Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Lost in Translation New York City Entry #76 The Modern

When friends visiting New York inquire where they should eat, I ascertain how important is it that they have the very finest, very most creative food that this city has to offer. If they waver, I direct them to one of Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group Restaurants (Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Eleven Madison Park, Blue Smoke, and, now, The Modern). I know that they will be treated right. If they lack the critic's fork and tongue, they thank me.

A case in point. Some friends and I were sitting in the Dining Room of The Modern, the ambitious high-end restaurant, and I noticed the slightest chip on the edge of my cocktail glass. As an altruist I pointed the flaw to our server, fearful that the next diner might be less amiable about this micro-nick. As our checks were presented, she informed us that the drink had been comped. Service at a Danny Meyer restaurant is not always glitch-free (there were gaps between some courses), but at his restaurants staff turn somersaults to keep diners satisfied. One is inspired to forgive.

Chef Gabriel Kreuther, formerly at Atelier and sous-chef at Jean-Georges, oversees The Modern, the most ambitious of the Union Square restaurants. The space is spectacular. Most museums treat their culinary artists as day laborers and their cafeterias as mess halls, but not so at the new MOMA. This space is the most elegant at the museum. The bar area is tastefully designed, but it is the sleekly modernist dining room, hidden behind frosted glass, overlooking the Abby Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, that stuns. It overshadows the cuisine, although the food strives and struggles to rise to the occasion. Not since a visit to the River Café did I so desire to chew the scenery.

And Chef Kreuther's food tries, it really tries. I found much of it satisfying and inventive without being compelling. Although the dishes as described are pungent, the pungency is often lost in translation.

Our first amuse was a beggar's purse filled with morel mushrooms and sweet pea puree. This was a bright idea but a failed execution. One of the treats of eating morels is the texture of these fungal sponges. Chopping morels to fill a small pastry defeats their moral purpose. Add a grittiness (soil protein) and a slightly gummy pastry and the dinner started on uncertain footing.

Our second amuse was a carrot-parsnip terrine with parsley and ginger foam (well, sauce, but it was foamily designated). This was a charming small plate, although the ginger barely registered in the taste profile. As was often the case throughout the evening the kitchen pulls its gustatory punches.

I began with Escargots and "Potato Gateau" with Pearl Onions, Shiso and Parsley-Ginger Vinaigrette. The potato cake with bites of escargot was creative and satisfying, even if one recalled just why escargots are graced by a buttery-garlic bath. However, the vanishing shiso and (again) ginger seemed a cheat. I had been happily and compulsively eating shiso for the past two weeks in Japan and had become addicted to these magic, exotic leaves, a fragrant mélange of cilantro, cumin, and cinnamon. As a potato gateau, the dish worked, but as a taste symphony too many notes had been dropped. Tastes of my companions' Foie Gras Terrine and Tartare of Yellow Fin Tuna and Diver Scallops revealed a similar problem. The central ingredients were properly executed, but the accompaniments didn't add much. They were all roots and no wings.

My entree was a splendid Long Island Duck Breast with Banyuls Jus (a thick reduction of wine from the Banyul region of Southwest France). The duck was perfect and it was enhanced by the deep jus, but where was the promised Black Truffle Marmalade. I demand more. As intriguing as the ingredients sounded, they were not calibrated. The truffle marmalade proved a marketing tease. I admired the "Fleischneke" - a hoop of duck confit in a pasta wrap - an inverted derma with meat on the inside.

My companion's sturgeon was supposedly braised in pink (!) grapefruit juice, but although the fish was moist, one strained to find the slightly bitter citrus taste.

We were provided two palate cleansers (counting the post-prandial treats, we each ordered the three course prix-fixe and received another seven gratis!). Best was the lemon geleé with passion fruit and mandarin sorbet, a symphony of tastes and textures (although more passion was called for). Less profound was a fromage blanc ice cream cone that proved less cleansing with a "raspberry" cone that had traded crispness for stickiness.

As dessert I selected the Vanilla-Raspberry-Licorice Vacherin. The lovely creamy-crisp meringue leaves were napped with an elegant vanilla sauce and a compelling raspberry sorbet, but where was my licorice? I imagined a powerfully bitter-sweet tang, but everything was cream and crimson without black; all light lacking the hint of night. This kitchen is skittish of big flavors - an un-Bouley.

The kitchen at The Modern is technically proficient, and they certainly can imagine a menu. For The Modern to compete with its setting or to compete with Tom Colicchio's Gramercy Tavern, Chef Kreuther (and Pastry Chef Marc Aumont) need the courage of their convictions. I was thrilled by the literary account of these dishes. But where are cooks who can translate words into deeds?

The Modern (at MOMA)
9 West 53rd Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

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