Modern art leaves some people wanting, while others are totally exhilarated by it. As with all art, there is just no knowing. I personally love some artists while others make me say "so what"? One of my all time favorite pieces of art is a Warhol self-portrait, but the cans of soup and Marilyn Monroe works that made him famous have no sway over me. Modern art simply impresses me or it doesn't. I have yet to see a piece that upset me as such, or one that struck me in my tracks. It is more often that I say things like, "that is just a different chair, it is not a new chair, and it is not a particularly beautiful chair, it is a different chair and I think this time they used chrome. I can't say for sure why this chair is in a museum."
Ask any New Yorker when the last time they went to the Empire State Building, The Met, or The Statue of Liberty was and you will be amazed how many have never been or at least not since a grade school trip. Locals go to local spots; tourists go to tourist spots. Which came first, the hotel bar or the museum restaurant? Both are obviously geared toward travelers, the décor and the prices always on a much higher scale than their quality or value. People on vacation spend more money than they would at home and they expect everything they see to be a spectacle.
If Danny Meyer has a gift it is for creating places that attract certain types of people, and giving them exactly what they want, every time. At Blue Smoke, he established the first place in New York that serves exceptionally good BBQ to people who want and can afford it, in a room that feels authentically like a NY BBQ room would feel, had there ever been one before. There is no dumb kitsch, like chevron signs, but there is a lot of wood and the coffee comes in a mug, not a cup. At Gramercy Tavern, Danny created the room you eat true, American, fine food in. Danny has made a bread bar make sense at Tabla, and the perfect room for bankers to have meetings at Elleven Mad. What New Yorker isn't delighted to have Chicago dogs in our life, and to eat them sitting in a beautifull park? This long, successful track record makes me suspect that The Modern is perfect and it is I who was in the wrong place. Truth be told, I seldom go to MOMA, I hardly ever eat above 23rd Street, and I hate places tourists like. So why go to The Modern? Because all of Danny's other places make so much sense to me.
The design of The Modern is very, well, modern. There are highly polished chrome columns, frosted glass drop ceilings, a bar of raw marble, and a gorgeous glass wall looking out on a sculpture garden. There is the prettiest spork I have ever seen laying next to your napkin when you first sit in your free-standing, half-round banquette, complete with leather throw pillows. It ends up feeling like the lounge in an ultra luxury hotel in South Beach.
I was out with Trombone and Bubby and we decided, with a list so vast and in the interest of efficiency, we would ask the bartender to pick us a white from Burgundy from '02 to kick off our wine experience. Our Bartender automatically deferred to a sommelier that quickly showed up and suggested a Meursault Les Meix Chavaux, by Domaine Roulot. Boy was it good. It started off all warmed butter on the nose and opened to show mint and cashews. On the palate, it was lemon and pineapple, with hazelnuts and cashews as it came up in temperature. It was a perfect pairing for the corn-nuts, which were on the bar as a snack
The wines for the rest of the evening were good, if a little lackluster. They were all paired per course with the tasting menu and from the by-the-glass list, and ended up feeling a little trite. There was a bit of irony at the end when the sommelier from the beginning of the night poured the last wine of the evening from a carafe and, when I asked what it was he said, "you tell me." So I went through the rigors of tasting, and declared it Northern Rhone because of all the Syrah, but with a serious amount of Grenache. It was the old vines Fonsalette, by Rayas, which is Southern Rhone, but a 50% Grenache 50% Syrah blend. So I guess what we have learned is if a wine guy blinds you on a purplish red wine just say "Fonsallete," and get it over with.
I would list the wines for you except that at the beginning of the meal the Sommelier said there would be a list for me at the end, and when the end came there wasn't one, so I gave them my card and they promised to email me what I had had.*
Dinner started with a beggar's purse stuffed with caviar and crème fraiche. I am a guy that believes everything on a plate should be edible; I eat the flowers when chefs use them as garnish. The purse was presented on a thin slice of lime, so I picked it up with the purse and it blew it right out of the water. The caviar was completely overwhelmed by the lime's rind and the crème fraiche barely toned it down. There was a lovely piece of gold leaf on top, which I also ate but, like I said, I believe if a chef puts it on a plate he wants you to eat it.
