Food & drink :: Modern miracle

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January 4, 2010 // UPDATED 8:49 am - January 4, 2010
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar
Q: Who makes the world’s best pot roast? A: Wrong. Wonderful as Mom’s is, it plays second fiddle to the symphony of flavors wafting from the Modern’s kitchen. Proprietor/chef Jim Grell is not Norwegian, it appears, so a pungent note of horseradish breathes new life into the ultimate comfort platter. But that’s old news. It’s the reason you can’t get a table on Saturday night (no reservations) in this proto-funky Nordeast café.

Not content to rest on the bay leaf of long-simmered beef, Grell has come up with another dish that’s fast become the secret password among knowing foodies: mussel stew.

Order it, then clear the table (well, save that celestial bread from Rustica), for the serving is cauldron-sized. Plus, it comes with a bonus heap of thin and crispy French fries to slide through what the menu simply lists as mayo, but is actually a love potion, laced with cilantro, basil and other alluringly addictive herbs.

The mussels themselves — what, two dozen?  I lost count — are as ample and pillowy as a famous part of Dolly Parton’s anatomy, and arrive steamed to peak tenderness, not a milli-moment longer. They’re joined in a creamy broth that borrows its rich taste from Belgian beer — a riff on the classic “moules-frites” (mussels with fries) and a Stella Artois, Belgium’s culinary claims to fame. But, typical of the Modern’s affinity to tweak the classics, Grell has added hearty winter golden squash and carrots, along with hefty chunks of his own housemade pork sausage. Makes you wonder why they never thought of that in Brussels.

Portions, as I said, are so immense you may not need a starter, but what the heck? We made quick work of the kitchen’s duck-and-shiitake rillette, rich with fat and tasty beyond all reasonable expectations. Slather it on that swell bread, then temper it with a bite of the housemade bread-and-butter pickles on the side.

Split the generous salad, whose leaves of romaine all but disappear under a shower of beets, pistachios (bigger nuggets, please) and mild-mannered goat cheese, all bathed in a gentle poppyseed cream.

Those not already slumped under the table may linger over dessert — this evening, something chocolate or a pair of apple turnovers, unremarkable except for the dollop of chai ice cream brightening the ultrasweet taste, and, again, housemade. (Does this guy never sleep?)

The Modern is the wink-wink name for the blessedly un-modernized neighborhood café from the Forties which, with either incredible foresight or, more likely, lack of money, Grell left unchanged when he pioneered the deeply-uncharted food scene in this working-class environs 15 years ago: original lunch-counter seating plus high-backed wooden booths and neat lines of tables on the lino floor, overseen by dangling “schoolroom” lights and surely the only mounted swordfish in all Nordeast. The beverage list, however, has evolved from Schlitz and Miller to affordable, offbeat, worth-the-gamble wines. And if you missed that legendary pot roast, not to worry: Come back for brunch, where it resurfaces in a pretty spiffy hash.

Modern Café   
337 13th Ave. NE