My second suburban stop on my journey around the world of food takes me to my hometown of Highland Park. I’ve been looking forward to checking out some of the new hot spots in downtown HP. This along with 2nd Street Bistro are at the top of my list. I swung through Moderno (1850 Second St.) after a wine tasting and sat at the bar. What a gorgeous design.
Bare bulbs hung in rows from the ceiling – a really clever lighting scheme. The restaurant was fresh and clean. Truly a modern feel especially for a suburban restaurant. I got the lowdown on the menu from the bartender. I appreciate how dishes are listed progressively in order of complexity – in all menu sections. It gives the guest an idea of how different dishes compare with one another.
As far as the back of house goes there’s a true pride in sourcing from local and small growers when possible. This is no easy task in the suburbs and the commitment chef makes to his product parallels some of the great Michelin chefs downtown. This is a practice all quality run kitchens should embrace…yet they often don’t.
Moderno’s bread service gave me a glimpse into what I should expect from the rest of the meal. Arriving in a metal canister I opened the lid to reveal small potato chip sized pizza bread bites. Coming dusted with parmesan and some parsley they were warm and doughy with a slight crisp in the outside. Light and airy. A great alternative to a loaf of bread and olive oil.
I began with the pickled sardines. Served with fennel, preserved lemons and toast this was a treat to find outside of the city. Super fresh sardines flown in from Spain that morning were pickled on site. Just the right amount of brine, sweet and tang.
The fennel added a fresh and crunchy note that was unique and surprising. The slightly charred toast points were a perfect vessel for the fishies providing a slightly bitter note that was complex and is often overlooked in dish design and execution.
A newer item on the menu was their Adriatic Sea octopus. I like things that swim and have eight legs! The char-grilled tentacles arrived on a rectangular plate dressed with a unique sweet grainy mustard sauce, medium diced red potato, some chopped Spanish olives all draped in fresh and spicy frisee lettuce.
The potatoes and frisee clung well to the mustard sauce and I would never think to pair octopus with mustard in the first place! But then I remember that’s why I’m eating the food and not preparing it. Each tentacle was large and tender and grilled with just touches of char which, like the toast points earlier, were a great smokey element to the dish that is a MUST with grilled cephalopods.
Executive Chef Rubino, came out to see how my first two courses were and recommended the spiced lamb pizza as well as the Papparadelle with wild boar Bolognese. Uh…yes. Whenever the chef recommends a dish you get it. Absolutely no questions asked. The pizza featured a super thin crust that was both crispy and chewy – just right.
The lamb was prepared as a sausage, was well flavored and had a great curry quality that worked very well on a pizza. A lighter yogurt sauce and goat cheese were wise options that traditionally work with lamb. The goat cheese was mild and provided a raw quality to the pie that I really enjoyed.
Finished with arugula tossed in extra virgin olive oil this pizza wasn’t too filling but packed with lots of rich rustic flavor. I’d highly recommend trying a pizza here; their pancetta is another favorite.
And onto the pasta which they make every morning – all eleven varieties! My papparadelle, a wide flat noodle, was thinner and more delicate than others I’ve tasted in past. This was without a doubt Artisan made with great care, love and skill.
I think the pasta itself was some of the best and most tender I’ve ever had – anywhere – including Italy. The sauce was rich with gamey, rustic qualities and when finished with currants, a slightly sweeter aroma and flavor reveal their faces – a great spin on classic flavors. Some freshly grated Grana Padana gave the salty kick and touch of creaminess that makes all great pastas just that.
I finished my meal with a blackberry crostata served with homemade vanilla ice cream. I often opt for the non-chocolate option so I apologize to all hard core chocolate lovers who may see only a wink here and there of the most popular sweet in the world…sorry.
I think I was lucky enough to be drinking better than most during my journey to Moderno. One of the owners who I know through the wine world shared a precious bottle of 2001 Marcassin Pinot Noir – Marcassin Vineyard. Marcassin makes virtually unattainable Pinot and Chardonnay out of Sonoma with some of the best grapes in the world – no exaggeration. In fact, some of the biggest wine enthusiasts anywhere have yet to try a bottling. Incredibly elegant and caressing, the wine was an exceptional accompaniment to my entire meal. Ripe but restrained New World fruit meets rustic Old World earth and spice is the essence of this wine. Not at all overwhelming like many if not most really pricey Pinot, it complemented each dish and sported great acidity – a mark of a true food wine. Thank you so much Ken. It was truly an awesome dining experience…and all at the bar.
There’s a whole “BIG” section of the menu I couldn’t touch solo. But that’s PERFECT. It gives me an excuse to go back with company. Looks like I have another money spot for a bite when I bring my laundry home to mom. Just kidding. No, really.