MoMA Mia! A Return To The Bar Room at the Modern [but first, we discuss Iranian cinema]

March 19, 2007 | By | COMMENTS

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For my birthday, Craig pretended to get me a membership to MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art). We showed up the other night to see Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s documentary “Homework,” and when Craig opened the envelope that came from MoMA with our joint membership there was only card in it. With his name. None for me.

“So,” I said, “for my birthday you basically got yourself a membership to MoMA?”

“No!” said Craig. “There must be some mistake!”

But the membership office wasn’t open so we explained the situation to the woman at the movie desk and she was really nice and let me in for free even though my card hadn’t arrived yet.

Seeing this movie was already a loaded moment in our relationship. Craig thinks I’m impatient when it comes to slow-moving films or non-plotty films or non-funny films, specifically the movie “Safe” which he loves and which I found a bit tedious. (But I’ve never been a fan of Todd Haynes: a scandal-causing fact in Craig’s NYU film school group of friends. When I first revealed my dislike of Todd Haynes to Craig’s friend Mark, Craig flushed as if I just confessed to having a two-headed penis. (I don’t, by the way.)) Anyway, during one of our arguments Craig used Abbas Kiarostami as an example saying, “I think you would hate his films.”

So this was the test and I passed with flying colors. The movie is one of his least well-known: it’s simply a documentary of Iranian school children talking about homework. That’s it. I could see why Craig could think I’d be bored. But once you embrace the set-up–that the whole movie will just be kids talking about homework–you realize what Kiarostami is doing. He’s using these children to criticize his country, his government, the violent culture in which these children are being bred. The final moments introduce us to a boy who won’t stop crying he’s so broken by his family and school. It’s quietly devastating and I was glad I saw it.

“Ah,” I said, “so now that I’ve proven myself we should celebrate.”

“How?”

“Well look what’s right here,” I said as we exited, as if I didn’t know that Danny Meyer’s Modern restaurant was right next door. “Let’s eat at the bar room at the Modern!”

I’d been to The Bar Room at the Modern once before and I wasn’t that impressed. While each individual dish tasted very good, the meal didn’t add up to anything memorable.

But that was when the restaurant first opened. Now it’s been there for a while and, not only that, it was recently awarded THREE STARS from Frank Bruni who gave the fancier room at the back (The Modern, proper) only two stars. This may be the only time in restaurant history where a restaurant’s bar is more acclaimed than the restaurant itself.

On January 10, 2007, Bruni wrote: “If the dining room is a stately epic, the Bar Room is an unpretentious character study. It has a shorter running time, fewer showy star turns, a less lavish budget for truffles. Its dishes state their cases with one or two central ingredients, one or two salient effects.”

“Ok, ok,” says Craig. “I’ll eat here. Can we go in?”

It was around 10 and this was genius of my plan. Because at 10 we got a table right away.

We sat in the middle of the room, next to a table of corporate types who were loud and obnoxious. Our waitress, however, was down-to-earth and helpful.

We studied our menus, divided into three parts—1 & 2 are appetizers, 3 is entrees–and made our selections. For my appetizer I chose a real work of art:

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That’s a mason jar with lobster, Jerusalem artichokes and sea urchin foam. And a poached egg. Yes, it sounds pretentious but it tasted extraordinary. Look at it from the side:

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Isn’t that beautiful?

I thoroughly enjoyed it. And Craig enjoyed his Upside Down Tuna Tarte with fennel, Japanese cucumber and aioli:

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That’s beautiful too, is it not? I’m not quite sure what’s resting on top of Craig’s tuna and neither was Craig when he ate it. But we both ate these dishes with great satisfaction.

And then the entrees.

Here, Craig was in heaven:

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He ordered the Beer Braised Pork Belly with sauerkraut and ginger jus. He took his first bite and his face lit up. “Oh my God,” he said and I knew he’d found a new soul mate. But did I?

Meet my new sig oth: Walnut Glazed Quail with a ragout of organic shell beans, shitake mushrooms, and applewood smoked bacon.

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Who thinks of this stuff? Walnut Glazed Quail? I mean, seriously. How do you come up with that? How do you glaze something with walnuts?

I don’t know but I loved it. Quail never really satisfies the way chicken does, but this dish made up for quail’s lack of substance with lots and lots of complex flavor. And with the beans and mushrooms and bacon I was quite satisfied by the time I finished my plate.

But not satisfied enough NOT to order dessert. I mean, c’mon, how could you not have dessert? (I’ve decided that I don’t like self-denying people who find nobility in restraint. That includes you, GHANDI.)

Look at my beautiful Pistachio Dark Chocolate Dome with pistachio ice cream and amaretto gelée:

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This dish didn’t belong on the table; I ordered the waitress to carry it next door, back to the museum, to mount it on a wall. But then I tasted it and demanded she bring it back. What a glorious dessert.

And Craig had beignets which he models here:

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If he has a serious look on his face, that’s because he’s musing on the subtle nuances of the final scene of “Safe.”

Just kidding.

But if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that The Modern has found its groove. It’s innovative, it’s accessible, it’s soul-satisfying and yet challenging. Unpretentious, too. All qualities that I look for in a good restaurant and, come to think of it, a good movie.

Lucky for us, MoMA provides both. Now if only I were a member, I could do this more often….

Categories: Manhattan, Midtown, New York, Restaurant Reviews

  • jlix

    Omigod–you have to give Todd Haynes another chance! SUPERSTAR??? and run out and rent DOTTIE GETS SPANKED right away–best portrait of the artist as a young homo you’ve ever seen. AND cate blanchett plays bob dylan??? this man is a genius…

  • chris

    hey, happy birthday! i don’t mind films that are slow at all and i couldn’t get into ‘safe’ either, if that’s any consolation. the slow-paced but magnificent film *i* use to judge people by is robert bresson’s ‘au hasard balthazar’. i’ve been with the same girl for a little over four years now, but i used to use that film to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  • http://gezellig-girl.com Kristen

    Yeah, I’m not a fan of “Safe” either but come on: “Far From Heaven”? Punch-you-in-the-frickin’-eye beautiful. Plus, “Velvet Goldmine” gives me a girl boner. Or something analogous.

  • http://www.lumpesse.com Ellie

    I’ve been meaning to ask you this forever. What is your opinion of people ordering the same things in restaurants? Personally, I have a strict rule against it with my significant other – I hate the idea of not being able to try each other’s food! I don’t think I’ve ever noticed you and Craig order the same thing or is that just a coincidence?

  • Kathleen

    Outstanding food with genius creativity. I used to cook for a Chef named Bob Zapatelli. HE created food art that looked like it was on the same par as the food in the pictures, not just in appearance but the marrying of the right ingredients to create a palette sensation, light or rich. He was a Johnson/Wales graduate and had a resume you could build a skyscraper on, but this man just had “it.” I wonder where he is now?

  • Kathleen

    Oh yeah, about the movie…why would anyone pay money and spend their time to GET depressed?

  • http://www.gastronomie-sf.com Fatemeh

    Do you even know how much irony there is in this post?

    I reviewed The Bar at The Modern too (http://www.gastronomie-sf.com/2006/10/why_i_love_manh_1.html).

    And I’m Iranian.

    And, well, that’s ironic, right?

  • Zach.

    Kathleen – Bob Zapatelli is now the Vice-President of Food and Beverage for Benchmark Hospitality. When and where did you work for him?

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