Art museum restaurants carry particular interest through their intermedial constitution; that is, the genre brings the fine arts and the culinary arts into conversation through its placement within the parent institution of the art museum. Of course, museums necessarily privilege the fine arts, but there remain ones whose restaurants showcase world-class ambition and innovation, to the point that the cuisine exists on par—or even in conversation with—the collection of artworks proper. In this model, the restaurant’s seasonal menu registers as an artistic gesture executed by the chief chef and commissioned by the museum (here it’s worth noting in passing, however, that restaurant kitchens still conform to a broad atelier mold, in the sense that an army of cooks satisfy the vision of an executive chef; the atelier system, of course, has long been superseded within the artworld, although exceptions exist.) The Modern, the flagship restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, offers one such example of a restaurant whose cuisine showcases a degree of seriousness that elevates it beyond just subsidiary status. This essay uses The Modern as a case study through which to explore this approach for synchronizing art museum with restaurant, with an eye toward also pursuing whether the example of the MoMA’s flagship restaurant might help us reconsider the definitional question of what “modernist” cuisine looks like in the first place.
Now, MoMA isn’t the only governing body presiding over this restaurant, as The Modern also represents the prize member within Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Although I’m out of my depth when it comes to New York dining, my understanding is that Meyer’s primary contribution to North American gastronomy lies in popularizing an approachable model for fine dining through restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café. These remain some of New York’s most beloved restaurants, both for their cuisine and for their relatively democratic character, which purports to showcase a cheery, ‘can-do’ attitude in lieu of the supercilious tenor of traditional temples of New York haute cuisine, Le Cirque being the most notorious example. While I went into this meal at The Modern cognizant of, and appreciative toward, Meyer’s approachability, I wondered: in which ways would The Modern negotiate its twin institutional presences—between MoMA on the one hand and Danny Meyer on the other? After all, while MoMA stands as a a paradigmatic blockbuster museum, it still enjoys (rightly or wrongly) a pole position as arbiter of cultural taste, in contradistinction to Meyer’s restaurant group, which is seen as a more middlebrow approach to fine dining (I don’t say this to reinscribe distinctions between highbrow and middlebrow, but to acknowledge the distinct identities of MoMA and Meyer within the public sphere.) While the restaurant’s price point and 2 Michelin Stars foreground its lofty aspirations, the restaurant still begged the questions: in which ways would the cuisine at The Modern push the culinary envelope, and in which ways might the restaurant’s affiliation with Danny Meyer constrain its synchronization with the art museum?
Architecturally, the Modern invites such questions of synchronization because the dining room exists adjacent to the Museum’s Abby Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. My windowside 2-top afforded an ideal view of the sculptures. The light, groundless aesthetic of Calder and Caro corresponded with the minimalist the dining room; I’m not just using “minimalist” in the colloquial sense here, as the serial distribution of thin ceiling beams evoked Donald Judd. The long and lanky servers confirmed the lean verticality of the space. A small tree stood near the center of the dining room and literalized the reciprocity between inside and outside; the incorporation of an arboreal centerpiece also obliquely gestures to the now-defunct Four Seasons, although I doubt any intentionality undergirds this association. Overall, I appreciated how interior and exterior coalesce around a shared modernist/minimalist aesthetic. But would the cuisine share this focus?
At first, no it didn’t. I ordered the full tasting (listed as 8 courses, although I was served more) and for my first course, was greeted with one of the more decadent preparations I’ve ever received: a benevolent scoop of high-end, Caspian caviar with egg yolk and buttered brioche. (Here I’ll note from the outset that my descriptions have no doubt forfeited precision as a consequence of my oxidized memories of this February dinner.) A mild crema/aioli rested underneath the caviar and gilded the lily. Perhaps it goes without saying that this was one of the most delicious compositions I’ve ever eaten, although I’m not accustomed to a contemporary restaurant initiating this degree of decadent hedonism—in an age in which even desserts sometimes feature fennel or savory spices, I’ve noticed a prevailing sentiment wherein the yin of luxury or decadence needs to find a counterpoint with the yang of the acrid or acid; thankfully, The Modern bucked this tendency and presented this memorable plate.
As a prelude to the bread service, I enjoyed a small croissant with a thick slice of Perigord truffle. As with the caviar preparation, the kitchen restricts this item to those partaking in the full tasting. I imagine that some might struggle to consume such a rich offering on the footsteps of the caviar course. My understanding is that the erstwhile chef, Gabriel Kreuther, brought a more decadent hand than the current chef, Abram Bissell. This croissant seemed like something Kreuther might have served, and the unfettered indulgence of these opening bites clashed with the dining room and modernist collection at MoMA. Put differently, if pictorial modernism claims to reject the optical confections of popular art in favor of ‘difficult’ works, one might levy a similar critique here and charge the croissant with proferring easy pleasures. Yet I have to qualify this critique with the appreciation that this was as delicious as the caviar preparation, and the two items alone justified the extended menu’s elevated price tag.
