creating restaurants that have heart and soul, that are solid neighborhood joints dedicated to seriously good food, with hospitality as their hallmark. (And usually a park or two will get fixed up in the process.) And all along, he has succeeded.
Now comes The Modern, his much-anticipated restaurant at the newly remodeled MOMA. And he’s not messing around here. There are stars written all over the staff, starting with Gabriel Kreuther, formerly the three star executive chef at Atelier at the Ritz Carlton. Add on pastry chef Marc Aumont, from three star Bouley, Ann Marie Mormando, who spent 12 years as Director of Operations for Jean Georges, wine director Stephane Colling, and service director Thierry Chouquet, both of the four (and then three) starred Ducasse, and you’ve got an All Star list of players, and expectations cruising somewhere up near the Milky Way. Perhaps because of such high expectations, or perhaps because it is still early on in this restaurant’s lifespan, my dinner at The Modern was a disappointment.
When we arrived for dinner last Wednesday night, we were welcomed by Ms. Mormando, and asked to wait at the bar until our table was ready—we were there a bit early, and we were (and always are) happy to have a drink before dinner. But the bar was three deep and at capacity. We snaked our way through the unruly crowd—a thick group (an oddly unattractive bunch to be honest), that included many out of towners and several women with bad blond dye jobs—and found a small bit of real estate to catch a bartender’s eye, and waited and waited to get her attention. A petite bartender, who looked all of 14 years old, was visibly in the weeds, and if it weren’t for the nice people seated in front of us who flagged her down, I don’t believe she would have never stopped to take our drink order. She had a look of quiet desperation on her face—sort of like a small animal about to get eaten by a much larger and more ferocious beast. I felt for her as she pushed a wine list our way, attempted a smile, and tackled the micros system spewing more drink tickets. We looked around and noticed that she seemed to be the only bartender, and since it is a fairly long (and cool) bar, stocked with 2210 bottles of wine, that seemed quite odd. There was a bar back, but no other bartenders. Poor thing. No wonder she was weeded. I was ready to jump back there and help.
Anyway, about 10 minutes later our friends in front of us flagged her down again and soon we were enjoying a couple of glasses of wine, which were needed because we were a bit worn out from the ordering process. A few moments later though, we were escorted through the mayhem of the bar room, to a place beyond the fray—past the heavy frosted glass divider that separates a la carte from prix fixe ($74, three courses), madness from serenity.
The dining room at The Modern is the antithesis of the frenetic bar room—it is a quiet august space that is stately, stark, and dauntingly clean. It is a room that speaks to its name in every sense—from the glassware to the water pitchers, napkin rings, and flatware. It is like dining in a showroom of some über modern Danish home furnishings store. Which makes sense actually, because the tableware and furniture were curated by Meyer, his partner David Swinghamer, and Paola Antonelli, Curator of the Department of Architecture and Design, on a shopping spree in Copenhagen where they picked up a few things with the support of the Danish Design Project. All the big names are here: chairs by Arne Jacobsen, tables from Piet Hein and Bruno Mathsson, tableware from Bernardaud china, wine glasses from Gilbert Mestralet, additional glassware from Schott Zwiesel, Spiegelau and Reidel, and a collection of sleek silver from Robbe & Berking’s Riva line (used by Jordan’s Royal family, and making its United States restaurant debut at The Modern).
While the dining room is certainly visually impressive, the space, which is actually more like an oversized corridor or annex than a nice big central dining room—feels cold. It is long and narrow with sky-high ceilings, and it has a distinct iciness to it. Perhaps it is that the tones are all white and gray, with no warming shades to lessen the austerity of the place, or maybe it is just that modern design leaves me chilly and in need of warming up, but to me, the dining room felt terribly sterile and barren.
Though the room felt cold, we were seated at a lovely table, sitting side by side so we stayed warm (I was on a date—so it was quite nice). We were welcomed with nothing other than The Water Question—sparking, still, or tap—and a wine list. No hello, no warmth, no love. Odd. We read through the prix fixe menu, picked out some wine, and placed our order with our waiter who still seemed quite distracted, and not particularly in command of the menu. I had the feeling of being lost at sea and I hoped that someone somewhere was going to get us somewhere good. Soon enough, some canapés arrived—a fabulous choux pastry filled with trout mousse, a triangle of goat cheese wrapped in smoked salmon and sprinkled with caviar. Things were off to a good start. Then we were presented with an amuse bouche course (just to clarify, all tables are offered canapés and amuse bouche)—a phenomenal scallop ceviche juiced up with Meyer lemon, a cold herb vichyssoise soup that tasted, well, awful—like something from a very aggressive juice bar—and a nice custard topped with a frothy mushroom foam. Fun little snacks are always a good way to start an evening, even when dining in ice-land.
