The Modern, which opened several weeks ago on 53rd Street, in the new, super-sized MoMA, presents its proprietor, Danny Meyer, with a conundrum. How do you retain an innovative, downtown edge in what, despite its avant-garde roots, is by now an established, even staid uptown setting? It’s a challenge not unlike the one faced by the new MoMA itself, and Mr. Meyer, whose diverse restaurant portfolio includes a barbecue joint (Blue Smoke) and an Indian-fusion restaurant (Tabla), along with Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, tackles the problem in his usual professional manner. The Modern is really two restaurants in one—a sophisticated café and a formal dining room. The two spaces are separated by a partition of frosted glass: One thrums with a general, if mildly self-conscious hipness, while the other is stately, almost august, in that clean, slightly dated, modernist way. In the dining room, groups of murmuring patrons can admire the Calders in the museum’s expanded sculpture garden while sipping their special “MoMA Blend” after-dinner tea.
Despite his impressive track record, Meyer has, until now, been a local, even neighborhood restaurateur. The Modern is his most ambitious project yet, however, and it has all the trappings of a grand uptown debut. To get to the restaurant, you pass down a long white runway, like the tunnel entrance to a discothèque. The café has a gently curving bar made of white marble, and an entire wall given over to a glowing, gorgeously leafy photo by Thomas Demand. The dining room is a narrow, vaulted space with dazzling views out to the garden, where platoons of waiters glide to and fro dressed in dark, charcoal-colored Nehru jackets. The two restaurants share the same gleaming kitchen and the same chef, Gabriel Kreuther, a classically trained Frenchman from Alsace, who last worked at the Ritz Hotel on Central Park South.
Kreuther may not be a super-chef yet, but like the town’s other classically trained French super-chefs, he has a taste for the earthy comfort foods of his youth, most of which he indulges on the café menu. There are wheels of preposterously smooth liverwurst decked with lingonberries, slightly wan tasting rillettes made of smoked eel, tender pork cheeks propped on mounds of fragrant, chewy sauerkraut, even an inspired pizza-size version of tarte flambée bombed with crème fraîche. The steak tartare is hand cut and topped with a single quail egg, and if it’s mushroom soup you like, Chef Kreuther serves his with crisp little chicklet-size raviolis, stuffed with minced chorizo. This impressive array of food (there are thirty dishes on the café menu, not counting desserts) is meted out in fashionable “small plate” portions, which you can enjoy late in the evening, or mid-afternoon, after elbowing your way through the art-gawking mobs at the new museum.
The atmosphere in the formal dining room is much more formal, of course, and so is the cooking, although you sometimes get the impression that, in his zeal to prove himself, Kreuther strains a little too hard. I heard few murmurs of complaint, however, as the first wave of appetizers came circulating around the table. There were several rich and well-prepared soups (notably a lightly creamy soup flavored with, of all things, buckwheat, and another, off the tasting menu, with truffles and wild mushrooms), plus a cooling little brick of chopped celeriac bound with almond cream and cold oysters, and spread with a layer of paddlefish caviar jetted in from Montana. Everyone seemed to enjoy the langoustines, which are wrapped like candy in thin slices of applewood-smoked bacon, and the suitably opulent foie gras (somehow it tasted faintly like Peking duck). But my favorite appetizer of all was the potato gâteau, a delicious pastry made of browned strips of potato, which Kreuther stuffs with minced scallions and escargot.
Several of the entrées, by contrast, seem busy and a little overworked. Instead of pork, Kreuther offers a wild-boar chop, sliced, on the bias, on a painstakingly conceived “choucroute” made with strips of rutabaga. The wild boar tastes fine, but isn’t nearly as satisfying as the braised pork cheeks served in the café. A bowl of lobster sunk in a soupy “ folly of herbs” seemed droopy and unfocused, and the well-poached turbot didn’t quite blend with the mildly cloying uni-clove sauce, not to mention the oily strips of fish fin that accompanied it. Both the sturgeon and the cod were very good, though, especially the cod, which is covered in a thin membrane of sliced chorizo. The chicken, served three ways (roasted breast, sausage, and a drumstick), is also excellent, and so are other poultry items like roast duck (it’s skinned, then crusted with a tasty marmalade made with black truffles) and squab, which the chef presses into an old-fashioned pastry crust larded with foie gras.
Dinner at the Modern is attended by every conceivable four-star flourish and accoutrement. Dishes are perambulated around the room under polished silver warmers. There are amuse-gueules and palate-cleansing intermezzi, and a gentle avalanche of petits fours to enjoy with your selection of designer teas (not to mention sixteen different kinds of Armagnac) after the desserts have come and gone. As for the desserts, like lots of the food here, they’re good (particularly the lemon napoleon, and a postmodern dacquoise made with milk chocolate, caramel, and a cookie crust) but not transcendent. They do nothing, however, to dampen that ineffable quality Mr. Meyer is so expert at creating. This special sense, of polish and occasion, is heightened by the restaurant’s location. Peering out at the dimly lit Giacomettis, nibbling on your petits fours, it’s difficult not to feel a glint of smug satisfaction. On this night, at least, for this particular meal, you’re in the right place at the right time.
Ideal meal: Potato escargot gâteau, roast duck, milk-chocolate dacquoise.
Note: There are plenty of fancy wines available, but for an immediate bang for your buck, try the Study in Agave, a potent tequila cocktail garnished with curry leaves.