review: quietude of excellence… (the modern)
It’s rare that I have an uncommitted meal when I travel. But since I was in New York for three weeks, I left a couple of pockets open, here and there, to play by ear.
So, it was dumb luck that I was free for dinner the day that my friend Belinda Chang called. It was two days before the James Beard Awards, and she, a nominee that year, was having dinner with a friend at The Modern, where she was wine director at the time. Would I join them?
I’m glad I did. Even though I didn’t get around to writing about it in detail, that dinner was one of the best, if not also one of the most memorable, meals I had in 2011.*
Chef Gabriel Kreuther, who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef New York two years earlier (coincidentally, he won the day I last ate at the restaurant), sent out a round-robin of dishes, at least four different plates at each course. To match them, Belinda called up from the cellar a round-robin of wines, three bottles at every turn. It’s a good thing she loves riesling, because it pairs so well with Kreuther’s Alsatian flavors, a little acid to thread through the fat.
At the end, Marc Aumont, the pastry chef, sent out every dessert on the menu, a dazzling display of technique and creativity. He’s one of the best, which is why I asked him to come to Kansas City to cook at a Friends of James Beard dinner at The American Restaurant later in the year.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that dinner was a celebratory farewell for Belinda (as her guest, I was refused a bill). Two days later, she announced that she was leaving The Modern. That night, I was photographing the James Beard Awards for one of the award sponsors when Belinda walked into the winner’s room in the basement of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center with a medal around her neck.** I don’t think she could have scripted the end of her time at The Modern any better.
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Generous and gentle, principled and thoughtful, Marc Aumont is a talented pastry chef. A son of a baker, and once an owner of a bakery in France, he has a solid foundation in classical technique.
It’s evident in his desserts, which are cleverly updated, yet recognizable versions – sleek, geometric, and colorful – of age-old standards. It is The Modern after all.
Just like Kreuther, Aumont is generous with fat. And just like Kreuther, he carves away at it with acid, usually something tropical, bright and breezy. So, on his menu, you will find craquelin, traditionally a sweet Belgian brioche embedded with citrus-scented cubes of sugar, paired with mango instead. You’ll also find baba. His is kissed with lime and served with pineapple. Otherwise, it’s every bit the boozy sponge you expect it to be, light and fluffy, glazed and gorgeous.
He makes Napoleon tall, a stack of feuilletine coins piped with lemony custard on a carpet of kiwi. Dacquoise he lays long, with milk chocolate and raspberry sorbet. It’s the best candy bar you’ll ever have.
There’s Ile Flottante, a verrine of frozen blackberry marshmallows (whipped with gelatin, not egg whites), cold and creamy like semifreddo, floating in a goblet of vanilla crème anglaise. And there’s a parfait – this one of caramel – with coconut, lemongrass, and a “ten flavors sorbet” that, like the Gospel John’s revelations, can not be sufficiently described in words but gives you a glimpse of heaven. That was one of the best desserts I had last year.
When I ate at The Modern just a few weeks ago, I found “petit beurre” for offer. It’s a buttery sablée biscuit found all over France (invented by Louis Lefèvre-Utile in 1886, and historically made by his LU cookie company). Aumont piped his version of the biscuit with chestnut paste and passion fruit gelée, a cookie sandwich that he served with caramelized apple “tart tatin” and Bailey’s ice cream. Fat and tart, rich and lean, this was Aumont at his finest.
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When Aumont came to Kansas City last November, I spent some time with him in the kitchen. As he worked, he handed me bits of his prep work – a macaron, a tuile, a fantastic tea and coconut financier with ganache and cocoa nibs.
In return, I handed him a Butterfinger and asked him how it was made. He had never had one before. But snapping it apart, he laughed. This was simple, he explained. This was praliné feuilleté. He offered to show me how to make it the next time I was in New York. I told him there was something else I’d like to learn how to make first.
So, on my recent trip to New York, Marc Aumont and his assistant, Angela Kim, showed me how to make macarons. I spent an afternoon in the pastry kitchen at The Modern with them, whipping egg whites, learning the difference between melangé and macaronée, making ganache, piping meringues (not my strongest suit), and then pairing the cookies by size (because piping meringues was not my strongest suit).
When we were done, we had dozens of unusually green macarons, filled with chocolate and pistachio ganache infused with lemongrass. They were delicious.