The formal bread service included three offerings: pumpernickel seed, bagel with beef consommé, and cheddar roll. All were great, but the novelty of the bagel with consommé earned it favored status.
The next proper course was raw tuna with a blood orange marinade, fennel bulb, and yuzu vinaigrette. The tuna continued the emphasis on luxury ingredients, although the fennel and yuzu really blunted the fattiness of the fish and curbed the general decadence of the cuisine to this point. I understand the impulse to counter the preceding courses—and this did—but to my mind the inclusion of both acid (yuzu) and bitter (fennel) went too far in the other direction. Bitter seems to enjoy a degree of reverence in the flavor pantheon, and I don’t share this celebration. To my mind, the acid of the vinaigrette mediated the fattiness of the fish and foreclosed the necessity for any other countering agent.
Another luxury offering, Course 3 consisted of foie gras tarte accompanied by quince braised in white wine, and radicchio traviso. As a cold foie partisan, I appreciated that the chef went this route rather than searing the liver, which seems to be the default option during the winter months. I believe this preparation has been a signature of The Modern for some time (possibly antedating Chef Bissell), and it’s easy to see why, as the kitchen can simply swap the quince out for a separate seasonal fruit as the months progress. I could see this preparation pairing well with rhubarb during the spring or raspberry in late summer. In any event, the foie was perfectly prepared, with none of the visible tissue that stains the efforts of those with less foie facility. I don’t however, believe the radicchio earned its place, and its inclusion rehearsed the gratuitous bitter note that compromised the tuna.
The foie concluded the appetizer chapter of the menu, and lobster initiated the second act. It featured claw and knuckle meat, poached in sea urchin butter. Oven roasted cauliflower and a toothsome grain of some variety rounded out the preparation; I can’t recall what the green sauce consisted of, or its flavor profile. The sea urchin butter was a tour de force and a brilliant complement to the shellfish and cauliflower. I love cauliflower but often find it starchy and undercooked in restaurants—this same critique applies to Brussels sprouts as well—and so I took particular surprise and delight in finding the cauliflower roasted to the point of dissolving at the slight prod of the fork. And of course, the cauliflower absorbed the rich umami of the urchin to brilliant effect. Unfortunately, my compliments don’t extend to the lobster, which was (way) overcooked. My lone regret for this meal is that I didn’t send the lobster back, since with properly-cooked lobster, this plate would find its way on my hypothetical short list of favorite all-time dishes. Yet by this point, I’d developed a conversational rapport with my captain, and he presented the dish with such pride that I felt uncomfortable sending it back—in the same way one wouldn’t critique the culinary shortcomings of a dinner party host.
The last fish was turbot, roasted on the bone and served with endive, morels, and a grain with a toasted texture. The fish isn’t visible in the picture, as it was wrapped in the green endive leaf. My only prior experience with turbot was at Sixteen, where Thomas Lents cooked the fish to a rarer temperature; Chef Bissell, by contrast, cooked it a bit longer, but still well within the bounds of enjoyability. The fish also paired quite nicely with the morels and the grain (and the endive wasn’t overly bitter), so this dish registered as another terrific effort.
Closing out the savory plates was 100-day dry-aged ribeye, served with black truffle sauce and potato (my notes on this course may be incomplete.) Here we had a contemporary take on the beef-and-potato archetype, all geared around celebrating the pristine ribeye. This was the most intense beef I’ve ever had; my understanding is that the kitchen typically serves either a filet or a ribeye aged to a far shorter duration, and that the 100-day beef was a limited offering. This was terrific.
And so the savory chapter reached its conclusion. The rich beef found its counterpoint in the item that segued into dessert: coconut and shiso shell with tapioca caviar. I suppose “caviar” now qualifies as a euphemism for anything pearl-shaped, since this obviously wasn’t caviar in any traditional sense. Unfamiliar with shiso, I wasn’t prepared for its minty burn, but if this palate cleanser supplied greater intensity than most transitional courses, this was warranted in light of the concentrated beefiness of the prior dish.
Pastry chef Jiho Kim greeted me to finish the cheese course tableside. He began by presenting the cheese enclosed in its package— “Tete de Moine”—after which he lifted the top to reveal the cheese and its intense odor. He then grated dark chocolate atop the cheese, and the juxtaposition cream and cocoa hues loosely mimicked the color contrast of risotto with shaved black truffle. I enjoyed the olfactory and textural counterpoint between the aromatics on the one hand and the ethereal consistency on the other. I can’t offer enough superlatives for this course—a fantastic preparation that straddled the line between a straight and composed cheese course.
The first proper dessert (or perhaps this was a second palate cleanser) was marshmallow and green apple sorbet. I typically find marshmallow cloying, but it paired to great effect with the sorbet, which was uncompromising in the best sense of the term.
