The Modern and other New York tales

14 May 2005 by JR

New York’s foremost restaurateurs are responding to the almost frenetic demand for reservations in their current establishments by expanding in their own very different ways.

Drew Nieporent, whose Myriad Restaurant Group manages 13 different restaurants including Nobu New York and London, has just opened Crush, a classy new wine shop on E57th Street, as he sees sales of wine, particularly fine wine, continue to soar in his restaurants. He will open an even bigger Nobu in mid-town in the autumn.

Mario Batali, not content with commuting in his trademark shorts between his eight restaurants around Greenwich Village on a green Vespa, is masterminding the birth of Del Posto by Chelsea Market, which again springs to life this autumn. This, he believes, will fill a niche in the market by serving top quality Italian food and by specialising in whole fish and large cuts of meat cooked for the entire table.

But perhaps the most significant move, because of its implications outside New York, is the recent opening by Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group of the new cafes and restaurant in the city’s stunning Museum of Modern Art.

This move is significant not just because it pulls Meyer away from the Union Square location of his Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Eleven Madison and Blue Smoke restaurant empire. It has much wider ramifications, I believe, because it sets new standards for eating and drinking in arts organisations, a pastime we have all come to relish before, during or after our intellect has been engaged.

Meyer has evolved elegant solutions to a building with cooking facilities restricted to the ground floor and basement but with far distant café spaces on the second and fifth floors along with The Modern restaurant and bar (with its separate entrance) on the ground floor by applying the three R’s – in this instance refresh, replenish and restore – to distinguish what each space will serve.

Refresh is the imperative behind the fifth floor café because it is here that visitors can retreat to when their eyes can take no more. Because there are no cooking facilities at all here and it is so far from the kitchens, all the food is cold but sophisticated and intelligent use has been made of three of our favourite stimulants, sugar, alcohol and caffeine, to combat museum fatigue. A shrimp and vegetable spring roll, an espresso and three handmade chocolates – to taste the difference between those made by Chocolat Moderne in New York, La Maison du Chocolat in Paris and Sans Souci in Port Jefferson – certainly got me moving again. 

The cafeteria on Level 2, whose role is to replenish and is already serving 1,200 customers a day from a counter no more than 12 yards long, is modelled on the rosticcerie Meyer ate at as a student in Rome but with one major exception. Because in a museum the age span of the clientele is much wider than in a restaurant, orders are placed and paid for at the counter but then the customer sits down with a place number and the food is brought to them, a process which successfully avoids too many spilt trays. Initially, the menu’s hot food was only to extend as far as grilled paninis but when the kitchen’s ventilation system was knocked askew because of the steam that is shot through the galleries twice a day to prevent the canvases from shrinking it was agreed that a pasta cooker could be added. We must hope that the art as well as diners benefit. 

The Modern is initially more conservative in intent in that it is there to restore, the traditional goal of the restaurateur’s profession. But it does so in a style that is itself state of the art.

The curved Bar Room, where one can eat and drink, is sleek and comfortable; directly opposite is a row of tables for those who have not booked; and at the far end is an arresting glass installation by German artist Robert Denman of a garden scene. On the other side of a glass partition the calmer, brighter Restaurant looks over the museum’s sculpture garden.

Two further European influences distinguished our meals at The Modern. The first is the sleek, modern cutlery, crockery, tableware and glassware used throughout, most of which has been imported from Denmark. The second is the combination of two Frenchmen, sommelier Stephane Colling who has put together an inspired wine and drinks list, and Alsace-born chef Gabriel Kreuther who has cleverly drawn a clear distinction between his two menus.

That in the Restaurant is there to stimulate as much as the art on the walls, most notably via a buckwheat soup with soy sprouts, skate in a pimiento nage, Chatham cod encrusted with chorizo with a white coco bean puree, and a ‘croustillant’ of  squab and foie gras. But Kreuther cleverly uses the Bar Room menu to add a modern twist to the classic dishes of his birthplace: modern liverwurst with pickled vegetables; sorrel soup with barley; a potato and marrow cassolette; and grilled quail with chive spaetzle.

Aside from any connection with the museum, the food at The Modern fulfils the three essential criteria for any restaurant today – it is simple, delicious and very fairly priced.

Crush 153 East 57th Street, 212 980 WINE

The Modern 9 West 53rd Street, 212-408 6616.

   Restaurant lunch, US$38, dinner US$74, both three courses. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday.

   Bar Room open all week.


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