Monday, April 11, 2011

Is Modo Beijing's Best New Non-Chinese Restaurant? I'll Bite Part III

It's been a busy week--one filled with plenty of delicious meals, so I didn't get a chance to write this until the weekend (now Monday because I passed out last night before I could get this up). In the interest of living the high life, I've setup shop on the rooftop of Sculpting in Time to enjoy a rare day of balmy Beijing weather.

I've really been looking forward to writing this post (which, for those of you just tuning in, is part 3 of a 4-part series offering up the my take on thebeijinger's 2011 Reader Restaurant Awards).

Sometime in 2009, M and I checked out Mosto and quickly bumped it to the top of our list of favorite restaurants in Beijing. We've had a solid meal every time we've visited, and the service has always been attentive.

So when we found out that the team at Mosto had opened up a new restaurant in the Sanlitun Village, we wandered over to give it a try. M was actually getting ready to write a feature on it for her old job, so co-owner Alex Molina invited us to drop in for dinner.

Our meal at Modo was fabulous, helped, of course, by Alex's generous hospitality, but we've been back several times since and had a noteworthy experience each time.

Modo's concept of "small plates" is similar to tapas: meant to be ordered in variety
and shared with friends. As such, some people who go are disappointed by the
price to portion ratio.

Also, most of the dishes at the restaurant have a Spanish flair to them, but keep in mind, this isn't your typical tapas bar.

Whereas Mosto is comfortable, reassuring in its consistent ability to produce quality, though sometimes predictable, food, Modo dares to take more risks.

Personally, I love being able to order several smaller dishes to try different things and build variety, but I can respect those who would rather pay for one big platter. So consider yourself warned :).

In keeping with the restaurant's smaller portions, Modo serves tasting sizes for a number of wines via its Enomatic wine dispenser. Those of you who've been over to Mosto will recognize the machine, but Modo's changed it up by being the first venue in the city to offer the first card-based Enomatic experience.

It's worth noting here that I'm a complete hack when it comes to wine. However, during the course of our meal we tried most of the wines on offer from the machine and loved all of them. I'll spare you my amateur analyses, though.

We've enjoyed just about everything we've had there, but if we had to pick a few standouts, they'd be: the Wagyu meatball with an heirloom tomato ragù, parmesan crisp and rice cake; the sundried tomato tortelli with goat cheese and a pumpkin foam; and the white chocolate mousse with black currant sorbet, almond crisp and pistachios.

As with my notes for Maison Boulud, I'm having a hard time reading my handwriting. So it's possible I got something wrong there…

Let's start with the meatball. If I were going back to Modo for one dish, it'd be that meatball. There's a bold gentleness to the Wagyu flavor and texture that the conversion to meatball has enhanced and it plays nicely with the rich, bright flavor of the heirloom tomatoes sauce. The parmesan crisp and rice cake do more than just add texture, and we were surprised by how well the rice cake worked with the dish.

This meatball haunts my dreams, beckoning me from twilight's shadows with the alluring promise of a lurid, sensual duet of tomato and meat.

Hmmm, so that might be slightly melodramatic...

But seriously, this meatball is worth trying. Don't be scared of the 80rmb ($12) price tag. Yes, I realize that you've probably never paid this much for a lone meatball, bring a friend to share it, and you'll most likely be fighting over whether you got your fair share.

Granted, I realize that not all of you are like me: continually in search of the best version of traditionally homestyle comfort foods. (For instance, Gregoire in Berkeley used to serve this white truffle egg salad sandwich that was simply revelatory, but I digress.)

And I'll admit that a small part of me recoils at having endorsed the grinding up of and subsequent balling of an excellent cut of Wagyu, as opposed to my natural inclination to just leave it as a steak and lightly sear it. But in my opinion, some of the best restaurants set out to challenge the routines and habits that we (sometimes unwittingly) fall into with our food preferences, pleasantly surprising us with the deliciously unexpected.

Two words: pumpkin foam. Pumpkin in any form (roasted, souped, pied, etc.) is hard for me to resist, but foam is on another level. This dish is so gentle, it's like a caress. Sundried tomato provides a bite, but the pasta and cheese join up with the pumpkin foam to melt in your mouth. The finish ends up being both delicate and enriching.

Dessert was easily one of the best I've had in Beijing, and anytime that M and I have been in Sanlitun after dinner since, I'm tempted to drop in just for the white chocolate mousse. And I've given in on more than one occasion.

Black currant has always been one of my favorite flavors, probably because of my mom's Hong Kong roots (Ribena, Fruitips, etc.), and I found the black currant sorbet to be simply magical. The chill of the sorbet against the creaminess of the white chocolate dances on the tongue and the almond crisp and pistachios break up the smoothness with a satisfying crunch and toasty nuttiness.

Also of note is their cheese plate. Though the cheese is made locally, it's made by a fromager who spent time in France (and clearly learned a thing or two in the process).

I know it's cliche, but Beijing's restaurant scene really seems to be exploding, and Modo had several worthy competitors for the 2011 award. I haven't visited anywhere close to all of them, so I'm hardly qualified to pass judgement on whether it is indeed the best new restaurant.

But I can say with confidence that Modo offers us Beijingers a varied experience easily worth the recognition. Not everyone will agree, especially those who don't subscribe to the Modo "way" of small plates and communal eating, but that's a risk inherent to taking the kind of chances that Modo does.

From our conversation with Alex, it's clear he and Chef Daniel have a deep love for Beijing and are inspired by life here in this crazy city. And, having partaken of the results of their passion and inspiration, I'm thankful to them for their commitment both to the craft and the city.

Unfortunately, M and I didn't take any photos of our magical night, mostly because she was planning on using press photos for her write-up. And because our camera is big and obnoxious.

But we did snap some quick shots of their set lunch on a later visit:

See also:
Is Da Dong Beijing's Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part I
Is Maison Boulud Beijing's Non-Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part II

And tune in next week for Part 4 of our series, where we'll take a look at 2011's Best New Chinese Restaurant: Little Yunnan.

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