Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, January 23, 2003
Café Modern\r\nSmoked salmon terrine $11\r\nModern omelet $9\r\nTamalon $12\r\nFlank steak salad (entrée) $10\r\nLobster ravioli $15
Marcel Duchomp

Thoroughly modern dining at the Modern Art Museum’s café.


Café Modern

3200 Darnell St, FW. 817-840-2157. Tue-Sat 11:30am-2pm, Sun Noon-2:30pm. All major credit cards are accepted.

useum food is generally about as interesting as a tuna fish sandwich from the Corner Bakery. It’s edible but not inspired. Most museum restaurants exist to provide a break from the visual bombardment of Art. But the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is using its eating space like a fancy piece of jewelry to flatter itself, enhancing the museum experience by providing museumgoers — and foodies looking for a new hot spot — a wonderful place to rest and a delicious meal.

Café Modern is a stand-alone restaurant that happens to occupy a space in a modern art museum. The American nouvelle cuisine is apropos to the building but would be equally at home in any new city eatery. Nothing distinguishes it as “museum” food, per se.

The food is fancy but not ridiculous. The menu is loaded with “buzz foods” (trendy ingredients) like purple potatoes, Meyer lemon-scented crème, white truffle Vidalia onion broth, and kaffir lime, but nothing on the menu is laughably weird.

Forget, for a moment, the location and consider the food. Café Modern serves “perfect bite” entrées — “perfect bite,” as defined by Barbra Streisand’s character Rose Morgan in the 1996 film, The Mirror Has Two Faces. At dinner with Gregory Larkin (Jeff Bridges), she systematically creates proportionate combinations of meat, starch, and vegetable on her fork to create perfect bites. Even the least obsessive-compulsive person can relate to this conceit.

The interesting food combinations at the Café demand to be assembled as perfect bites. To do less would be an insult to the range of flavors.

The lobster ravioli special provided some of those perfect bites: a crescent of pasta, a large chunk of lobster meat, and a piece of asparagus swirled in the heavenly sauce, an emulsion of corn and butter. The soft flavors of butter and corn combined with slightly bitter asparagus and luxurious lobster sashayed across my tongue.

The flank steak marinated in miso and kaffir lime salad was delightful. The marinade was evident in the tart, earthy undertones of the meat, but the treatment wasn’t so aggressive that it kept the other element, fruit salsa, from asserting a sweet finish to the dish. It came atop a bed of baby greens with one perfect little potato-chip boat holding crumbled blue cheese. You really can’t beat the combination of beef and blue cheese on a salad.

Café Modern has two menus, a weekday and Saturday lunch menu and a Sunday brunch menu of breakfast items. A brunch visit about one week after the Café opened netted a hit, a miss, and an also-ran.

The smoked salmon terrine was a marvel of engineering and flavor. Strips of lox surrounded a Jonah crab salad with tiny chunks of purple potatoes. Jonah crab, a Canadian import, is becoming the “It” crab for restaurants because it delivers the sweet flavor of blue crab and is cleaner and cheaper than Dungeness crab. The combination of smoky cured salmon and fresh, light crab, dredged in the lemon oil that decorated the plate, made for a wonderful symphony of unpredictable flavors — from tart to oily to succulently decadent.

The Modern omelet, filled with shredded roast pork, was satisfactory but dull. It came with a “cooling cilantro salsa” that tasted like salsa but had little to cool. The Yukon Gold potato hash that came with the omelet was marvelous, crispy and studded with slivers of bacon. The tamalon, actually a giant tamale, was less inspired. It was one slice of a gigantic tamale made with layers of cornmeal and scrambled egg with a tomatillo salsa and Mexican crème fraîche. It tasted like a layered breakfast casserole topped with cream.

For dessert, my guest and I tried the Meyer lemon and kaffir lime tart. It was like a dense lemon meringue pie without the meringue. The crust was crisp and crunchy, and the filling was robust, almost to the point of being oily, due to the puckering lemon-lime combination.

The restaurant seems to float on the reflecting pool on the northeast side of Tadao Ando’s amazing building. From the ovoid space inside, it’s easy to people-watch — and be watched — as a steady stream of museumgoers winds its way around the galleries.

Café Modern is run by Bon Appétit, a chef-owned company based in Palo Alto, Calif., that provides corporate food services. The company, according to its web site, employs a restaurant approach to contract food service, using local ingredients and regional preferences rather than a set menu for all its venues. The company does the Getty Center in Los Angeles as well as the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Because Café Modern is located within a museum, they won’t let you take your leftovers with you — no exceptions.)

The prices are comparable to any good restaurant’s. Hamburgers and other sandwiches are $8 and $9, well within the I’m-not-paying-$10-for-a-burger limit. The entrées are a humane size, neither too filling nor too skimpy. But if you dine late in the day, you’re likely to get a larger portion than you would if you’re an early bird. One server explained that, since everything gets tossed at the end of the shift, the portions seem to get larger as 2 p.m. approaches.

There always seems to be a line to get in, and the café appears to be handling the pressure with varying degrees of success. The popularity of the café will lessen once everyone has had a look-see at the museum, but, for now, it’s frustrating to stand on line while looking at a dozen or so empty tables waiting to be bussed.

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