Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Table for one at The Modern

I consider dining in a restaurant a social event, something to do with other people. From that perspective, the concept of eating out alone goes against my natural beliefs. But sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do.

As was the case last night.

I knew I was going to have a free night in NYC before the conference began. And well, obviously I’d have to eat somewhere. And MOMA is less than a block from my hotel. So I booked a table for one at
The Modern, the bar/restaurant connected to the museum.

This brought my total of solo restaurant meals to … three. One at 29 Newbury back in a previous life. One at a Cuban place in Miami at last year’s SES Latino. And now this.

My limited experience has given me the idea that dining solo (sola, I guess) involves being stuck at a table in a dark corner, probably behind a potted palm, trying to look nonchalant while waitstaff act condescendingly and expect a lousy tip. At The Modern, not only was I pleasantly surprised, I also ended up having a most convivial evening.

My table was for 9pm, but as the diners were moving at a leisurely pace, I sat waiting at the bar for about 20 minutes. That was fine, because it gave me plenty of time to get a feel for the place.

The room is, as one would expect from a space connected to the Museum of Modern Art, very, um, modern. Clean, white, sleek, open, reflective. Lots of steel and black leather. Oversized vases holding four-foot-long twigs of yellow and dark red dried flowers. No direct lighting apart from in the clinically illuminated kitchen (framed through one open square at the end of the room).

The bar was all mirrors and backlighting, with a generously wide white marble counter. Ambient house music played all night, the kind where you tune in every now and again and wonder whether you're listening to a new track or the same beat that was playing a half-hour ago.

I sat at the bar for a while, watching the crowd (mixed but moneyed; a few older guys with well-preserved dates and some hip youngsters) and flirting with the bartender, and then my table was ready. No being stuffed in a corner for me--I got a nice spot just left of center, between a funky-cute lesbian couple and a mixed-background straight couple (as it turned out, he was German and she was Texan).

The bar menu at The Modern is almost unnerving in its selection. It's not enormous, but certainly diverse enough that decisions are difficult.

It's divided into small plates and half-entree sizes, so everything is designed for sampling and sharing (tough when one is alone). But still, do I go for the foie gras torchon with muscat gelée, or the warm veal and goat cheese terrine, or the slow-poached farm egg “in a jar” with Maine lobster, roasted Jerusalem artichokes and sea urchin froth, or the roasted Long Island duck breast with peppercorn-crusted apples and toasted pistachio-truffle dipping sauce?

I asked the girls to my right (your left) for advice; they were enjoying the duck, but also suggested the octopus (charred and served with chickpea-radish salad, salsa verde and crispy capers), so I went for the latter, and also the homemade Alsatian country sausage with turnip choucroute.

(The night's discovery: if you do whatever one does to make capers crispy, they're no longer tiny salt bombs. Instead, they become tiny pepper explosions. Amazing. Try it sometime.)

I'd ordered a glass of the Marcel Deiss "Engelgarten" Riesling Blend with the food, and while it was good, it didn't blow me away as much as the minerally glass of Deiss's Benniwirh Riesling I had while sitting at the bar.

So here's an interesting thing. You know how I feel about people talking near my food. It bugs me like crazy when I'm trying to have a quiet, sociable meal, and I can overhear other peoples' conversations.

In this situation, I had no companion to chat with and nothing else to do but eavesdrop. But the hum of the room was so loud that I couldn't even hear what the people on either side of me were saying. So I just sat and people-watched, which was entertaining in itself.

And then my octopus arrived, and the woman to my left leaned over and asked, "Now what is that you're eating?"

So I told her ... and thus started a long, engaging and entertaining conversation about food, and city living, and raising bilingual kids, and the differences between the US and Europe ... we talked until they finished their meal, and we shared food (his pork belly was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, and her duck was moist and peppery) and I forgot that I was alone ... because suddenly I wasn't.

Food tends to do that to people, I think.

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