Still Life After Gabriel
Though cooks come and go and grow out of their restaurants in perpetuity, it is rare to witness a departure as weighty as Gabriel Kreuther’s from The Modern. The Alsatian chef, a veteran of Jean-Georges and Atelier, led the restaurant since it opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 2005. In March of 2014, Kreuther left to open his eponymous restaurant, snatching pastry chef Marc Aumont from his former employer just four months later. Now, having just turned ten years old and divorced from its two culinary founders, The Modern has had to prove that the artistry remains in the wake of a new and uncertain era.
The décor, one thing Kreuther could not hope to steal, is certainly stunning as ever. A smart, sweeping marble bar faces a lounge teeming with sleek leather banquettes and chairs. The mood is energetic as guests from the museum sip on fruit-forward $14 cocktails while snacking on king crab fritters and tarte flambée. Past an opaque dividing wall, the wooden countertops are exchanged for white tablecloths. The peripatetic lounge crowd is exchanged for tourists, schmoozing locals, and birthday boys/girls. Not everyone is wearing a jacket, like the young man across from me meeting his girlfriend’s mother for the first time, but most are. It’s almost pitch dark, but we all appreciate the towering floor to ceiling windows and strain to make out the mysterious shapes of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.
Service at The Modern is prompt and gracious from servers in cheeky dotted shirts and crisp black jackets. I was quickly greeted when I reached my seat and given the run through the menu. When I expressed an interest in pairings wines with my dinner, a sommelier excitedly appeared and worked with my likes, dislikes, and budget to craft a selection. The restaurant’s wine program under master sommelier Michael Engelmann is understandably superlative, but it was all the more impressive to see the warmth and enthusiasm he imbues in his staff.
The waiters and waitresses perpetually busy themselves like a well-oiled machine. However, while this eagerness was generally welcome, it led to one incident where a rookie server from another section, in a show of initiative, mistakenly filled my half glass of sparkling water with the still variety. The mistake, nonetheless, was quickly corrected.
The restaurant offers three and four-course prix fixe options–not including dessert–for $98 and $118 as well as a seven-course tasting menu priced at $138. Chef Abram Bissell, who worked under Kreuther before stints at Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad, has returned to take the reigns and put his own spin on The Modern’s signature French ingredients and preparations. For example, a foie gras tart with red plum and pickled pearl onion replaces the former chef’s sturgeon and sauerkraut variety. However, while Bissell’s torchon was rich and creamy, the sliver served was not even as wide as the fork itself, and the crust cried for salt.
A dish of caviar and warm egg yolk proved much more satisfying, with a wonderful contrast of warm and cold and accompanying brioche soldiers striking a comforting note. Also impressive, a roasted beef tenderloin with bone marrow that stunned with its simplicity and intensity of flavor in a city with no shortage of fussy steaks.
The most creative dish of the evening, thin slices of hamachi and Anjou pear in a horseradish marinade, stood as a real ray of hope for The Modern’s future. Superbly nuanced, the dish highlighted some of Bissell’s own distinct style that blends French and Asian flavors in surprising, forward-thinking ways. A poached salmon with summer beans and black garlic was not as successful, yet a vibrant accompanying dashi underlined the chef’s comfort blending cuisines.
In contrast, pastry chef Jiho Kim seemed to really struggle with the savory offerings, as both of my croissants were woefully overcooked and the black sesame seed bun, while warm, tasted like a dense supermarket roll. Nonetheless, his Nutella ice cream and chocolate mud cake, while crowd-pleasing, were among the best desserts I’ve tasted in the city.
While Kreuther took a decade of contemporary French recipes with him when he left, The Modern continues to dazzle with the help of an expertly trained staff. Chefs Bissell and Kim need a bit more time to craft a similar catalogue of “classics”, but they are slowly imbuing their own styles on Danny Meyer’s MoMA institution. Despite being dealt the challenge of a blank canvas, the first few brushstrokes on The Modern’s rebooted menu are promising, and I am excited to see the next generation create a masterpiece of their own.
Date Visited: 9/26/15