Our plates were cleared, and more wine was poured (all the glasses are gorgeous by the way, but also quite large so the pours look really small), and we took in the room. A table of two men and a woman between them, was an interesting threesome. When one of the men got up to use the restroom, she snuggled into the guy to her left, and when the guy to her left excused himself, she moved in on the guy to her right. We were wondering what was going to happen between the two guys when she got up, but she never did. A table that appeared to be a father and daughter turned out to be a father and his date (very disturbing), and while my date and I certainly were cozy, sitting side by side on the banquette, the loving couple at the table next to us were in serious need of a hotel room. Shuttling between the tables were many, many frowning waiters and managers in suits looking very serious and very concerned. Facing the room, watching all these interactions, I felt like a voyeur in a very fancy airport lounge.
Soon we were starting in on our appetizers, which were stunning—they could have been photographed and featured upstairs on the museums walls they were so precise and supremely modern in style. The Potato Gateau with Escargots was a gorgeous dish—golden slivered potatoes wrapped into a circular tart that resembled a Nautilus shell, filled up with plump escargot and set in a shallow pool of zippy gingered parsely jus. The Chilled Lobster Salad, set over a fine julienne of black radish and topped with Thai long pepper sorbet, was not for me though. The flavors were bitter and bracing and seemed to be fighting with eachother on the plate. The Tartare of Yellowfin Tuna and Diver Scallops was a beautiful dish of absolutely perfect cubes of fish (God bless those fish cooks), scattered like jewels across the plate with Yellowstone River Caviar. While it was stunning to look at, sadly, it fell flat on flavor. It was drab and dreary, with no bright notes to pick it up. And I was confused by the Salad of Celeriac with Minced Oysters, Almond Cream and Yellowstone River Caviar. It was quite strange—it looked like a miniature wailing wall, a wide domino standing up on its side, built from little pellets of diced celeriac folded in with the almond cream. The celeriac was raw, and diced fine so it had the texture of something from a BB gun. Honestly, I don’t know what was going on there. The dish was lost on me.
The Long Island Crescent Duck Breast was spectacular though—a lovely ode to Daffy—impossibly tender slices of duck topped with a heavenly mop of black truffle marmalade, served in a Banylus jus with luscious hunks of foie gras sandwiched between sliced turnips. Well, it could have been turnips, or it could have been rhubarb. We weren’t really sure what was going on there, and when we asked, our waiter said turnips, but then another waiter said it was rhubarb. We were about to take a poll among the rest of the staff to find the ultimate answer (or at least get to 4 out of 5), but they seemed to be attending to Frank Bruni, who I noticed seated at the far end of the dining corridor. Hmm. Interesting. Was that the reason our service was so off? Perhaps. (Note to Self: When dining in restaurants where Frank Bruni is eating, make sure you are eating at his table.)
My Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod was also perfectly cooked—a silky filet-a-fish with flesh that slipped down and into supple, glossy slices—encased in a robe of chorizo. It was served with an amazing sauce that tasted quite Alsatian to me—a white-wine and mustard-cream sauce—with a smooth pudding of white cocoa bean puree. It was quite good, but honestly, I had duck envy. Luckily I was with a good sharer.
When it was time for dessert, for some reason we were never offered coffee or tea. Our waiter still seemed distracted. (I must say that our bus boy, Angel, who had worked for many years at Patria, was the most amazing part of our service experience.) Our order was taken, and soon we were in some earthly equivalent of heaven. Desserts by Marc Aumont, who worked for many years as pastry chef with David Bouley, were flawless. I am a huge fan of lemon desserts and his Lemon Napoleon with Fromage Blanc Sorbet was a revelation—a sweet-tart lemon curd sandwiched between large crisp phyllo-like wafers topped with a cold and creamy fromage blanc sorbet. It is the sort of lemon curd that leaves your eyes a bit watery and the backs of your jaw aching from sour. Yummy. Marc also offers several chocolate options— a Milk Chocolate Dacquoise with Raspberry Sorbet, and a Chocolate Soufflé, with Vanilla and Pistachio Ice Cream. My date loved them both, but he really fell for the Dacquoise—a smooth, rich chocolate bar with layered with hazelnut dacquoise and dark chocolate, served with fresh raspberries and a quenelle of raspberry sorbet. It had him in a state of pleasure that I feel very certain I will never be able to replicate on my own. I won’t lie to you. This concerns me.
On the way home from dinner, I thought about our meal, and I realized that my problem with The Modern was not so much the menu, which is in the hands of an extremely talented and capable chef, but is just not my style of food, and not so much the fact that the room was too cold and way too modern for my taste. I realized that my real issue with The Modern was one of expectations. I expected a Danny Meyer restaurant, and a Danny Meyer experience. And I did not get that. Meyer’s hallmark is building restaurants with heart and soul that make you feel taken care of and cherished. This restaurant, at least on the night we were there, had no soul. It felt cold and heartless, and it lacked the wonderful Danny Meyer stamp of warm hospitality. Expectations can be brutal, but then again, they can also be met. When you are Danny Meyer, though, you are not given much time to meet them. Perfection, right or wrong, is expected from day one. Such is the price of success. I have a feeling things will improve as the restaurant grows into itself and shakes off its newness. There is a man with incredible passion and experience behind this place, and if I know Danny, he won’t let us down.
Review By: Andrea Strong