To close, I received two desserts simultaneously: dark chocolate marquise with earl grey ice cream (the ‘official’ culminating dessert for the tasting), and a gift from the kitchen in the form of a hazelnut dessert that included truffle-spiked cornbread pudding. The latter was the clear winner and easily one of the most enjoyable desserts I’ve ever been served, even if—as with the beef course—the truffle exerted only a quiet presence. While the savory plates established a high standard, my highest compliments go to Chef Kim; typically, I prefer very traditional desserts, on the belief that experimentation within the domain of pastry typically yields diminishing returns. But Chef Kim’s desserts married technique and ingredients to rarified effect.
Mignardises included dark chocolate salted caramel, and a milk chocolate spiked with pop rocks.
It occurs to me that there exist a number of grounds on which one could critique The Modern. For one, in an age in which the most cutting-edge restaurants (particularly in NYC) offer tasting menus of nearly double this length, this menu structure feels very traditional. One could point to exceptions, of course—Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, and Per Se come to mind—but Eleven Madison Park, Brooklyn Fare, and Atera go well beyond even a dozen courses. And the trajectory followed a relatively standard progression, beginning with caviar and progressing first to raw fish and meat, then to cooked fish, cooked meat, cheese, and desserts. At no point did the cuisine really challenge my idea of what food could look like, unlike past dinners at Moto or Alinea. One wonders whether Danny Meyer mandated this conformity, and what Bissell might engineer if he were independent of the Union Square group.
Yet there was creativity, and I don’t think we can point to sins of commission resulting from the protective watch of Danny Meyer. At each point, the kitchen began with a luxury item and applied a novel spin emphasizing the virtues of the prime ingredient in question—the foie with quince, the lobster with urchin, the turbot with the textural counterpoint of the toasted grain, and the aged beef with black truffle sauce. I’d categorize Chefs Bissell and Kim as more ingredient-driven than technique driven, which complies with my own preferences. I’ve called attention to unwarranted bitter notes, but overall, the cuisine demonstrated superior focus to the showy exploits of more technique-driven chefs. I attribute this achievement to the fact that these were complete dishes, distinct from the trend within fine dining to serve a flurry of 15 or 20 bite-sized courses—an approach that may (I speculate) derive from the venerable Japanese omakase structure, but which often results in the unfortunate consequence of feeling like a series of incomplete thoughts. In this sense, adherence to the traditional 8-course structure served as an affordance more than a constraint.
I’ll also note that this cuisine was certainly more creative than most art museums, which offer plates that don’t deviate from what can find elsewhere. In a recent trip to Kansas City, for example, I enjoyed a superb meal at Café Sebastienne (at the Kemper Contemporary Art Museum), where I lunched on halibut with grilled potatoes, asparagus, and salsa verde. The dish offered everything I wanted, but a sizable gulf exists between the inventiveness of the art installations at the Kemper and the safe comfort of the cuisine. While The Modern may not provoke the diner in the same way as Alinea, the many creative achievements across this meal speak to the kitchen’s ability to synthesize its voice with the conventions of fine dining; perhaps working for Danny Meyer and MoMA has presented Bissell and Kim with an imperative that they follow certain conventions, but this has resulted in a dynamic interplay between their own authorial voices and existing standards.
In closing, I want to suggest that this reciprocity between individuality and conventionality actually makes The Modern more of a modernist restaurant. This claim, of course, necessitates reorienting what we mean by modernist cuisine; in common parlance, modernist cuisine refers to technique-driven food that breaks from traditions. In this spirit, the Modernist Cuisine website offers 10 guiding principles, among which is an emphasis on “creatively breaking culinary rules.” Other imperatives include the virtue of expanding what the diner believes to be food, principally through scientific experimentation and unorthodox techniques. However, I would argue that what we commonly refer to as modernist cooking is actually something closer to “avant-garde” cooking; food that initiates a kind of ontological indeterminacy—raising the questions of “is it food?” or “is it fine dining?” is more avant-garde than modernist, going beyond the standard deviation for experimentation accommodated by the modernist signifier. Within the fine arts, after all, modernism has always referred to a more restrained degree of experimentation than “avant-garde”; where the avant-garde is defined by propositionality (i.e., the logic that something is art because the artist proposes it as such), modernism is irreducibly bound by tradition, so that the artist respects preexisting rules in order to rethink them (rather than rupture them) as he or she sees fit. I’m not trying to initiate a hard binary between modernism and the avant-garde, since the two intersect to the point that artists have degrees of both. At the same time, recognizing the definitional distinction between modernism and the avant-garde lends taxonomic clarity and offers a pathway through which to think through and identify the degrees of experimentation in contemporary fine dining. This is all a long way of saying that The Modern, with its restrained creativity, is an archetypal modernist restaurant (more than an avant-garde one)—and therefore, singularly synchronized with the museum in which it resides.