The rest of our dinner was the Winter Truffle Menu, with the slight variance that, in a confused negotiation where we asked to substitute out two courses for Trombone (not a huge fish fan) we ended up with an entire change of course and order at the end. Not a huge deal, because Bubby and I are omnivores and nothing will upset us but, because the change wasn't explained as a choice of the chef in order of course flow, I assume our message was lost on the way to the kitchen. My assumption is based on the fact that when we got to the changed course, the fourth, there was a lag in an otherwise flawless service.
Black truffle Mile Feuilles with Hamachi and Sullivan County Foie Gras, with a Toasted Hazelnut Dressing: The toasted hazelnuts added a great crunch to the otherwise very soft construction of the dish. For some reason, breadcrumbs were also added, kind of showing you what the hazelnuts were there to do, but paling in comparison. There was also a slight metallic bitterness to the mille feuilles that was not bad, but not explainable.
Roasted Langoustine with Yogurt Emulsion and Cardamom Oil: Two langoustines with a very subtle yogurt. Langoustines have a unique texture. Especially when roasted, they take on a very particular mushiness, and I found it interesting to pair it with an also very mushy cactus pear. Except for the seeds of the pear, it was a rather soft dish in execution and taste.
Buckwheat Soup with Black Truffle ravioli and a Poached Quail Egg: This was our favorite course. It had a deep flavor of mushrooms, not so much the truffles, but a good, honest flavor. As a note, poached quails' eggs are always over-cooked. This restaurant obviously has a water circulator (it shows up in the proteins) why not soft boil it in that? Now that would be modern.
Next up should have been Black Cod with Minted Baby Leeks and Blood Orange Sauce but, rather, it was Pancetta Wrapped Diver Scallop Studded with Black Truffles, Braised Sunchokes and Truffle Jus: I am pretty sure the scallop, which had had bits of truffle threaded through it, had been cooked sous vide, before a final sear. If not, it was in a cool oven for a long time. It was cooked all the way through; yet not rubbery as overcooked scallops tend to get when the process used was fast and hot.
Prime Aged Beef Striploin and braised cheeks with Chicory Emulsion: Pretty sure this was also done sous vide, because it was very uniformly cooked, however it was presented as Waygu beef and was tougher then the Waygu I have previously experienced. If so, this dish witnessed the bringing together of two popular trends in New York fine dining: sous vide and Waygu. Unfortunately, as sometimes evidenced in modern art, just because some hot ideas can be combined, doesn't mean they should.
Pheasant Breast 'Crépinette" with black Truffle and Seasonal Vegetables: An adaptation of the DB burger, it seemed to be a ball of ground pheasant stuffed with foie gras and truffle, bound in what I imagine is the crepe. Probably cool, but I had squandered my attention on everything before it.
We were so spent at this point we opted to skip dessert.
The Modern makes a lot of sense for what and where it is. In my head, I can understand why every decision was made. The truth is, everything was very solid; the place was full of what looked like happy people. Not every person should go to every restaurant. I think going forward I will spend my food dollars at Union Square and Gramercy Tavern, and leave a seat there for people that understand Ad Reinhardt.
*On 1/17/06 I found the following email in my inbox and, as a testament to the fact that, no matter what, a Danny Meyer restaurant is about thorough service, here is a list of what we drank. The last two are paired to the wrong course but the names and vintages seem right.
Course 1: Black truffle mille feuilles with hamachi and foie gras
Wine pairing: Sylvaner "Cuvee Vieilles Vignes", Dirler-Cade, Alsace,
Course 2: Langoustine with yogurt emulsion
Wine pairing: Savigny Premier Cru "Hauts Marconnets" Chanson Pere &
Fils, Burgandy, 2003
Course 3: Buckwheat soup with black truffle ravioli and poached egg
Wine pairing: Saumur, Chateau du Hureau, 2002
Course 4: Black cod with minted baby leeks and blood orange sauce
Wine Pairing: Domaine de Trevallon, Vin de Pays des Bouches du Rhone,
Course 5: Beef Striploin and Braised Cheeks
Wine Pairing: Chateau de Fonsalette, Reynaud, Cotes du Rhone, 1990
Course 6: Pheasant breast crepinette with black truffle and seasonal
Wine Pairing: Chateau Gruard Larose, Saint Julien, Bordeaux, 1994