Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bar Room at The Modern

Midtown Manhattan is a bit of a culinary wasteland. There, I said it.

"No, wait!" you'll protest. There's the Four Seasons, the venerable La Grenouille, Lever House is fabulous - and I suppose you're probably right, so long as you're dining on an expense account. And if you're not, lunch near my office at 52nd and Madison tends to be a salad from one of the many Pax locations which dot the area - or, if you're feeling indulgent, an $11 wrap from Fresco on the Go (oh, the gluttony).

But, hark, my friends - from the distance there approaches a beacon of light - The Bar Room at The Modern. What's that? No, no - it's not smoky, it's not dark, and it's not a place for a burger and a pint. It's one of the most exciting developments in mid-priced Midtown dining in...well...a really long time.

My first meal at The Bar Room, back in November, was a delight. I'd been hearing about the place for months on eGullet, but hadn't made the two-block trek from my desk to its door. When my friend Aimee called and proposed we meet for lunch somewhere between our two offices, I decided the time had come.

From 53rd Street, you enter the restaurant through a double set of sleek glass doors, walk through a glowing white foyer, and emerge at the host stand. Your coat is taken gently from you, and an extremely snappily dressed host escorts you to your table. The room itself is all gleaming mirrors, blonde wood and black leather, and is dominated at opposite ends by an illuminated photographic mural of a leafy wood and three stainless steel paneled pass-throughs to the elegantly shining kitchen.

The Bar Room's space is larger than that devoted to The Modern, its more formal and more expensive sister, from which it is divided by a frosty white glass panel. While the dining room is hushed and looks out on the sculpture garden, the Bar Room is bustling, the patrons craning their necks for views of one another's food.

And what a view it is. The menu is comprised of three stages of small plates. On both visits, I've had two savory plates and coffee; on my most recent trip, this afternoon, I also had dessert. This was more than enough food for me, but then the plates vary somewhat in size, so those with larger appetites may consider an additional round.

The standout dish during that first meal was one we both ordered - the roasted garlic gnocchi with wild mushrooms, sage, and crispy sweetbreads. It's a wonderful dish, an example of the things I love most in my food - contrasting textures bound together by the subtle coordination of their flavors, both bold and delicate. I often find gnocchi to be big, clumpy and doughy, but these are diminutive, delicate and light. The fried sage leaves disintegrate on your tongue, leaving behind a hint of their woodsy flavor. The sweetbreads are in tiny pieces, breaded in something lighter even than panko, and fried. Their crispness cuts through the toothy dumplings, and the whole dish is bound together by a rich mushroom gravy. It's a bit like the forest, in fall, on your plate.

Today's lunch started with a tarte flambee, a traditional Alsatian thin-crust tart topped with creme fraiche, lardons, and onions and cooked in a pizza oven. This tarte flambee reminded me distinctly of the ones I sampled in Alsace, unsurprising given that The Modern's chef, Gabriel Kreuther, was born and raised in the region and attended culinary school in Strasbourg. The crust was delicate and thin, almost cracker-like, topped with a thin layer of the cream and smothered in onions and bacon. It distinguished itself with a generous amount of black pepper, an element that works as well in this creamy bacon dish as it does in a carbonara. It was fabulous, and huge - the three of us all had a couple of slices.

Duck confit called out to me from the third stage, and I was not to be disappointed. Its skin seared almost to the point of burnt, the meat was falling off the delicate bone in juicy, tender pieces. The accompanying frisee salad was dressed in a vinaigrette that tasted alternately of fruit and shallots, and the lyonnaise potatoes on the side hid a small mound of caramelized onions as sweet as the juice in the dressing.

And, finally, dessert. I ordered the beignets, which garnered singular approval from our lovely waiter. No small plate these - five palm-sized beignets arrived at the table, accompanied by a small scoop of maple ice cream, caramel, and mango marmalade. Freshly made, piping hot, covered in sugar and cinnamon, they went best with the ice cream and the caramel, though the marmalade was a lovely shade of yellow and certainly livened up an otherwise brown plate. Sadly, I could not finish the plate of beignets, only managing three, and that last one was a doozy. This is a dish meant for sharing.

Wine at lunch makes me sleepy, so I have not yet had a chance to read through the wine list - I'm told it's superb, and plan to go as soon as I can to see for myself.

9 West 53rd Street
Between 5th and 6th Avenues

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