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Originally, The Modern wasn’t on my itinerary. The menu hadn’t changed much since my last meal, and there were at least a half dozen other restaurants that I wanted to visit.
But, at the last minute, I had a change of heart. Why argue against a sure bet, especially when you’re taking friends who have asked for the best?
Beyond his precision, the simplicity of his food, and the colors and flavors he presents on each plate, what I love most about Gabriel Kreuther’s cooking is its ability to seamlessly stitch his Alsatian heritage into The Modern Museum of Art. He assures you, when you enter the restaurant, which resides inside the museum, that you will leave having had a total package experience. There’s art on the walls, with art on the plates to match.
Just like Aumont’s desserts, Kreuther’s food is a contemporary look back, and a history revised.
He’ll make a cubist version of rabbit terrine, for example, and coat it with a velvety coulis of Gewürztraminer and fines herbes. It’s cool and refreshing, and a stunning sight too. This dish sat atop the marquee of my blog for more than a year.
He likes smoked fish. So, there are blocks of smoked salmon with blocks of oysters “en pannequet,” or blocks of smoked salmon and fat logs of white asparagus. Either way, it’s a colorful carousel in a creamy bath, symmetrical and perfect.
And there’s a smoked sturgeon tartlet with a buttery crust and a creamy caviar mousseline laced with sauerkraut. It arrives under a cloche filled with applewood smoke, installation art for the table. My mouth waters at the thought of it. (See number 13.)
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He likes foie gras, too. How does he serve it? I’ll let you count the ways.
He grills it and gives it a milky sauce, musky with cumin, and a side of macerated cucumbers, tangy and cool, or rings it with a rainbow necklace of vegetables brunoise, tops it with freeze-dried strawberries, and spoons some duck jus over it.
He’ll serve it in damier, a checkerboard where the white blocks are cut from a terrine of foie gras and the dark blocks are ruby squares of wagyu marble. That was a fantastic dish.
He sandwiches foie gras between two squab breasts and wraps the whole in a thin pastry dough that goes crisp in the oven. It’s Kreuther’s Squab and Foie Gras Croustillant, served with a garden of baby vegetables. If you’ve never had it, it’s a must.
And he’ll mix foie gras with ground duck meat to make a filling for ravioli. These he served with a black truffle fumet and fleshy caps of wild mushrooms. Among the dozens of dishes I’ve had at The Modern, this one, alone, failed me. The filling was slightly gamey, and touch dry. But otherwise, the flavors were fantastic.
He makes an extraordinary poussin dish with Château-Chalon sauce and morels. And he serves a golden-brown meteor of veal sweetbreads with a fat veal tortellini and a meaty block of maitake mushrooms beside it. The server will spoon a tangy caper-tarragon mousseline onto the plate until you say stop. I asked for seconds.
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Now that Eleven Madison Park has seceded from the Union Square Hospitality Group, The Modern is now, arguably, the shiniest restaurant on Danny Meyer’s block. And, in my opinion, it’s grossly underrated.
The last time The Modern was reviewed by the New York Times was in May of 2005. Frank Bruni gave it two stars. That was seven, long years ago, shortly after Kreuther and Aumont arrived. There may not have been a significant change in the kitchen to warrant a re-review. And, I’ll admit, I’m known to the house and have probably been shown nothing but the restaurant’s very best. But, I’ll bet that if Pete Wells were to go back, he’d find a star missing from the restaurant’s ledger.
And don’t even get me started on the Michelin Guide, which has debased its ratings by wantonly giving out stars across the country, and putting restaurants like The Modern on equal footing with hipster bars and bistro pubs serving attitude at ridiculous prices.
But, when you look at The Modern’s dining room, you’ll see that it’s full, night after night. It doesn’t crave the ratings or get grabby with the stars. There’s a confidence and humility there that needs the attention not. Kreuther, Aumont, and their team are content with working in the quietude of excellence, developing their craft, making it right.
This is a restaurant after my own heart.
9 West 53rd Street
New York, New York 10019
* See number ten on this year-end list.
** The third person at our dinner at The Modern was Jordan Mackay, who was also nominated for a James Beard Award that year. He won the award for Best Book on Beverage the day after our dinner (at the journalism awards ceremony) for co-authoring “Secrets of the Sommeliers” with Rajat Parr.